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Q&A: Autosport Publisher Rob Aherne on paid content

Rob AherneAutosport Publisher Rob Aherne is speaking at our next event: Perfecting the Freemium Model on 12 September. Alongside Media Columnist Peter Kirwan & Piano Media CFO Ján Cifra, Rob will discuss freemium models for publishers, paid content and micropayment strategies. Find out more / Book your place – free for publisher members

When did Autosport start charging for digital content? Compared to many websites has a considerable paid-content legacy. We were charging for content as long ago as 2003, and also acquired a US motor racing site,, with a large subscriber base. But I guess the current era began in 2006, when we moved to a freemium model: news stories are free, but users must pay for a deeper layer of content such as features, comment, high-resolution pictures and stats. You’ve said that publishers should be more willing to charge for different types of digital content – can you explain this further? I can only speak from my experience as the publisher of a specialist brand, but I would say that paid content has been our salvation in terms of a business model. Operating as Autosport does – sending journalists and photographers to motorsport events around the world in the interests of quality coverage – incurs considerable cost that many of our rivals don’t have to bear. If we want to continue to set the news agenda and make quality journalism our watchword (and I can assure you that we do), we have to find sources of revenue that go beyond the advertising and sponsorship model. Ultimately I believe that our readers appreciate quality journalism, understand what it takes to achieve it and at least some are prepared to pay to help us carry on producing it, and that principle has driven the evolution of our paid-content strategy. How has Autosport’s paid content/freemium strategy developed over the past year? The key change has just taken place, in that we moved to metered access earlier this month. Users are now limited to 50 free views of stories every month, after which they will need to buy a subscription to continue reading. By setting the bar relatively high, we are targeting the most engaged users of the site – and are confident that people who don’t currently subscribe will both understand and appreciate the extra benefits that come with a subscription. Where do micropayments sit within your stategy, and has this changed over the past 12 months? We have offered micropayment access to our paid content since 2010 – we were the global test partner for PayPal’s micropayment functionality. In truth we have plenty of work to do here – micropayments are still a relatively minor source of revenue compared to subscriptions for us. In my view we need to test a bolder pricing strategy to find the sweet spot, but equally in a team the size of ours it’s difficult to carry out all of your plans at once. How is data being used to inform your paid strategy, and where does this function sit within the team? Data is crucial to understanding our users, so it informs every aspect of our strategy, not just paid content. Some data acquisition is managed within our product team, but deeper analysis operates out of a central team at Haymarket Consumer Media that allows us to understand user behaviour across our different brands.

Find out more / Book your place – free for publisher members