Parking meter
Credit: By Mike Schmid on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
For those launching metered digital subscriptions models, the word paywall is one they often try to distance themselves from.

Most tend to prefer a clear distinction to be made between a 'hard' wall, such as was implemented by the Times, and as of next month the Sun, in the UK, and metered models, as put in place by the New York Times in 2011.

Press+, which enables publishers to set up a metered model, is equally clear about the difference between the two. In fact, the word 'paywall' is banned in their offices.

"We're talking about a meter which is radically different," co-chief executive Steven Brill told Journalism.co.uk. "The reason it's so different is with the meter if you do it right you don't give up any of your advertising revenue online and you don't give up any of your voice in the community online."

Back when Press+ first launched, in late 2009, the word paywall caused them a bit of a headache.

"It took us till the end of 2010, beginning 2011, before we got anyone to launch" Brill explained. "People really didn't understand that we were not talking about a paywall."

Of course, times have since changed in the US, but Brill said that Press+'s new London-based business development director Michael Hull is finding similar reactions today in Europe, four years later.

"In the initial conversations he has people who are scared. It's like they're jumping off a cliff and they're going to go deep into waters, they don't know how cold the water is, how rocky the water is below, whether they're going to get killed or not. And what they don't know is 'am I giving up all my ad revenue, hoping I'm going to get some reader revenue?'.

"When in fact it's much more like taking a very slow walk into a swimming pool at the shallow end which has 10 or 20 steps, and you just take it a step at a time as you adjust your meter."

"In the US when we talk to newspaper publishers, everybody understands it, but we're starting over outside the US where people are just now learning about this model," he added.

Once one big publisher dips their toe in the water however, it seems that others are more willing to join them.

The inertia of not wanting to take the risk does become the opposite, which is the herd mentalitySteve Brill, Press+
"Now, our biggest problem here in the United States is scheduling all our launches," Brill said. "The inertia of not wanting to take the risk does become the opposite, which is the herd mentality.

"Even if a publisher is conservative and worried, they're now worried they're not doing something that everybody else is doing and everybody else seems to be saying is a good thing".

And with a strong group of publishers on board, platforms like Press+ are able to start gathering useful data.

According to Brill this data shows that not only are those publishers using Press+ gaining new revenue from the digital subscribers, but they are also "stabilising their print subscription base because they had eliminated the completely free alternative online". And, importantly, "they hadn't lost any advertising revenue".

"Not a single one of our 447 affiliates as of today, has lost a nickel in advertising revenue," he said. "And they've all gained either moderate amounts or large amounts of reader subscription revenues."

The European picture

Fellow chief executive Gordon Crovitz, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, said that publishers in the US and Canada noticed back in 2011 and 2012 respectively "that online advertising revenue alone was not going to be a source of large revenue for news publishers".

"I think publishers in the UK and in Europe are now seeing that as well," he said.

"All the major US newspaper chains have now launched pay models," he added, "almost always with a meter.

"It's the single biggest driver of their share price and their revenues and their profits for 2013."

And he added that data on people's "willingness to pay for full digital access" via a meter means Press+ is "highly confident that the same dynamic will hold in the UK". He added that over the coming year he expects this to be "the single largest driver of new revenues for British news publishers."

There have certainly been a number of interesting developments in the area of paid content in the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, in recent months. In the UK, for example, the Sun announced its plans to launch a paywall online in August, and in terms of metered models, the Telegraph is due to launch digital subscriptions with a meter in November.

And the recently published Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute identified "a significant jump" in the UK in terms of the percentage of respondents now paying for digital news compared to the previous year, rising to nine per cent from four per cent.

The report added that across all nine countries taking part in the survey "a significant percentage expects to pay at some point in the future".

Such developments in the area of metered models, like the Telegraph example, only serves to boost Press+'s confidence of opportunities in the European market further. Although 90 per cent of Press+'s customers are in North America, according to a press release, the company is already working with some publishers in the UK, with many others said to have shown interest.

Crovitz said when it comes to the platform's offering, the amount of data it can share with publishers is a real asset.

"We have an enormous amount of data about best practices, what works best, how to test the meter, how to test pricing, how to test geo-targeting," he said.

"We have a couple of dozen different variables that we've been able to generate really valuable data from. So for the publishers it's partly not having to build their own e-commerce technology which is very different from publishing technology, but it's become at least as important to have the data to ensure that the launches are successful."

"We can tell publishers everything," Brill added, "from how to launch a trial offer and convert people from the trial offer into the regular price, even to what colours the messaging should be, to how to calibrate monthly prices versus annual prices, how to re-target people who hit the meter and decide not to buy but then come back the next month to get their X number of free copies."

Setting the meter

Press+ takes a case-by-case approach when it comes to the decision of how many articles to give users as their free 'allowance' each month.

The number is arrived at based on several factors, and the starting meter for a subscription model is also open to change further down the line.

"We analyse their engagement with their readers, what percentage of readers read how many articles a month, just to come up with what the launch meter might look like," Crovitz said.

"From day one we use our multi-variant testing platform for each publisher, to come up with what the optimal meter should be. So we have some publishers who are at three, we have some who are probably still at 20, and we have a lot of publishers who are testing everything in between to come up with the optimal meter."

Brill added that other "variables" used to decide on the meter setting include how much of the content is included or how regularly the outlet publishes content. While the majority of its customers (around 80 per cent) are newspapers, magazines and online-only outlets also make up the next significant part of their customer base. So, as he explained, the approach taken by a monthly magazine may be different to that of a daily newspaper.

There is also the question of "all digital access subscriptions", which Crovitz identified as a growing trend, with publishers keen to have a cross-platform approach.

"As publishers offer more and more digital versions there may be different meter settings on different versions and typically you see a much higher price point as well," Crovitz said.

When publishers do adopt an all access model, "we have the data that will suggest to you how you can adjust your price upward for people getting the convenience of getting all that," he added.

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