Media in the MENA region reflect on the future of paywalls, subscriptions and free content

DUBAI: The contentious issue of what form of digital business model to adopt for the Middle East and North Africa region was discussed at a major press conference here, with attendees backing subscriptions and paywalls for their content rather than free access.

However, startups have had a harder time attracting subscriptions due to their lack of loyal users, it was revealed during a panel discussion titled “Leader digital transformation in the Middle East – What’s next?” It was day three of the 2022 Middle East Media Leaders e-Summit on Thursday.

According to Hamoud Almahmoud, chief content officer at Majarra, subscriptions were first considered around 15 years ago as tech giants moved to this model.

“It was (the case) for Europe and the United States, which were the first to adopt this subscription business model, because they have a different environment, they are more liberal markets and they don’t have no grants or media funding.”

He described the region as making a lot of “noise” about the subscription-based business model, as many funds are directed to the media by governments, individuals and nonprofits.

“Not everything is negative, but it is very difficult in our region,” he added.

Majarra was an early adopter of subscriptions in the region, having started exploring the concept in 2011. “We knew this was the future,” Almahmoud said. “Valuable content is valuable, and people will pay for it.”

With advertising dwindling as a source of revenue, he described such a model as an absolute necessity, as the organization identified it at the right time. Almahmoud said many media outlets won’t make the switch until they are burned.

“Now we have a lot of conversations with the media trying to get into this area and they’re asking questions that we asked and answered no less than five or six years ago,” he said. added.

“We are happy to be joined by other media, because together we can create this momentum and this reference; we need the subscription business model to be part of people’s mindsets and monthly bills. Good quality content is worth it.

Almahmoud said the company segmented content and people, and noticed a large amount of “overflow” or irregular users, while there were other fewer but more regular users.

These 20-30% of users were identified as loyal consumers and considered Majarra’s primary audience, which the team focused on so they could understand and offer them special treatment, including monetizing interactions, he said.

For Meher Murshed, editor at Al-Nisr Publishing, his company has made the cardinal mistake in the past of offering its digital news for free. “We engaged as a community, as an industry, and there was a cost at the time,” he explained. “From that perspective, it was a long time coming.”

He said the world of media had changed and companies had little choice but to adopt a subscription-based model, not least because advertising revenue had fallen, with print no longer generating the income she had before.

As a result, Gulf News made the strategic decision about five years ago to begin researching its audience in detail. “We knew at the time exactly what we were getting into, and we started the registration process in 2020 to see what the propensity was and that spurred us on even more,” Murshed said. “We realize we have a loyal following and that translates to digital as well.”

Read more: Interview: Gulf News editor reveals paywall strategy and why it’s key to saving journalism

The company launched its paywall in 2021, in what Murshed described as a logical step based on what it learned about its audience’s needs. “It was very calculated,” he added. “Our team is the most important thing and we are very proud of where we are today.”

Younger media, however, didn’t have the smoothest navigation. Mohamed Khairat, founder of Egyptian Streets, said many media startups are not well known and struggle to attract subscribers.

He said that Facebook in the United States introduced a subscription newsletter for high-profile personalities to make available to their fans last year, but this type of product was not possible for those who do not. did not have the profile and “reputation” of the technology giant. For businesses in their early days, there was a greater reliance on various “forms of social media advertising and announcements.”

Over time, however, this was not sustainable. Khairat said that for those operating in the Middle East, the value of an Egyptian reader is much lower than that of an American reader, despite the fact that the cost of operation is the same.

“So naturally, media startups in the Middle East are particularly disadvantaged,” he noted. “It forces us to explore new ways to generate revenue.”

While digital subscriptions are apparently an effective way to distinguish stealth users from those who are loyal to your brand, allowing them to contribute to your growth and make them feel part of your community, it was easier to say that to fact, said Khairat.

Although Egyptian Streets has not yet introduced any form of digital subscription, it is currently planning to do so gradually. “It’s still difficult from my perspective as a young media organization to rely solely on digital subscriptions,” he said.

“I would prefer to see more social media integration – news editors are essential to social media posts, but they are not rewarded enough by them.”

He believes the future is not the traditional digital subscription model, but one that can merge effectively with social media.

For Wasim Chougle, Head of Digital Products at Al-Nisr Publishing, users come first for media and it was crucial to ensure the experience was seamless and that users understood why they wanted to pay. “We defined what a user gets out of it,” he explained. “We get a lot of feedback from our users, and we continue to evolve and optimize the journey, and make sure we provide a good user experience.”

In this context, data plays a vital role, as it becomes necessary to determine how users behave on the organization’s website.

“You have to make sure that the person using the website is engaged with the content and from that engagement you have to create a habit and make sure it comes back,” he added.

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