It is no secret that in the past five years newspaper publishers have faced some tough commercial decisions. While print circulation and advertising rates continue to decline, the hard copy newspaper is still where they derive the bulk of their revenue.
The irony is, of course, that more people are now consuming news online, particularly the younger generations. The challenge that the industry therefore has is how to monetise online content in a world where citizens have become journalists themselves and news is broken over social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook.
While the industry is trying to tackle this problem, it knows it can’t afford to drag its heels for too much longer. Publishers have toyed with different models, from partial paywalls through to all-encompassing ones.
The problem, as we all know, is that in most cases the content they are asking subscribers to pay for can be found for free elsewhere on the internet. Papers can no longer rely on their big personality columnists to get readers to part with their cash like they could in the offline world. While most would argue that it isn’t quite time to go back to the drawing board yet on the issue of paywalls, they may well agree that a different approach is needed.
And so it is against this backdrop that the Mail Online has announced it will become an affiliate marketing partner. This means that it will link some of its content to third-party websites. For example, if it writes an article about a celebrity in a certain dress, it will include a link in the article to the website where the dress can be purchased. If that click then results in a sale, the Mail Online will receive a commission.
Affiliate marketing is not a new concept and has been a highly successful marketing channel for a huge number of companies for many years. However, the Mail Online is as far as I am aware the first national newspaper publisher to seek to monetise content in this way.
It is a bold move, as publishers have shied away from this model in the past because they were worried that such an approach would lead to questions about editorial integrity. Can they keep the lines between commercial gain and editorial independence completely clear?
I think they can. The Mail Online knows its demographic. It’s not trying to commercialise the big picture news agenda, but simply help readers by providing them with more information about fashion and accessories that they may be interested in purchasing. Providing a direct link to that information is an intuitive way of keeping pace with the speed and ease with which people want to consume content online.
Readers will, of course, need to be assured through the quality of editorial that articles are being written with their interests in mind, rather than the commercial interests of the Mail Online. But as long as they are able to stop the lines between the two becoming blurred and the commercial links are always simply an add-on to the editorial content, the Mail Online could well be on to something here.
The move won’t completely solve the monetisation challenges the publishing industry faces now and in the future, but if it works it will provide hope that commercial survival isn’t linked to paywalls alone, which in the long term can only be in the consumers best interests.
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