FT.com content giftOne of the bigger marketing challenges these days is convincing people to pay for web content, particularly news content. The Web is awash in free news, analysis, and commentary, and a good deal of that free content is of good quality. Hence, most people don’t see the need for paid news subscriptions and all but a few paywall-protected news sites have struggled.

Those sites that have implemented a paywall have another dilemma: how to encourage content sharing and site discovery. A balance is needed that allows users to share content and non-subscribers to see the quality of the site’s content. If everything is locked down, where do new subscribers come from? On the other hand, make too much available for free and the value of a subscription won’t be evident.

That’s Not a Share…

One clever approach to this conundrum has been adopted by the venerable Financial Times on their FT.com site. They allow subscribers to share an article with a friend, but rather than calling the action a “share” like every other website, they call it a “gift.”

Dubbing the article a gift implies the content has real value, both to the subscriber and recipient. The term even changes the dynamics of how it will be received. Instead of the usual lackluster reaction on receiving yet another article someone sent you, you may experience a more positive feeling knowing that a friend sent you a gift of content.

Scarcity Adds More Value

Of course, content gifts would be quickly devalued if subscribers could blast out an unlimited number of articles to long lists of recipients. So, FT.com limits the number of shares to ten per month for each subscriber. This means that the subscriber will have to think a bit before sharing, since (unlike free news sites) the supply of shares is tightly capped. Is the article really worth using a share? Will the recipient find it spot-on and useful? We know that the appearance of scarcity makes things more desirable, but in this case the actual limits reinforce the concept that the FT content has more value than a run-of-the-mill free news story.

Similarly, the recipient may appreciate the fact that the subscriber chose them to share this scarce commodity. Because of the limits, the content probably will be reasonably appropriate for the giftee. On a free news site, one might share an article with everyone in the department. Why not, when there’s no incremental cost and those who don’t find it interesting can just hit “delete?” In the FT.com scenario, though, the article would probably be shared with the one person who the sender knows would find it particularly useful.

Underscoring the scarcity aspect, the link works only once and can’t be re-shared. The downside, of course, is that no locked FT.com content can ever “go viral” due to social or email sharing. Even if the recipient found the content amazing, he can’t tweet it or email a link to a dozen of his friends. That’s a tradeoff that FT.com is apparently willing to live with.

Add Value Without Adding Cost

The brilliant aspect of the FT gift strategy is that it adds value to the share but adds nothing in cost. They have taken something that most sites give away for free and turned it into something special.

Not every organization has the ability to take the gift approach, but certainly many do. Businesses give lots of things away for free, but often don’t emphasize their value. Companies that send customers a coupon to give to a friend, for example, could turn that coupon into a gift. A physical coupon could be enhanced with a decorative envelope, or turned into a plastic gift card. Promoting a book? Send a one-use link to a free chapter to readers who have already read the chapter or book and encourage them to gift it to one friend who will really appreciate it.

Can you grow your business with a “gift” strategy? Do you do it now? Share your ideas in a comment!