Niche Publishing: Develop Paid Content Strategies That Rock!

Whoa! Could you be sitting on a gold mine but not taking full advantage of it? You know you have awesome content, with archives going back years. So how the heck do you kickstart a paid content program?

We interviewed Rob Ristagno, Sterling Woods’ CEO (and Paid Content Genius). He knows how to beat online audience attrition by creating content products and memberships while charging for access. Read on to learn how to monetize your content and increase your bottom line.

What are some good guidelines for niche publishers who want to monetize their archives?

“If you want to sell access to your archives, you need to make sure your content clearly solves a problem for your reader, and you have to do so better than anyone else. That means your content has to be measurably better than the free stuff available on blogs or YouTube.
To really drive a digital membership, your content needs to provide both tangible AND emotional benefits. As for tangible upside, your content needs to help readers make more money, save costs, save time, and/or eliminate annoying tasks. As for the emotional elements of your value proposition, your content should make a member feel more confident, entertained, appreciated, or connected or help them grow personally or contribute to society.”

Why is creating a membership program a good thing?

“It’s not just a good thing – it’s a must! Publishers who rely heavily on advertising to support their business will continue to fight an uphill battle as advertisers continue to divert marketing spend from print to digital. The fact that the majority of digital ad spends goes to just two players (Facebook and Google) makes matters even worse. And starting February 15, if your ads are deemed annoying by Google, they will automatically be blocked by the Chrome browser, even if the reader hasn’t installed an ad blocker.  Yikes.
This makes for a very frustrating situation for publishers. Many executives share with me that these trends make day-to-day operations a stressful situation—they have to struggle just to keep their doors open. These leaders feel trapped putting out fires all day long, instead of feeling empowered to direct the strategy of the business.
A successful membership program is like a breath of fresh air – it creates a new, robust, sustainable revenue stream that can break the organization out of a revenue funk. (Actually, I’ve seen membership programs grow ad revenues if done right; sponsors are willing to pay higher rates for a more qualified audience.)”

 How do you draw the line between free and paid content in the mix?

“Great question. It’s a delicate balance. There are three principles publishers should consider when they are drawing the line between free and paid.
1. You need to keep some of your very best content free so you can “show not tell” how amazing your material is. Turn some of your finest work into guides, whitepapers, or special editions that you can give away in exchange for an email address. Do not slap together something low quality just to grab a lead — the reader won’t be impressed, so you’ll never be able to convert him or her to a paid membership. Be generous!
2. I am not a fan of “metered paywalls” for niche publishers. Metered paywalls are used by sites like the New York Times – visitors get X number of clicks for free before they hit a paywall.  This model makes sense for national newspapers who are producing thousands of pieces of content per month. When you’re niche and creating fewer, but more specialized, articles, you can’t afford to give away as many clicks for free.  I recommend free trials or money back guarantees instead. This will give your audience a chance to see how compelling your value proposition is in a low-risk environment

3. Generally speaking, keep your beginner-level info free (that’s the area that usually competes with YouTube anyway) and put your more advanced content into the membership program.”

Can you share some real-world examples of paid content strategies that increased revenue and members?

“We helped an established publisher grow their digital revenues by 6X without spending a penny on advertising thanks to a digital membership – so there is real leverage here. For B2B publishers, I like what is going on with Politico Pro and the Accounts Payable Network.  For B2C publishers, I encourage you to check out what Don Pesche did with August Home (now owned by Active Interest Media) and what This Old House recently launched.”
Editor’s note: Rob also happens to be leading the session, Stop Giving It Away! Niche Content Marketing 2.0 at the Super Niche event in Louisville, March 5th-7th. Register now to learn more about how to create a paid content program and increase your bottom line.


Rob Ristagno drives dramatic digital revenue growth for content creators. He’s a professional speaker, author, and the CEO of The Sterling Woods Group, a firm that helps publishers lock in growth of 50% or more. Sterling Woods teaches clients five forces to get more out of existing brands, customers, and content.

Prior to starting Sterling Woods, Rob was a senior executive at several niche media and e-commerce businesses, including COO of America’s Test Kitchen. He started his career at McKinsey, and holds degrees from the Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College.


About the blogger: Diana Landau is the Content Wrangler for Niche Media. A former sales director and corporate marketing hack, she has now found nirvana in writing and wrangling quality content. Diana is a food, wine, art and SF Giants enthusiast…who sometimes gets carried away.


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