The free-versus-paid debate among b-to-b media executives has shifted to a critical phase, as business publishers scramble to develop new subscription revenue in the face of shrinking advertising budgets.
But Jerry Ferrara, VP-advertising at Investors.com, the online extension of Investor's Business Daily, deployed a long-standing blend of paid-versus-free content that spared him from the current debate—and garnered sell-through rates on Investors.com of more than 90%, with an uptick forecast for the second quarter.
“The hook is proprietary information,” Ferrara said. The information on Investors.com behind a pay wall “is much deeper, more interactive and more timely.”
Investors.com is sold to subscribers as a stand-alone or as part of a package. The site offers several tools for identifying potential market-leading stocks, including Stock Checkup, which helps investors evaluate the fundamental and technical strength of a stock. The Investor's Business Daily print product is $295 a year, with full access to the Web. EIBD, the digital edition of the print product, costs $235 annually. Nonpaying “subscribers” get limited access to the news. This March, Investors.com had 1.2 million unique monthly users, up from 868,000 in March 2008.
However, with financial markets still distressed, Investors.com can ill afford to stand pat, particularly with page views for the site down in March to 15.9 million, from 18.1 million in March 2007.
In April, the site started to roll out a comprehensive redesign featuring social forums, online video (running on a new education channel called IBD TV) and more robust tie-ins to the IBD Meetup Community, which holds about 250 meetings a year and has roughly 37,000 members worldwide.
The meetings, which are sponsored, are attended by avid investors. “From an ad standpoint, we're trying to offer extra touch points for marketers,” Ferrara said. “Investors want to be more educated and more entrepreneurial, and we're helping them with workshops and meetups.”
He added that marketers are increasingly looking to business publishers to demonstrate “lifetime value” among their customers. “Marketers know [paying] customers are involved in our Web site, attend our workshops and buy our software products. It's not a traditional model.”
Media buyers stressed that paid content must be advisory in nature in order to justify the added cost to advertisers and marketers.
“The paid centers [on Investors.com] charge three to four times more than what's offered for free, and those ads work right away because we know the audience is qualified,” said Brad Hoppman, marketing director of online brokerage company TradeKing. “It's not pure journalism. The site is able to give advice and direction to the active investor.”
With paid content, business publishers can charge higher CPMs, and “buyers will pay inflated prices because the ads work for them,” Hoppman said.
Adam Lutz, media supervisor at interactive ad agency Neo@Ogilvy, who buys ad space on Investors.com on behalf of TD Ameritrade, added: “Content remains most important to the offline publication, all while driving the IBD readership to Investors.com. Once they're on the site, users are more active by using the tools, reading online research and getting involved in the IBD community.”
As the debate about paid-versus-free sharpens, b-to-b media companies will have to better track how their users consume information that's relevant to their market, whether it's free content or via search engines.
“Trade publishers understand data and collecting insider intelligence about competitors, and that's a unique value that people are willing to pay for,” said Glenn Hall, editor of TheStreet.com, which offers a variety of paid products, ranging from $149.95 a year for its Dividend Stock Advisor to $5,000 annually for a bundled package called the Chairman's Club. “Publishers need to convert that insight and that knowledge into sortable, searchable, accessible data for which they can charge customers,” Hall said.