“There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” It’s a statement that many of us have uttered at some point, and also whole-heartedly believed. But for some reason when it comes to web content, we’ve all been trained into believing the exact opposite.
The last decade or so has gone by and professional publishers haven’t stressed about monetizing web content. Their more traditional revenue streams had remained strong(ish) and the potential the web offered hand’t been fully realized.
During this time, the internet also felt like a new market opportunity for talented content creators looking to grow (or create) their fan base. It wasn’t a utility yet, but rather a blank canvas that people were willing to invest their time and talent despite a lack of immediate return.
Fast forward to today. The web is ubiquitous in North America. Paywalls are springing up every day. And the traditional forms of revenue publishers have relied on are disappearing. And this has led to many “undesirable” forms of “payment” springing up, the most popular being ads, and data. There are a few other which are far more appealing, but far less used: 1) pay-walls, which only superusers tend to find worthy and 2) praise, which is only an acceptable form of payment for content creators who produce things as a hobby, versus a way of life.
Don’t get me wrong. “Free” still exists. There are of course people who simply enjoy writing and are quite good at it. And whether they are praised or not, they will write. There are also scholars who receive compensation from other venues that share their thoughts publicly. But as web publishing has become easier, finding good quality content has become harder. “Clutter” as described above is a polite way of expressing the fact that you often have to sift through a lot of bullshit to get what you need.
In the macro sense, free isn’t just an unattractive incentive any more, it barely exists.
- You give up data. That’s not free.
- You waste time to find what you need. That’s not free.
- You get portions of information, but not everything unless you pay. Obviously, not free.
- You have to have your reading interrupted by distractions (ads). That’s not free.
Many of the forms of monetization mentioned above our clever indirect ways for publishers to receive compensation for their work. We need to move away from indirect, and make the transaction extremely direct. You want something, you offer money in exchange.
I believe that the future of quality content is through content-specific rewards to the publisher. In fact, I also believe that system will produce the highest quality of content.
And before I hear the big, BUT!!! let me explain my chart:
Ads on site: We already know that advertising as a primary revenue model for publishers is a broken system. Regardless of all the amazing ad tech companies emerging, I do not believe they are in any way improving the consumer’s experience and desires, which is getting the best possible content. (I’ll caveat that Buzzfeed is knocking it out of the park with their brand partnerships. But they’re definitely a rare breed)
Site paywalls: Some publishers can pull this off really well because they’ve earned an adoring fan base. Last week Andrew Sullivan moved himself and staff over to a private subscription site and generated a massive amount of interest and paying customers. Outside of these rare cases, paywalls are a product purchased by a relatively tiny base of customers and therefore isn’t pushing content producers (as a whole) towards higher quality work.
Content-specific paywalls: Publishers know that people won’t pay a few dollars for an individual article unless it’s tremendously useful or entertaining. That ensures high quality content. The problem from a business perspective is that people are reluctant to buy content based on a few sentence preview. Frankly, people will feel silly for spending $1.99 on something that proves to be of little value to them. Unless a customer gets a recommendation from someone else who already bought and read the article, they don’t have a lot of confidence making that investment. Then again, they’re friend probably already sent them the article for free anyways.
Content-specific rewards: Content creators deserve to make money from their work, but audiences today feel forced to pay, not necessarily motivated. Publishers need to reward their readers with exclusive content, tangible items, and better content. But they should do so after fans volunteer to offer them cash in exchange the amazing content they just consumed. Micropayments have struggled to gain traction before, but that’s because the current systems don’t work hard enough to benefit all parties involved. Reducing the increments of payments and increasing the frequency is where the industry needs to move because the opposite (more traditional paywalls) have clearly failed to lure mass adoption. Not only will smaller individual payments help increase the overall level of giving, it will absolutely improve the quality of all online content since only the most captivating articles, videos, etc will receive compensation. I’m personally working on a system that takes this model and fuses it with charity to strengthen the ecosystem even further. But you can learn more about that soon enough.
There are two benefits to a content-specific reward system.
1) Our digital consumption experience will become freer of massive distractions (ads) that interrupt our learning and analysis.
2) Content gets better because we’re rewarding specific work, not an entire publication. This means the best authors, topics, and processes earn the most income from readers.
Free is on its way out.
Face it. Free isn’t what it used to be. As traditional media forms cease to exist and all our content moves into the digital world, the noise that comes with current monetization systems (advertising or otherwise) are overcoming us. People are increasingly opting out of “free” to pay for what the media they want sans interruption. I hope that publishers and especially fellow bloggers continue to look at ways to motivate their fans to compensate them for great work.
By the way…this blog post isn’t free. So watch this video. Then go here.