As media sites around the internet contemplate erecting paywalls to make up for lost revenue, Salon.com is moving in the opposite direction. Long a proponent of the subscription model, the politics and culture site today announced a redesigned website that backs off of its subscription model in favor of more engaged advertising and shorter content. The company is hoping to increase its readership with shorter, faster posts and make up for lost revenues in a new place: ecommerce.
Starting the day after Thanksgiving, Salon will launch a permanent online store that sells retail items the publisher thinks will dovetail with its readers' interests. While it's not clear that Salon will be able to counter recent revenue losses, the move represents a step that many media companies are likely to make: revenue diversification.
Salon Media CEO Richard Gingras calls Salon "the oldest new media company," and the publication certainly has some experience with trying to monetize online. The 15 year old site installed a pay wall eight years ago, and while online readers could access individual articles after viewing advertising, it was created under the presumption that dedicated readers would pay for content free of advertising. And it works, to some extent. Salon brings in about $1 million a year from $45 a year ad subscriptions and the $35 that readers pay to get free books from contributors. But that model isn't going to help reverse the trend of revenue bleeding media companies online.
Salon cut 20% of its work force this summer, and has been working on other ongoing efforts to bring costs permanently lower.
But they still need to bring in more readers to really improve their bottom line. To that end, the site is not abandoning longer content altogether, but it is beefing up its shorter pieces and creating substantially more content every day. Salon's demographic is attractive to advertisers (According to Nielsen, Salon ranked first among websites in the number of readers who attended colleges and universities and in the top half dozen sites for film enthusiasts, blogging, environmental friendliness and news readership). The site is betting that new ways of engaging readers will pay off in the long run.
Gingras tells Paid Content:
“Salon is not just a content brand, it’s a lifestyle brand."
Now Salon will be spending more attention on Open Salon, the site's blogging platform of over 35,000 bloggers. Already they've created conversational marketing campaigns around the blog content and plan to beef that up. And then there is the ecommerce platform that will launch on Black Friday.
Salon has long had a once yearly holiday store, but this effort will remain on the site past the holiday season.
“Just as on the editorial side, we cover what we think people will find interesting," Gingras tells Paid Content, "the Salon Store will sell products that are intended to match the intrinsic values and interests of our audience. We’re not going to be selling Canon cameras here.”
It is interesting to note that as other media companies turn towards subscription services, Salon — with eight years experience in that arena — is playing down its subscriptions. Gingras calls the $1 million "a modest part of our revenues and it will likely continue to be.”
He tells MediaShift:
"We're not gating content, we're not saying you have to pay us to see the content of Salon. I don't think that really can work for us or most mainstream publications. It can work for the Wall Street Journal because that's perceived to be high-value business content that people can subscribe to and write off the expense. We don't play in that world."
There isn't likely to be a silver bullet that will save media companies from the commoditization of content online. But until publications figure out exactly what consumers are and are not willing to pay for, extending a brand's popularity to items that do sell is a good way to stem the tide of revenue losses.