Single sales of digital content: one publisher’s success story

Posted on December 1, 2011

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Here’s another way for publishers to get around launching a full-blown app: single sales of digital assets such as video.

String Letter Publishing, which publishes Acoustic Guitar and Strings magazines, has successfully sold pdfs, audio and video individually to download for any device. Though they’re planning an app launch for the future, it’s a case study of how publishers can find another revenue stream in the mobile space, reminiscent of ProPublica’s success with single-copy sales on the Kindle.

The publisher uses Bitmenu as a commerce solution to sell topic-driven guides (consisting of a pdf with audio or video). String Letter capitalizes on a wealth of instructional content and sheet music — and an audience of musicians increasingly using iPads to consume it. For instance, users can purchase a video guitar lesson alongside the sheet music to the song.

Because of its suitable content for video, String Letter was quick to produce it, originally offering it behind a paywall for subscribers, said David Lusterman, publisher of String Letter Publishing. After being approached by Bitmenu, Lusterman said they decided to produce a new piece of content every week in order to sell them individually on the Web.

“We’ve made good on that and even exceeded it,” he said. They have also turned old, print-only songbooks into video or audio and converted CD audio into digital downloads. The publisher now has more than 100 items for sale between both titles.

String Letter Publishing

The company relies mostly on e-mail marketing to sell products ― a method that proved to be even more effective for digital products than print products. Sales volume in the first weeks after each digital media product promotion has resulted in a 4 to 8 times greater yield compared to similar promotions for print. An even more telling statistic is that about 25 to 30 percent of customers who buy something once come back and purchase more products, Lusterman said.

“One of our initial concerns was this might be something that’s a novelty to people,” Lusterman said. “We’ve been very gratified to see that there’s a constituency within our audience that likes to buy download products, and they do come back and buy them again.”

While the sales haven’t been huge, the move was profitable from the start and hasn’t cut into book sales, Lusterman said. They’ve managed to upsell to customers by moving up the price of digital products and selling bundles of content, boosting the average transaction from $4 to $7.

"I think we’ll be able to keep moving it up, particularly as we get smarter about working with these repeat buyers,” Lusterman said.

A way around the app store

Bitmenu acts as the fulfillment house for String Letter, storing the assets and using Amazon checkout to enable the purchase. The service asks for the name and e-mail of customer, which provides the information to the publisher (a sidestep to restrictions in Apple’s in-app subscription plan). Customers then receive a confirmation e-mail asking them to specify where they want the download sent.

String Letter Publishing Bitmenu

Bitmenu recently enabled a new capability that detects purchases on an iPhone or iPad and delivers the media files directly to the devices, making the process even easier, said Kempton Izuno, CEO of Bitmenu, Inc.

Izuno said his commerce site is one option for publishers to go mobile without a lot of upfront cost. Larger publishers are building rich, custom apps, but it might not make sense for everyone. “That still leaves a lot of publishers who either don’t want to train their people or can’t afford to train their people,” he said.

Publishers can deploy the service for free or choose an enterprise service, including customer support and more managed services (for a 25 percent cut of sales revenue).

The equestrian magazine Sidelines uses Bitmenu to sell simple pdf digital editions via their Facebook page, either through single copies or subscription. While the uptake has been small, contributing editor Erin Gilmore said it’s a low-maintenance way to have content available for an increasingly mobile audience.

"We’re not in the position to create an app; no one in our industry really is,” Gilmore said. “This is an easy way to put the magazine in the hands of readers all over the world.”

Single-copy versus subscription

This is another sign of publishers taking different tracks for their particular audiences in mobile — from product-driven apps to budget-friendly digital editions. It’s worth saying again that what works for Hearst in mobile apps doesn’t necessarily work for an enthusiast publisher, which doesn’t necessarily work for a B2B publisher.

String Letter has taken its time with mobile, trying to refine a strategy and research what would make sense for its audience. While single sales have been successful, Lusterman said customer research found subscriptions will be an even better model for monetizing mobile content. Later this year the publisher will release a subscription-based mobile app called Acoustic Guitar University, using the pdf-video combination that worked in Web sales as the core value proposition.

“We’re going to take kind of a Netflix approach with the mobile app,” he said. Users will be able to have access to a library, where they can pay a monthly fee to stream on any device. Those who prefer to buy assets individually will also be able to do so. “Our preference is to do what we do best, which is create and market subscription services,” Lusterman said.

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