Please feel very sorry for Michael Zimbalist, Executive Director Online Publishers Association, right now because when the poor guy called me up for our scheduled 4 P.M. chat about their (free access 17-page PDF) Online Paid Content Report I was far too caffeinated and coming off 3 different editorial deadlines (plus dealing with realtors all day) which equals an obnoxiously hyper, fast-talking, aggressive Anne. In heels.
The fact that he and Dan Hess of comScore were unremittingly pleasant is entirely to their credit.
1. For a while Zimbalist didn't quite get why it's a problem to lump B2B content and personal finance stuff into a single category. (Little veins popping out on my forehead.) But he agrees to divide the B2B from B2C for future reports if at all possible. Part of the problem is that while B2B is a gargantuan category, it's largely the hidden end of the iceberg. Most paid B2B titles have so few subscribers in comparison with the masses subscribing to B2C stuff, that comScore's panel may not catch a representative sampling.
Also, there's some understandable confusion over whether WSJ.com is B2B or B2C. They straddle both categories, but I believe consider themselves B2C because most subscriptions are paid for by individuals (vs. companies) and they publish news of more mass-interest than the typical super-niche B2B title.
Why am I so passionate on the separation issue? Well traditionally personal finance titles (and all other b2c topics) tend to have very different subscription-related metrics than B2B titles do. Roughly, consumer stuff sells vastly more units at lower prices with lower renewal rates and profit margins.
However, "vastly more units" doesn't equal "vastly more important" unless all you care about is mass eyeballs. The subscription biz is about profitable eyeballs. Which is completely different. OK, rant over for now.
2. "Single purchases accounted for 15% of content sales" - everybody I know said "Wah? Are they talkin' about ebooks?" Zimbalist says no, he's talking about electronically delivered reports, collected archives, research papers... I said, "i.e. eBooks."
He admitted there's a big honking grey area here. We both agreed that it made no sense for future reports to expand to cover all ebooks because that's a different industry. At the same time I didn't think he should cut single sales out entirely because in the print sub world, these single sale items can add up to 40% on average of your total gross, and are often much more profitable than subscription sales. (In fact some publishers rely on them for all their profit. The subscription is a loss leader to get people involved with your brand and amenable to buying other stuff.)
In the future, they'll probably continue to limit single sales counted to just stuff sold by subscription sites to subscribers (if that's possible). Also Zimbalist says the whole including gift certificate purchases associated with ecard subscriptions was a mistake and won't happen again.
3. Trial conversions. The excessive-sounding 17% conversion cited in the report was the result of mainly (but not all) B2C sites getting an up-front credit card to start free trial. Zimbalist agreed it would make better sense to split out this number based on whether the cc is gotten up front or not in future reports, because the conversion rate can vary so dramatically that it makes a merged number semi-worthless.
He also agreed to look into whether they could track conversions from free email newsletters. He hadn't realized this was the #1 way many, many, many online publishers market subscriptions to prospects. Obviously this number is critical for projecting business success.
#4. Tracking newbie content buyers versus people who've bought content before. Call me greedy, but if OPA has access to comScore's research talents I absolutely hope they'll expand tracking to see if people who've bought online subscriptions before are more likely to buy again than the average newbie. In the '90s, loads of reports showed that after people finally cracked and bought for the first time online, they then became much more likely to convert into buyers at site after site. I hope comScore can collect similar numbers, newbies versus oldies, for future reports that will in turn give us a much better sense of how high content sales in general can soar.
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