Consumers spent more than $300 million to access content on the Internet in first-quarter 2002, according to the Online Publisher's Association.
RealNetworks Inc.'s Real-One streaming-media service (www.real.com) was No. 1 with 750,000 subscribers, followed by The Wall Street Journal's online edition (www.wsj.com) and Internet dating site Match.com.
OPA said 12.4 million U.S. consumers now pay for Web content, not counting adult material, compared to 5.3 million last year. Overall subscription spending hit $675 million in 2001.
The growing number of consumers willing to pay for content is good news for major media companies and struggling Internet firms, like AOL Time Warner Inc.'s America Online unit, looking for growth opportunities in a stagnant advertising market.
ESPN, Cable News Network, ABC News and Major League Baseball are among the mainstream companies that have launched online subscription services, largely enabled by broadband connections.
"As content providers get smarter about creating valuable for-pay offerings, an increasing number of consumers are responding with their wallets," said OPA executive director Michael Zimbalist. The number of online users who had purchased content rose from 5.3 percent in 2001 to 9.2 percent in 2002.
OPA said 85 percent of the money was spent on the top 50 sites. Subscriptions accounted for 85 percent of the revenue, while single purchases made up 15 percent.
Annual subscriptions accounted for 49 percent of paid content sales in 2001, versus 31 percent for monthly sales and 15 percent for single purchases. Well over 60 percent of the subscriptions were annual and came in the following categories: credit help, research, personal growth, business content and sports.
One-year subscriptions are being renewed at a 72 percent clip, the OPA said.
Some 74 percent of subscribers continued to visit paid sites 12 months after subscribing. And the OPA found that 17.4 percent of consumers who signed up for free trial offers became paying subscribers.
The average price of a monthly subscription was $8.46, while the average yearly price was $49.69. The average price for single-content purchases was $17.89.
Rounding out the top 10 list of paid sites were Yahoo! Inc. (yahoo.com
), Consumer Reports' Web site (www.consumerreports.org), Ancestry.com, Weightwatchers.com, 1800ussearch.com, Matchmaker.com and Consumerinfo.com.
OPA said the top three categories — business content, entertainment and personals/dating — accounted for 59 percent of all online spending.
In fact, some $214 million of the $675 million spent last year came from the business content category, according to OPA.
The association estimates that 1,700 sites now offer paid content, but 85 percent of the spending goes to the top 50 sites.
OPA surveyed the spending habits of a representative panel of 1 million online consumers. It did not include adult, gambling or software-download sites.