A test of ‘free’

Last month, Folio: covered an announcement of plans by ALM (formerly American Lawyer Media) to provide non-subscribers with access to up to five free articles a month. Until August 23, most content was held behind a pay wall.

The basic idea is not new, something that the first person to comment noted with a measure of snark. ALM is looking to increase its visibility and perceived utility in the legal community, and limited free access is seen as a credible way to convey both.

I picked up on the announcement because the Folio: post, written by Arti Patel, offered at least four different takes on what motivated ALM to make the change:

  • “Mainly consumer convenience … the significant adoption of mobile and engagement on social media”
  • Part of an effort to “transform into a digital-first company”
  • Better service to existing subscribers, who can share content with non-subscribers
  • A strategic move to encourage non-subscribers to “test, trial, read and consume at least five articles a month across the network”

If you’re confused, don’t be worried. So am I.

These goals are all laudable, but only the last two justify a free offer. I’d also argue that a free trial is far from strategic; it’s a direct-marketing tactic that dates back to the dawn of couponing.

The rest of the thinking is muddled: “digital-first” and “mobile-ready” are operational priorities (good ones, by the way). They support the idea of a free offer, but they are conditions, not reasons to make the five-article offer at this time.

To be fair, my issue could involve the reporting, not ALM’s thinking about its offer. Folio: certainly had an opportunity to ask some basic questions, like “How many non-subscribers do you hope to reach?” or “What would represent a successful conversion rate for ALM?”

The post itself is silent on whether Folio: pursued these topics. Maybe they did, and ALM refused to answer. That would have been worth reporting, if only to shape readers’ understanding of what makes a test of “free” worthwhile. It might also have given me greater confidence that the upcoming Folio: series, “Foundations of digital publishing”, will be more than a collection of sponsored webinars.

A bit of disclosure: In 2009 and 2010, we provided consulting support to the American Bar Association, whose products and services compete with those offered by ALM. The association had no involvement in the creation of this post, which was written using only publicly available information.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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