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They will pay for content - but they demand choice

This was one of the messages heard by the 50 publishers and payment solutions providers who battled the snow (and crumbling transport system) to meet and discuss the best ways of charging for online content.

The half-day AOP forum aimed to facilitate knowledge sharing on areas such as subscriptions and micro-payments, looking at the different strategies implemented by both business-to-business and consumer online publishers, and comparing those to the products and services available in the industry.

The trend towards paid-for content among UK publishers has accelerated in the past six months, with consumers becoming more aware of, and more comfortable with, the fact that online content is not automatically free. The need for publishers to supplement advertising models during the advertising downturn has prompted increased experimentation from online publishers, and the discovery of new revenue streams previously untapped.

Rafat Ali, founder and editor of award-winning Paidcontent.org, introduced the debate and suggested that there is a tendency among publishers in the UK to approach paid content in terms of short-term survival tactics rather than long- term strategy.

However, Richard Withey, global director of interactive media for The Independent, and Anne Ridyard, associate publisher at IDG, described careful strategic planning as crucial, along with strong brand values and unique propositions, in their presentations of how Independent.co.uk, Macworld.co.uk, Digitmag.co.uk, and PCAdvisor.co.uk had fared in the challenge of getting users to pay.

"A newspaper is made up of a number of services and sub-brands," said Withey, "and this is what allowed us to charge for our content. Columnists and writers become brands in their own right, and it is this unique content, that nobody else can offer, that is most suitable for a paid model."

"In the offline world of broadsheet newspapers, the revenue split is crudely around 40 per cent cover price to 60 per cent advertising," continued Withey, "and for tabloids approximately the reverse. I think it would be very healthy if web newspapers could achieve the same ratio."

Anne Ridyard said that when IDG first locked off large amounts of content on Macworld.co.uk, and Digitmag.co.uk, site traffic plummeted dramatically, but within 12 months had risen again to the levels achieved when the sites were free to access.

Delegates also heard from three online payment solutions providers, on what services are currently available, what methods users prefer, and tips on where the market is moving.

Scott Law of Metacharge insisted that consumers are not afraid to pay for online content: they are doing it every day. However they do demand choice - there is no one right payment method.

Helen Davis of BT click&buy presented the well-known solution introduced a year ago and the ways that it has developed in response to partners' (including Independent.co.uk) needs.

Unfortunately Malcolm Glen of M-Till was delayed by snow in Manchester and was not able to present.

Happily Bill Gash from Entriq was able to step in and gave an additional perspective on charging for multimedia, entertainment content. "A piece of content is a bit like an egg," he said, "and the great thing to remember about eggs is not to put them all in one basket."

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