Feature: Cash in on web news

Five online editors and a specialist met Peter Crush to discuss the commercial and PR potential of e-content.

Richard Ayers, portal director at news, email and broadband provider Tiscali UK, is determined to make people pay to read online editorial in the same way they shell out for print news. ‘There is only one free newspaper – the Metro. All other news and digest has to be paid for,' he argues.

‘At tiscali.co.uk we have run webcasts of the Reading Festival and offer exclusive content free for members,' he continues. ‘The point is, we give away all of our content, and it really annoys me. If we could charge people for content, we would.'

Ayers is responsible for all material on the Tiscali website – content includes news, music clips and broadband TV for22 channels; there are 40,000 pages that constantly need updating. To satisfy the six million people a month who visit the site, Ayers needs an ever-increasing amount of content – some of which can be provided by PROs.

The pay-for model
Ayers was one of six roundtable panellists convened by PRWeek to discuss emerging issues in online PR. For him, the future of the medium lies in content that suits a commercial model – sites such as his would make money, while PR practitioners and their clients would be kept happy because web users would ‘pull' material (ie, select and buy it), rather than have it ‘pushed' to them indiscriminately.

Considering the popularity of free-to-access websites, the concept of making consumers pay for news (especially for PRO-produced material), is a brave one. But Ayers cites research showing that some consumers are, in fact, willing to buy particular content.

In 2002, researcher Forrester reported that reluctance to pay for online content had fallen from 47 per cent of western internet users to 41 per cent in 12 months. Last year it revised the statistic, saying consumers were far more willing to pay for exclusive or ‘preview' content such as film clips and music.

Ayers's problem is that despite this apparent willingness by consumers to hand over cash for content, the barrier to developing the model is the fact that PROs currently provide content to websites for free.

‘You can see the problem,' he concedes. ‘We can't charge consumers for PR content that is a commodity and distributed widely to any publisher that will take it. I feel that this content does have a value to pockets of readers, and maybe PR practitioners should restrict what they send out, thereby setting up more exclusive commercial opportunities.'

Ayers was talking to fellow journalist Pete Picton, editor of The Sun Online; Jackie Finlay, entertainment editor
of BBC News Interactive; Clare Spurrell, editor of iVillage; Carlos Rodrigues, digital product manager at FHM; and Keef Sloan, director at online PR specialist Way to Blue.

So, just how readily available should PRO-produced content be? According to Sloan, whose agency encodes clients' film clips for websites, PR-led content is becoming ubiquitous: ‘It used to be that distributors were charged for promoting their content. Editorial and advertising teams used to work closer to decide on ad slots. ‘Now content just goes up as part of an editorial-only decision. Editors fully understand the value of attracting customers to their portals with free editorial content.'

Promotion for free
Ayers grudgingly agrees. ‘I've lost count of the times my sales team has contacted a PR agency about selling space on Tiscali.co.uk for a new film, only to find that the same agency has asked my film editor if it can run the promotion for free,' he says.

‘These conversations have to be ironed out, but everyone is in a difficult situation because online editors always want content, so PROs are rightly asking why they should pay for ad spots,' he admits.

This may sound like good news for PR professionals, but the panel unanimously shares Ayers's concern that oversupply restricts commercial opportunities, especially around exclusive content. However, few call for less content – what they want is better content and, if they can get it, exclusive content. ‘In terms of The Sun Online, many PROs do not realise that nearly 70 per cent of our content is original and needs to be sourced one way or
another,' says Picton.

‘What we often get sent is rubbish. A criticism of PR people I deal with is that they don't contact us with as many exclusives as our print colleagues get. This is partly because of our own finances and partly because PROs cheapen their material by sending it to all and sundry, and do not consider us for exclusives.'

This dearth of good content and exclusives is flagged up by the rest of the panel. ‘Websites are still not
considered to be in the main pack of outlets,' argues Finlay. ‘Two recent examples stick in my mind. The Royal Academy's press team is one that does consider us first. It rang us up at BBC Interactive for a recent art exhibition and we were first to show an online slide-show of the paintings. We got the exclusive. The Tate Modern, on the other hand, is not as good at inviting us to similar events, which subsequently get smaller, picture-caption stories.'

Rodrigues adds: ‘The PROs with whom I deal at FHM, especially offline ones, don't really know how our digital team works. You get a sense that PROs put their print, TV and radio plans into action, and then tack online to the end. For us, that's not good enough. There is so much that can be leveraged – virals, videos, competitions. Just don't try and give it to everyone else as well.'

Cost and measurement
There is obviously a catch-22 here. Online publishers want good content. And PROs need to produce good material for them. But to do so, PR teams have to persuade their clients that the spend is worth it. Cost does not only come from production of the material, but the fact that many specialist online PR agencies provide the IT backup to support downloads of virals, podcasts or other streamed media.

If publishers want higher-quality content, they should perhaps better co-operate with PR professionals in terms of providing data about their readers. Sloan says: ‘The traceability of the internet should be in our favour, but measurement is still a problem against which PR agencies have to struggle.

‘For big projects, the value of a campaign is obvious – Sky recently approached Way to Blue to see how best we could distribute a Simpsons viral. We placed it on selected sites, such as The Sun Online and gossip/
entertainment portal Holy Moly.

