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April 26, 2012, 9:30 a.m.

The newsonomics of 99-cent media

The confusing digital world has led news companies to sell the same goods at different price points across different platforms. Is there a magic number?

Honk if you still love newsprint enough to pay $700 or more a year for a seven-day print subscription to The New York Times. Of course, you have many other choices.

You can try one of several print/bundled options for considerably less money. Or if you want to be parsimonious, you can get 10 free article views a month, or more if you want to work the social and search on-ramps to Maybe you want to be among those who pay Ongo $1.99 a month, and get 20 Times news stories a day, among lots of other news content.

Love the Guardian, and want to follow each tick of the U.K.’s Murdoch saga? If you’re in the U.S., you can subscribe to the lively iPad edition for $13.99 a month — or access it for free via the Safari browser on the tablet. In the U.S., its smartphone app is free, but in the U.K. and Europe, it requires a subscription. Of course, it’s quite successful Facebook app gives you access for free as well, anywhere.

If you’re shopping the Ongo news kiosk, look at wide spectrum of prices individual publishers are charging for access through that product: The Guardian is 99 cents a month, The Christian Science Monitor is $3.99, while the Chicago Tribune is $9.99 and The Boston Globe $14.99.

It’s not just newspaper companies that offer a patchwork of buying (or not buying) choices.

Are you a late-arriving fan of AMC’s series “Breaking Bad”? If you want to catch up and subscribe to Netflix streaming, you’ve got a good deal at the $7.99 a month rate. Cram in the first three seasons’ 37 episodes in a single month (where did that month go?), and you’ll pay just 21.5 cents per show, and anything else you have time to watch is gravy. Ah, but if we want to watch Season 4, which you can’t yet see on Netflix streaming, you have to upgrade to those red envelopes and get Season 4 DVDs — but it’ll cost you another $7.99 a month, and you’ll have to wait until the DVDs are released in June. (Ah, maybe that’s one of the reasons Netflix’s maladroit move to streaming is pushing it to a loss.)

Or you can turn to Amazon VOD and get the episodes for $1.99 each (or $2.99 in HD!), or $25.87 for the season. Or why stream when you own the DVD in a few weeks for $29.99 (or add an extra 10 bucks for added Blu-ray clarity). But wait — I’m an Amazon Prime customer. Can’t I watch it for free? It’s not part of the Prime free streaming offer, but I can watch a whole lot of other stuff as often as I want for nothing. Or maybe I can access “Breaking Bad” through Comcast’s Xfinity $100-a-month plus service. Nah, no deal — “Breaking Bad” isn’t available.

One more try: on the AMC site itself, there’s quite highlights, blogs, and more on the series, but no full episodes.

Let’s add in music.

Take Tristan Prettyman. It’s $9.99 (or 83 cents a song) for her last CD on iTunes. Through my $36 annual ad-free Pandora subscription, I can listen to dozens of her songs, her musical soundalikes, and thousands of other tunes in a year, bringing down the cost to pennies per song. Or there’s Spotify, where her songs are available for either zero, five, or ten bucks a month, depending on what devices I want to use and whether I can stand ads.

Magazines, of course, are offering their own split-screen experiments. The U.S. magazine industry (“The newsonomics of Next Issue Media”) is testing the all-you-can-eat, cross-title buffet, bringing some of its titles down to as low as 37 cents a month (if you consumed all 27 “basic” titles) through the kiosk, but $39, or $59, or $79 a year if you buy a single title directly through a publisher.

How much to charge?

It’s a fool’s paradise of pricing out there in the digital world, right now, at least for wily consumers. The Department of Justice’s ebook suit and related settlements only complicate things. Five and ten years ago we were wondering whether people would ever pay for digital media — Newsweek’s Steven Levy took us into the terra incognita in “Meet the Napster Generation” back in 2000. But now the question isn’t whether people, young and old, will pay — it’s how the hell to figure out how much to charge them throughout what we politely like to call our multi-platform world.

Content no longer demands to be free. It wants a fee — but how much of one?

Consumer pricing is not a core competence of many media companies. For decades, media pricing was on automatic. Newspapers picked a quarter or fifty cents, and then re-programmed the coinboxes. Magazines kept prices low enough to build audiences to reap substantial ad rewards. Book publishers did some minor stratification. Music companies picked a couple of price points, and let the vinyl and CDs fly.

In the digital era, though, pricing is confronting — and confounding — media companies. Just what in the digital world of vanishing manufacturing costs is digital media worth? Now with those 20th-century costs — printing, manufacture, distribution, shipping — passing into the night, the question of price, and value, is making itself loudly heard.

We can certainly identify the wrong-headedness of the Department of Justice’s price-fixing suit against book publishers and/or point out how the DOJ had little choice in pursuing the case, neither of which is a surprise. The law has struggled unsuccessfully to keep up with business changes wrought by the Internet, from fair use to antitrust to media monopoly. Oft-earnest American regulators find themselves falling farther and farther behind, trying to track technology’s dominating nature and make new sense of it. Often, European Union regulators take a more forthright stab but end up retreating.

Create a new legal framework that better balances producers, distributors, and consumers? Forget about that in this age of politics where stalemate and status quo is the order of the day.

