3.3 Million Subs and Counting: Consumer Reports Sets Gold Standard in Paid Content

By Steve Smith

When it comes to pursuing paid models online, Consumer Reports had the distinct advantage back in 1997 of not having much of a choice. “We would charge from day one,” said Consumer Reports VP of publishing Jerry Steinbrink at the recent min day Digital Summit.

With advertising forbidden from the brand’s print pages and, by extension, any Web site, there was no other reasonable model for executives to pursue other than getting revenue straight from the consumer. They had to make it work. And 13 years later, the Consumer Reports brand still stands as the most successful paid digital content product from a print publisher of any kind.

With 3.3 million online subscribers. ConsumerReports.org long ago pulled away from such contenders as WSJ.com. Today, years after its period of greatest growth in the early 2000s and despite the recession, ConsumerReports.org is still growing the base 3% to 4% a year. And it is selling much more now than access to that database of product ratings and reviews.

The brand has a health information site that produces millions in annual revenue, a paid mobile app that charges an annual fee and a series of bundled subscription and one-off products that target in-market auto consumers with content that intercepts them at their greatest point of need—when they are deciding which car to purchase. This auto product alone has another 198,000 subscribers generating $2 million a year. In total, ConsumerReports.org pulled down $94 million in revenue for this fiscal year, Steinbrink said.

If you think that ConsumerReports.org is the exception that proves the rule about people not paying for online content, think again. Yes, CR has an exceptional lab and legendarily impartial reviews, but “all of you have content that is worth paying for,” Steinbrink told min day attendees. Once a publisher puts a cash value on the content, there are methods of driving traffic, leveraging free content and merchandising that work to convert customers.

At CR, they conceive of customer acquisition and content strategy as funnels that lead people into the content they will find valuable enough to pay for. On Nov. 16, our monthly min Webinar will feature Consumer Reports and the methods it uses to keep and grow a 3.3 million user base of paying customers. Senior director/Web products Tom McLean will dive into the many ways that CR uses all of its assets to move people through the purchase funnel toward paid content and converting to subscriptions. From SEO to blogs, on-site merchandising to cross-selling, he will detail what CR has learned in 13 years of paid content success. If you want people to buy content, then you have to know to sell content.

McLean will be joined by Jason Snell of Macworld, Ned May of Outsell and Greg Swanson of ITZ Publishing for Fee-Based Content Models: What’s Working for Media Brands, starting at 1:30 pm ET on Nov. 16.