Within a week it reached more than 5.5 million downloads – we know this because it was hosted by our servers. The issue is that for other projects, we have to present clients with some form of proof of value or ROI, but online publishers won't often share the numbers we need of hits and downloads.'

Sloan says he has seen other agencies quote a £2m ROI on an online PR spend of £2,000: ‘There's no return like this in any aspect of life; the internet is no different. We try to give clients a more realistic ROI formula based on what we know about website visitors – but clients could turn round and say "other agencies get much better returns than you".'

Information sharing
IVillage, the women's information portal on health, beauty, fitness and parenting, claims to have more monthly readers than Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire combined. Its editor, Clare Spurrell, says there are no ‘trade secrets', but admits it is often hard for PROs to find the data they need.

‘We can't say that X many people are guaranteed to read your piece, only that the potential is there – but that's no different from magazines or papers,' she insists. ‘We have other indicators – such as the most popular pages, where the big hits tend to come from, and the most entered search topics – so information is there.'

However, Spurrell is critical of some PR professionals' approach. ‘There is limited "real estate" on iVillage, but I feel that PR people often haven't studied the site in the first place.'

Finlay, on the other hand, understands the pressure PROs are under: ‘I realise it's easier to place features offline rather than online when you're pushed for budget and time. If we want more content, maybe it really is our job to tell PR agencies what works and how we can co-operate. PR practitioners have to realise that online publishers, too, are learning this medium.'

The roundtable also complains that the basics of online PR are being missed. ‘PR professionals are both a godsend and a pain,' Picton opines. ‘We all suffer terribly from getting rubbish, and from PROs not knowing how we work.'

Their biggest complaint is the expectation from agencies that material can be instantly uploaded. ‘This is really not the case,' says Spurrell. ‘Most online teams are very small. An editor at iVillage is not just dealing with press releases, but is prioritising sales and marketing campaigns, and probably trying to do his or her own PR, too. Agencies often approach us on a Wednesday hoping they can get something up by Friday. That's too late. Our features have just as long lead times as do those in print media.'

She suggests that PROs should be aware that the content of portals such as iVillage is archived and searchable, giving material a potentially long shelf-life. ‘We are driven by our audience – what they want to read and know more about. PR people need to "get" the iVillage brand philosophy first. They need to visit the site and be a user. This will give them ideas for the sorts of pieces we might run.'

Even the BBC, which is wary of appearing overtly commercial, is not adverse to being presented with what at first may look like advertorial – as long as the news angle stacks up and it has some degree of exclusivity.

The corporation recently designed a bespoke microsite featuring Aardman Animations' Wallace and Gromit characters. The story was that Aardman was launching a series of minute-long shorts – Cracking Contraptions –
featuring the plasticine characters. Way to Blue persuaded the BBC to host full downloads of some of the films – something Sloan says would have been pooh-poohed by Auntie only a few years ago. ‘It was just before the latest film came out, and Wallace and Gromit had not been on our screens for some time,' says Finlay. ‘The strong feature angle meant it passed the test, and once this decision was taken, we decided we wanted to do a really good job on it.'

Murky content
But according to Tiscali's Ayers, the BBC's online Wallace and Gromit material is simply another example of what he dubs ‘murky content' – where the distinction between free and commercially driven content provision is blurred. He complains that if the clips had been on Tiscali, they could have been made available to download onto mobiles – which would change the way such material is promoted.

Will PR specialists find themselves negotiating with websites which editorial spots they can commandeer for clients, or are they more likely to end up discussing with commercially minded editors which content can be paid for? It rather depends on whether Ayers's ideal model comes to pass.

But the roundtable panellists agree that the relationship between online editors, PR practitioners, clients and consumers will definitely change.

Whether PR professionals should resist the urge to distribute content widely, and only give it to sites that can spin it into price-tagged product, is something our panellists feel should be at least experimented with.


The Panellists

Pete Pictonk, Editor, The Sun Online
Picton was previously assistant editor at The Sun. He started his career as a writer on Sounds and Q. He joined News International in the late 1980s.

Richard Ayers, Portal director, Tiscali
Ayers began as a journalist on BBC local radio, and in1994 became a researcher on Radio 4's Today. One of the founding members of BBC News Online, in 1999 he joined European ISP World Online, which was bought by Tiscali in 2001.

Jackie Finlay, Entertainment editor, BBC News Interactive
After stints as a PR executive with BhS, Tesco and Hill & Knowlton, Finlay became a freelancer on various London newspapers. She joined the BBC in 1997.

Keef Sloan, Director, Way to Blue
Sloan started as a journalist on computer mags before joining Telstar Records as European PR manager in 1995. He started his own consultancy, KSC, in 2002 and joined Way to Blue last year.

Clare Spurrell, Editor, iVillage
At iVillage for the past three years, Spurrell has co-edited books on sex and relationships, including Sexual Sense, What Men And Women Really Want.

Carlos Rodrigues, Digital product manager, FHM
Rodrigues was Telstar Records' new-media manager from 1999-2002, after which he joined digital marketing agency Outside Line. He joined FHM last year.

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