Selling content on the Web: It just might work

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It's no secret that b-to-b media companies such as the McGraw-Hill Cos., VNU and Reed Elsevier have transformed themselves into business information companies, selling subscription-based "must have" content—rather than relying exclusively on advertising revenues.

With the advent of the Internet, b-to-b media companies that have a larger segment of their revenue stemming from ad pages are also exploring the possibilities of selling content to readers. In recent years b-to-b publishers—especially those that have traditionally practiced the controlled circulation model—have come to view the sale of existing content as a promising, if elusive, revenue stream.

"I think a lot of publishers are trying to crack the Web commerce equation," said Louise Garnett, VP-lead analyst at research and advisory firm Outsell.

Outsell last month released a report on the sale of content via the Internet that many trade publishers are likely to find encouraging. The report, "Web E-Commerce for B2B Publishers and Information Providers—New Channel Demands New Ways of Thinking," concluded that b-to-b publishers and information providers can sell content on the Web at reasonable prices to audiences beyond their traditional customers. Often these new customers include top management.


"People have talked about this topic for years," said David Nussbaum, CEO of Penton Media, "but there have been precious few magazine-type companies that have been able to achieve their goals in this area." He pointed out that Penton is experimenting in this arena with its Expansion Management magazine, which has made data from its regular analysis of local school districts available for purchase on the Web.

Outsell conducted the study in partnership with ECNext, a company that touts its ability to help "business publishers turn Web searches into content sales and subscriptions." Outsell analyzed a representative sample of 24,970 transactions conducted by ECNext clients, which included research firms, financial information businesses and b-to-b publishers. The study covered the period from December 2004 to June 2005. Outsell also conducted some phone interviews with ECNext customers.

Outsell found that among this sample, manufacturing and construction were the industries that purchased the most content online. Together, the two industries accounted for 25% of the online information purchases.

Additionally, the data showed that top-level executives were purchasing much of the online data.

The most common buyers were individuals with the title of general manager, director or VP. The second most common group consisted of individuals with the CEO, president or COO title.

The price points attached to the data being sold varied widely. The mean price, according to Outsell's analysis, was $152, but the median sales price was $30.

Outsell's report concluded, "the magic $499 price point is optimal for driving unassisted Web site transaction sales, and volume really happens at the below-$100 price point."

Dick Ryan, CEO of ZweigWhite, a company created by the merger of Mercor, a trade publishing business focused on architecture and construction, and Zweig White, a building industry consulting firm, said his company has found success selling information products via the Web priced between $95 and $495.

Surprisingly, Outsell found that the up-to-date nature of the data was not critically important. "One of the somewhat hidden side benefits of being Web commerce-enabled is that ability to sell content that is much older than 12 to 18 months," the report said.

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