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Digital Subscriptions

January 20, 2024

8 minutes read

Micro Access will play a key role in the re-emergence of quality content

This article was originally published on INMA.

We live in an era where the digital landscape is saturated with fleeting content and sensationalist headlines. The need to maximise ad revenues has resulted in digital media playing the grow-pageviews-at-any-cost game. The result is the replacement of in-depth, well-researched content, with shallower, less unique content produced at high volumes. While such tactics have temporarily engaged audiences, they have had an adverse long-term impact on reader trust and engagement.

Digital media will need to navigate a return to quality by investing in original, in-depth content to build a sustainable business for the long term.

Case study: New York Times’ transformation

The New York Times (NYT) is an example of the success a digital media organisation can achieve through a deliberate focus on high-quality journalism and innovative digital experiences. The Times has more than 9 million paid subscribers and is reportedly on track to reach 15 million over the next five years. Mark Thompson, CEO of NYT from 2012 to 2020, and the architect of the publication’s transformation journey, said, “Our model is a very simple model, which is we should invest in great content.” Not enough people in digital media are following this business strategy.

Accurate measurements to identify and assess content quality becomes critical for a good return on this investment. Micro access can be a key enabler toward this goal.

Defining quality content

The next obvious question is to define what quality content is. The trouble is, if you ask 10 different people, you will get 10 different answers! There are several indicative metrics publishers currently use to define “quality,” such as number of pageviews, time spent, and read depth. They also use metrics like last-click attribution for subscriptions.

However, these metrics are insufficient. For example, clickbait content could result in high pageviews and time spent, but not in paying users nor healthy ad yields. Additionally, the last-click attribution model for subscriptions does not identify what other content the user wanted to access before finally converting.

A simple definition of whether content is high quality can be based on whether a user is willing to pay a small value for that content. When combined with existing metrics, it becomes powerful. However, the ability to measure this willingness to pay at a content unit level has not yet been possible.

Enter micro access.

Micro access refers to an option for users to access one piece of digital content (one article, podcast, or video, for example) in exchange for something of small value, like a micropayment or data. It lowers the barrier for the user who does not find value in a long-term subscription.

For the first time, digital media gets a direct monetary signal from the user for each and every unit of content. Its value is small enough for the user to easily make a quick decision about the value exchange, but not large enough to deter them due to reasons that plague subscriptions, like having to consider long-term value and commitment. A crude analogy is that it is a much easier decision to casually date someone than to marry them!

Framework for identifying quality content

So how can micro access help identify quality content?

At Fewcents, we convert volumes of granular data produced from micro access into actionable content classifications with simple frameworks. These frameworks can guide decisions for content production, audience engagement, marketing, pricing, and paywall strategies.

The category conversion heatmap

This heatmap framework is one simple example of how micro access data can distill strategic outcomes for the entire organization. The graph plots conversions against pageviews and shows how each content category is performing at a glance. This can be further analyzed at an individual content level, giving powerful, direct signals on what content users deem as quality.

For example, it immediately differentiates between clickbait content and content that has high potential but that hasn’t been surfaced effectively. These insights can also be sliced based on geography, device type, and content formats, allowing for different content strategies depending on the specific publisher’s audiences.

Here are some actionable strategies for different teams based on the heatmap above:

  • High conversions/high pageviews: This content is the gold standard. Editorial teams should produce more of it, marketing and audience teams should promote it, and business teams can push more of such content behind paywalls (subscription or micro access).
  • High conversions/low pageviews: This segment identifies content that has the potential to be high performing, if surfaced properly. The audience and marketing teams should promote this content more.
  • Low conversions/high pageviews: This segment of content could be clickbait. Audience teams can leverage this content for user acquisition. Business teams should look at either removing paywalls from this altogether or experimenting with lowering prices. Meanwhile, editorial teams should test more scalable/low cost resources to generate such content.
  • Low conversions/low pageviews: This segment of content is not converting, nor is there enough traffic on it. The editorial team should study this content to understand if it is worth producing it at all.

Maximizing pageviews doesn’t work on its own

The clickbait approach to content creation was popularized by platforms like BuzzFeed, and they initially seemed like a lucrative strategy for driving Web traffic. Over time, organizations have sacrificed the deeper, more substantial engagement that fosters loyalty and trust. As a result, newsrooms have suffered, with many journalists and creators being laid off or leaving out of frustration.

Recently, a study of 4,400 Facebook posts from 10 different news sources analyzed how clickbait in post headlines and text influences user engagement. It found that, while such tactics increased user interactions, they also often resulted in a significant reduction of trust in the news source, with further implications on the long-term sustainability, reputation, and viability of digital media.

The rise of generative AI further threatens quality

Over recent months, generative AI has emerged as another significant stress factor for quality content. According to a recent global survey, nearly half of newsrooms have begun working with generative AI tools.

There have already been numerous instances of AI content being published that contained inaccurate information or misinformation. Additionally, since most organizations have access to similar AI tools, it is feared that content commoditisation will increase, putting further pressure on quality standards. Anecdotally, publishers estimate that 60% to 70% of the content on their sites is non-unique. In this environment of clutter and commoditisation, the quest for original and engaging content is more imperative than ever. There is a need to balance pageview growth and useful AI tools with the goal for quality.

The bottom line: Quality drives revenue

The key takeaway for digital media is clear: Investing in quality content results in more engaged and returning users, which in turn drives revenue. It makes sense not only from a business standpoint, but also from a user perspective, and will help generate sustainable revenue in a competitive digital market. As the landscape evolves, defining and identifying “quality content” remains a complex but necessary task, with traditional metrics often falling short of painting a complete picture of content quality and value.

The game-changing approach with micro access enhances accuracy in identifying content that truly resonates and engages audiences — content they are willing to pay for either through a micropayment or through data — and is a critical tool for publishers to drive up engagement and subscriptions.

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