Publishers Finding Headaches in Paid Content Tech

The last two or three years we’ve seen plenty of publishers finding success with paid content strategies. Converting “free” readers to paying customers is more feasible now than it’s been in years, with readers willing to pay for quality content. Instead of chasing a future of digital revenue that doesn’t exist, publishers are once again looking to their most valuable commodity – their content – and recognizing it as the future of news publishing.


But there’s a problem, coming from an unexpected source.

“For years, publishers cobbled different tools and services together into a stack that would help them scale their audiences — and make money from advertising — as much as possible,” writes Max Willens in Digiday. “Today, many of them are finding those tools fit poorly into their plans to build consumer revenue streams.”

“Conversely, publishers with legacy print magazine businesses are frustrated by how difficult it is to connect those operations to their digital infrastructure, thanks partly to fulfillment providers, who are loath to surrender information that might make them less important to their customers,” Willens continues.

For many of these publishers, a key component of their paid content model is less reliance on the behemoth of third-party platforms and unlocking the potential of their own first-hand data. If they can’t get at it, it’s no good to them.

“One fulfillment provider recently took more than nine months to build an API that would give a client access to information about their print readers, said Melissa Chowning, the founder of audience development consultancy Twentyfirst Digital,” Willens notes.

This leaves a gaping hole in an industry that is embracing the consumer revenue model but finding their tech stack is not up to the job.

“While the digital advertising ecosystem is constantly changing, its list of dominant players and tools is largely settled, which compels vendors to build products that play well with key ad tech products. The consumer revenue space is different, with only a few 800-pound gorillas setting the rules for how publishers might build or manage relationships with consumers,” writes Willens.

“What’s more, the few end-to-end solutions that are available in the market can be pricey — choosing to use Salesforce for email, CRM, DMP and other services can cost more than half a million dollars a year. Most of the companies in the consumer tech space are handling just one facet of that process. That creates both more uncertainty and more work, as publishers and vendors look to stitch products together,” he continues.

Interestingly, Google and Facebook are testing tools to help publishers drive subscriptions. As Willens notes, “many publishers are wary of giving the duopoly any form of control over the customer relationship.”

That’s putting it mildly.

Given Facebook’s recent “you’re on your own, kids” response to a publishing industry seeking answers, and the drumming publishers have taken with the latest Google update, it’s not likely the industry is looking to these two to figure this out.

There are tech vendors working on the problem, with some interesting paywall technologies and data handlers, some promising to provide that end-to-end seamless solution. But switching is risky and expensive, as FTI’s Pete Doucette notes.

“A large publisher that commits to re-platforming, or migrating from a mishmash of third-party services to a single, integrated one is setting themselves up for a process that can take years and cost millions of dollars,” said Doucette. Publishers are facing sticker shock and lacking the resources and flexibility to make a strategic move.

Still, I have every confidence in the tech world to respond to this. Where there’s a gap, there will be an app. In the meantime, it’s worth keeping an eye on the consumer revenue tech stack to watch where it’s heading.