“If history has taught us anything, it’s that Internet business models are like buses: If you miss one, all you have to do is wait a little while another one will come along.” Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think
On the basis of recent mega-deals (Rupert Murdoch’s $580m for MySpace, Google’s $1.65bn for YouTube) it seems reasonable to conclude that the targetted marketing of products to end users is the favoured internet business model of the moment. In these transactions, advertisers pay; end users don’t.
In the past, asking end users to pay for content has been only patchily successful, with pornography and time sensitive financial information being the only certainties. Yet even that is changing: Reuters recently unloaded its stake in financial news aggregator, Factiva, because so much financial information was freely available via search engines like Google. Only a few (mainly financial) newspapers charge for a serious proportion of their online content. The Wall Street Journal, with 760 000 online subscribers, has been spectacularly successful; the Financial Times less so.
At the recent AOP online publishing conference, Zach Leonard, digital media publisher of Times Media, said that when he spoke at the meeting four years previously a subscription site for the FT “seemed like an interesting proposition.” But no more. Since then he’d moved on to (the mainly free) Times Online, which had experienced a fantastic growth in audiences and an explosion of lucrative ad deals. Advertising had become “their favoured revenue stream at the moment.”
Pushing this to its logical conclusion is newspaper guru, Richard Addis. Writing in the Guardian, he wondered whether newspapers’ futures lay in cutting the price of their print and electronic versions to zero, pushing their readers hard to access their online versions, and relying solely on advertising.
Whether the experiences of newspapers and sites hosting teenager generated content such as MySpace have any lessons for the BMJ is moot. And in any case, we’re not about to abandon charging for BMJ content anytime soon.
But with more than a million visitors a month we seem to be missing a few tricks when it comes to offering precision targetting of our users – to third party advertisers but also to other products from the BMJ Group.
To do this, we need to collect more information about users. While we can never know too much about them, how much is too much from users’ point of view? Will they accept the terms of the deal: giving us their valuable personal information in exchange for our valuable scientific information?
Then there’s the problem of users coming from institutional libraries that have subscribed. Can we oblige these users to provide personal data before giving them access to the content their institutions have already paid for? Apparently, several large publishers have considered doing this but abandoned it fearing a librarian backlash.
Every page of the redesigned site will have a Registration button, which will offer access to various services for individuals – folders and email alerts as now, with more planned. Harvesting personal data such as email addresses is a prerequisite for providing these services, and not a Big Brotherly intrusion.
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