Freemium? – pah!

I would like to see the back of the word “freemium” – it’s ugly, contrived and smacks of an in joke. More importantly, it does not describe anything new or concrete. The fundamental concept underpinning a “freemium” service – something offered for free to get someone to pay for something else – is as old as the hills. As a serial “freemium” legal publisher I would also say that it does not reflect how I think about the products and services I publish. I try not to publish anything for free; I just decide which bits the advertisers pay for and which bits the user pays for.

A “freemium” service is just another way of creating, marketing and sustaining a product or service. Publishers, traders and businessmen have been dreaming up the most cost-effective way to get their product in front of prospective punters for two or three millennia but they all boil down to just a few basic tactics, adapted to suit a particular market. For example, there have been free newspapers for hundreds of years, the owners calculating that the best way of carving out their readership, brand and market was to provide the content at no cost while getting their advertisers to pay for it. In the immediate legal and professional sector, there are many controlled circulation magazines that have flourished for years by sending out issues for free to specified contacts. I have read Information World Review for years and have never once paid for it but have been tempted to attend some of their conferences and have advertised there. If I had done nobody would have dreamed of stating that I’d been using a “freemium” product. Ditto The Lawyer in years gone by.

Even those that do charge do not charge enough to cover all the production costs. I’d love to know how much my morning daily would cost without the adverts – judging from the perennial loss-making of the national broadsheets, I’d guess a lot more.

So, from my point of view when we publish a service that allows free access to content, we have simply concluded that is what is required to most effectively fund the project. Once that decision is made instead of spending thousands on marketing and selling the service, we spend the money on writing, collating and commissioning content some of which we publish for free access. Either the advertiser pays or the user pays but nothing is free and the range and depth of the content provided reflects the projected revenue.

There will be a continuing role for this model in legal publishing. There are plenty of niches in law and as those niches develop and multiply continuously, this will present opportunities for a dedicated news and updating services. Such niches can be exploited by new independent legal publishers or the current commercial behemoths.

It is true that corporations such as Westlaw and LexisNexis are loathe to give content away free but they do engage in such activity to carve out a presence in a new area or as a spoiler in response to competition. An example of this occurred as a result of one of my previous online projects, Family Law Week. In response to the success of that service, Jordan Publishing, the publishers of Family Law journal, vastly improved their alert service so that articles, comment and news are now freely available on their own site.

Another example is the Practical Law Company who allow access to short case summaries as a means to drive Google traffic to their site and entice a paid subscription.

The current structure of the web rewards popular sites with lots of accessible content which gives the smaller publisher the chance to get visibility alongside the existing sources. So publishers providing such services will get recognised in search results and provided the sums add up, can thrive on the traffic generated. Some of the money that would have been required to market paid for subscription products in the print era can now be diverted into providing free access to useful content to act as a shop window for a hopefully growing range of other services. What is clear though, and what Rupert Murdoch is attempting to address with his Times paywall, is that comprehensive, authoritative, in-depth sources on the web will always need to be funded by subscriptions and other forms of payments. The total potential revenue for advertising in legal publishing will always fall short as the basis to finance the editorial effort required. The challenge will be to see whether some of the new breed of “freemium” online legal information services can generate sufficient resources to go that step further.

David Chaplin is a serial “freemium” legal publisher and Publishing Director at Bath Publishing.