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Interview: Mochila's Bekkedahl: Balancing Syndication And Paywalls

This story was written by David Kaplan.
Over the last few years, the idea of putting up paywalls between readers and content has been relegated to the dustbin. Syndication was the way to bring in the ever-growing online ad revenue, the thinking went. But with growth rates for internet ad revenue slowing to a trickle, the paywall idea has come back with a vengeanceand the notion of relying on free, ad-supported content is now considered folly. More publishers seem to settling on a hybrid model, of letting some content roam freely across a variety of sites while protecting premium content behind a paywall. I spoke with Carolyn Bekkedahl, president and chief revenue officer of online syndicator Mochila, who tries to help publisher clients navigate this equation. Earlier this year, the company struck a deal to syndicate tech publisher IDG's content to create personal technology news sections for 44 newspaper sites. Mochila is currently in talks with several companies about similar newspaper-related projects.

Do companies need to adjust their syndication strategies in light of the economic downturn and the pullback in ad spending? Does that pullback compromise the syndication model?

Syndication is still becoming an increasingly important revenue source. But the traditional model needs to be rethought. One of our models capitalizes on the fact that so many content brands can expand their footprint online by widely distributing their content. The benefits there are marketing branding, audience development, traffic and, of course, additional ad-sales revenue. But we also believe that the successful companies will learn to optimize the mix of the three main revenue sources for online content. One is advertising, both on the website and in distribution; paid for syndication, meaning another publication or peer pays for a subscription to your content; and lastly, the notion of the consumer paying.

What about the increasingly attractive option of paywalls and micropayments? Doesn't that detract from a syndication strategy?

Companies that are just reacting to the ad downturn and putting content up behind a pay wall that's not really a strategy. The smart ones are trying to get ahead of it, with the understanding that those three revenue sources are what they should be thinking of. It's not an either-or situation.

More after the jump.

In what ways does a syndication revenue model dovetail with a publisher's desire to wall off more of its content?

They do dovetail really nicely. Part of the goal is to reach more audience in ways that attract people who might not necessarily seek you out and knock on your door, so to speak. It's a fundamental goal that you want to keep expanding your audience. And once you've got these customers there, there are rungs of loyalty to that content. So once you've built that relationship, you can get a percentage of your overall audience to start paying for it.

How does a publisher decide where to draw the lines between free, ad-supported syndicated content, and premium paid?

There's no one set answer. It depends on the goals of the particular brand. But what vertical you're in can also help determine what you can and should syndicate and what could be kept behind the paywall.

Are there other areas besides finance and business that can more easily charge for their content?

Easily? No. In general, of all the categories that can straddle both the syndication and the reader-subscription model successfully, it's business at the top of that chain. But I would add that feature-rich content as well, including tech, travel and health often have very clear areas that make that divide more simple.

So general interest news sites can't really make a go of it?

If you're talking about nes, as long as they can slice their offerings along vertical lines, they can balance paid and free. I think it's interesting what companies like [international news aggregator] Global Post and Politico are doing. They're taking a particular vertical slant on news and becoming the experts at it. Both those brands are talking about putting their content in wider syndication and also looking at what premium content they can wall off.

By David Kaplan

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