Publishers of all media are on their own, then, and they’d better make sense of pricing. It’s core to their survival and future sustainability. Sure, the Amazons of the world will try to monopolize book pricing, returning closer to its pre-“agency pricing” market share of 90 percent from its current paltry 60 percent. Yet, publishers — especially of news and feature media, news organizations and “magazine media” — have many pricing plays to try as customers discover content near and far from traditional outlets.

The magic of a good price point

I’ll call this the newsonomics of 99-cent media because that’s the world into which we have moved. Today let’s look at that 99-cent model, and next week we’ll delve into the early lessons that pricing’s practitioners have stumbled across as they’ve moved into paid content.

At first, it looks like a tyranny of 99-cent pricing (or the parallel expected tyranny of $9.99 Amazon book pricing). Will 99-cent pricing cause brand damage? Will it last? If the U.S. follows Canada and forsakes the penny, then the 99 cent pricing may fall into history. For now, though, it’s got a certain consumer magic.

“Ninety-nine-cent introductory offers have done wonders for take rates,” says applied economist Matt Lindsay, president of Mather Economics. His company has worked with more than 200 titles — about 75 percent of them newspapers — on pricing and related strategic issues. Take a look across media pricing, from The New York Times to Hulu Plus, and 99 cents (or its derivatives of $1.99 to $7.99 to $9.99) are everywhere.

Take rate is simple: What percentage of customers click yes — and provide precious credit card data — when confronted with an offer. Offer readers the ability to start a “trial” for 99 cents, and you’ll see results two to three times any other number, says Lindsey. At 99 cents, readers “take that as a signal. They understand that you want them to adopt this product. By setting the full price at a high number, you are basically saying, ‘This is the true value of the product.'”

Steve Jobs understood signaling in a parallel way. As Chris Anderson described well in Wired last November (“The Magic of 99 Cents”), one of Jobs’ great successes with iTunes and the iPod was that 99-cent pricing for songs. He could get the hardware and software right, but in the not-quite-post-piracy age, 99 cents was the third leg of the value equation. It worked as a signal: somewhere in between free and too much.

Start with 99 cents and you can conquer the world. As they set off on that quest, what are some of the pricing guideposts for publishers?

  • 99 cents is a beginning and not an end. For newspapers used to being paid $200 or $400 a year, 99 cents seems like a declaration of cheapness. Put some round 0s on pricing; it just seems more honest. The oft-cited example of Louis CK’s $5 video is a case in point. Five bucks says authenticity. Yet media that answer thousands of reader questions every day aren’t comedians. Just because you set an intro price of 99 cents, the down-the-road price sends that other important signal to value. Ultimately, says Lindsay, it’s true that “people take price as a signal to quality.”
  • If you have lots more to sell, then 99 cents isn’t a price, it’s a price of admission. Responding to my recent column about “small things” adding up, Rob Pegoraro asked, on Twitter, how The New York Times’ earnings results related to the notion. “I think NYT 454K dig subs become great market for ‘small things’ like ebooks, events+,” I responded. David Johnson then added, “You pay to be in a market. These business plans resemble theme parks and non-profit fundraising strategies.” That thought fits perfectly here: it’s not about the money, large or small, an even buck or 99 cents — it’s about establishing a new relationship. Or, to use the vernacular, 99 cents is gateway-drug pricing.
  • Get ready to sell lots of stuff. So if you are Six Flags, or The New York Times or the L.A. Times, you’d better be able to leverage that new relationship by selling lots of stuff. Maybe not yet 100 products a year, but at least a half dozen to start. Ebooks, of course, fit perfectly here, as add-on products offered to members or subscribers. Sure, use some, as The Boston Globe is doing with Sunday Suppers, to reinforce subscriber/member value. But price others to match potential value. A guide to Boston-area colleges from, who else, the Globe, could be a $19.95 solid seller, given the $100,000-plus parental investment ahead. “Ebook,” though, is much too limited a name to put on it, and sounds like something not current. Wonderfactory founder and creative director David Link made this basic but hugely important point when we talked last week: There really isn’t a fundamental difference between an app and an ebook. “From an agency and a technology’s point of view, it’s only in how you create them. Talking about a recent product Wonderfactory worked on, “You go to the ebookstore, and it’s just text. You go into the app store and it’s got the text with 50 percent app-like sauce.” So, right now, publishers and their creative people are having to create multiple forms, but essentially the same product is both an app and an ebook. The technologies, and the costs, will clarify, as will the marketplaces for all the digital paraphernalia of our lives. The point for publishers selling more stuff is clear though: solve audience needs better than someone else, create products for the devices of the day, and price accordingly.
  • It’s not just the content we’re paying for. That’s a tough, tough lesson for literal newsies. As with the music revolution Apple wrought, it was the combination of convenience, ease, presentation, pricing, and wonder that rationalized (for good and bad) the digital music industry. Today’s first batch of digital news subscriptions rely as much on convenience and mobility values as they do on the words and pictures.
  • We’re all in the same business. Think of your own media purchases. A little music, more and more video, selective news and magazine subscriptions, increasing numbers of ebooks. Yes, the marketplaces for ebooks and apps, alongside this kiosk and that e-store, are confusing. Media, though, is media, and the pricing schemes are forming in a remarkably similar way across movies, music, newspapers, and magazines. We all like, for instance, the notion of All Access; we’ll pay once and get our stuff everywhere. So news and magazine publishers must look through the assorted lessons of the music and movie industries, those lessons still in much progress. News pricing is not an island.
POSTED     April 26, 2012, 9:30 a.m.
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