Online sports content is a commodity business, with everyone from national and local newspapers, broadcast networks, magazines, blogs and teams and leagues pumping out zillions of stories a day. ESPN.com, the online arm of the giant sports network, is part of that free fray, yet the site also features a successful premium service called ESPN Insider.
Premium content has been a part of ESPN.com since the site’s inception in 1995, but VP and Executive Editor Patrick Stiegman came onboard about two years ago to put new resources and energy into the subscription product.
Thanks to a few new strategies, he and his team have doubled the number of subscribers willing to pay $39.95 a year or $6.95 a month to access the Insider content. “There are definitely degrees of sports fans in terms of their avidity, and we want to serve that wide spectrum as much as we can.”
We spoke with Stiegman to learn how his team did it and what strategies they have to attract and keep subscribers even in the face of so much free competition:
-> Strategy #1. Clearly define premium content
Potential subscribers have to know exactly what kind of content to expect from the premium label and what makes it different from free offerings on a site. Yet, Stiegman recalls that Insider content was still amorphous two years ago. “It tended to be that there were a couple of writers dedicated to Insider and then there was a mix of some of our on-air personalities that were sometimes Insider content. From the user’s perspective, it wasn’t clear what content was going to be Insider.”
First, they defined internally what they wanted the premium product to be. The conclusion was to focus on analysis -- content that was different from the sports news, statistics or features that were available for free at ESPN.com and at countless competitors around the Web. Analytical content included:
- Expert analysis of recent sports news, games, trends
- Predictive analysis of what’s *going* to happen with important future events, such as playoffs and sports drafts
- Analysis of player statistics and other fantasy sports league essentials
Any ESPN news story, feature article or general commentary piece would remain free, public content.
-> Strategy #2. Integrate premium content alongside free stories sitewide
After determining what would be Insider content, the team focused on placing premium stories in the context of related free stories, to make sure site users saw the range of content and were tempted to click for deeper breakdown of the news. (Premium articles are marked with an icon.)
Previously, some premium content had been integrated throughout the site, but Insider stories were primarily set aside in a special block on the home page. The problem was that if people weren’t Insider subscribers, they tended to ignore the special Insider section. And Stiegman’s team wanted to reach more readers. “It’s like point-of-purchase marketing: You’re reading a story, you might want some in depth analysis to go with it.”
They're agnostic about a story’s placement on the page. The editorial team will lead with the best story of the day, whether it’s free or Insider content. However, typically only about 10% of the stories on the home page are Insider-only.
-> Strategy #3. Capitalize on special events
Having a clear focus for premium content allows you to take advantage of special events or other external conditions that boost users’ interest in those stories. For ESPN Insider, the focus on analytical content matches well with a handful of key sporting events each year, when “the thirst for in-depth analysis seems greater among hard-core sports fans,” says Stiegman.
These events aren’t regular games or even playoffs, but big annual procedures, such as the NFL or NBA draft, or the Major League Baseball trading deadline each summer. Around these times, obsessive sports fans want to dissect all possible scenarios and hear expert opinions, which raises the profile of ESPN’s subscriber-only analytical content.
Here are some techniques they use to make the most of the opportunity:
o Get a long head start. ESPN’s writers start covering drafts or trading deadlines months before the event. For example, the site’s premium coverage of the 2007 NFL draft, which takes place in April, started last August. Premium stories and special reports such as mock drafts will continue throughout the season, intensifying in the weeks leading up to the event.
o Aggressive marketing within the site. Besides placing Insider draft or trade analysis next to free news stories, the team also uses internal banner ads that steer fans toward the premium content. Ads will play up the long-lead time (“Don’t wait until April to start analyzing the NFL draft”) and the expert opinion featured in Insider stories.
o Use offline media to push online subscriptions. With television, radio and a print magazine under the ESPN brand, Stiegman’s team has Insider writers who analyze the NFL draft appear regularly on the network’s television and radio shows.
Thanks to those techniques, roughly 60% of ESPN Insider’s new subscriptions occur around these major events on the sports calendar.
-> Strategy #4. Capitalize on big names and loyal audiences
Stiegman’s team relies on a handful of unique brands within the ESPN.com universe that attract a rabid following to help boost Insider membership.
Fantasy sports are a big part of the site’s premium audience, and having unique features within Insider like Scouts Inc. -- a team of analysts made up of former professional and college scouts that ESPN acquired a year ago -- helps drag existing loyal audiences into the subscriber fold. Now, fantasy sports users spend more than 350% more time on ESPN.com than the typical adult.
ESPN Insider also relies on the name recognition of popular sports writers, such as Peter Gammons and John Clayton. The catch was that Stiegman didn’t want some of ESPN’s best-known writers accessible to subscribers only, in order to use their draw for the free, advertising-supported portions of the site. So, keeping with the focus on analytical content, his team had those top writers create new analysis blogs available for subscribers only.
Although most of the blogosphere is free content, Stiegman was willing to risk making most of ESPN’s blogs part of the premium service. “I understand some people don’t want to pay for content on the Web, but I think it’s really important we put a value proposition on this content. If people aren’t a little upset that certain content is premium, they probably wouldn’t have paid for it in the first place.”
The bet is paying off: ESPN Insider now features 35 premium blogs, which accounted for 25% of all subscriptions in the past year.
-> Strategy #5. Upgrade the premium mix to retain subscribers
Sites need to consider not only what types of premium content are going to pull in subscribers, but what types of content are going to retain those subscribers year after year. For Stiegman, it means continually adding to ESPN Insider’s features and content mix.
The challenge, though, is that a site can’t just take something that used to be free and make it part of a premium offering. This could alienate both free users, who are having something taken away from them, and premium subscribers, who may feel like their subscriptions are being watered down.
One of ESPN’s approaches is acquiring popular sports properties from across the Web. For example, in addition to Sports Inc. last year, ESPN Insider in recent months also added fantasy sports site The Talented Mr. Roto to the mix.
To help determine what new content to add to the mix or other improvements to make, Stiegman’s team regularly talks to subscribers -- through focus groups and reader surveys -- and through market research into premium content strategies, online trends and sports fan sentiment. Useful links related to this article
Creative samples from ESPN.com's Insider premium service: