Opinionista Eve Dmochowska 17 September 2010

Paying for content

The business model of free online content supported by advertising is struggling, and publishers are scrambling to find alternative revenue models. Not to worry; one is destined to fall into their lap.

So far the web has somewhat lived up to its promise of giving everybody a voice and, as can be expected, most of the voices just like the sound that they make. I have noticed that even the blogs/news sites that used to offer insight and inspiration with their musings are simply falling (being forced to fall?) into the trap of seeking Google love and raking up the page views.

As free online content grows in quantity, the quality is falling rapidly. But one thing has stayed constant: readers have as limited a time to read as ever before. They are looking for a filter that will separate what is useful and important from what is drivel and baseless. I, for one, am eager to hand over money to a news source, in return for an understanding that that money will be used to provide excellent content, and that the primary focus of the site will be to maintain a standard that keeps me, and not advertisers, coming back for more.

As it happens, we as users are partly responsible for the drivel that is the web: we have become so accustomed to not paying for content, that we have lost sight of the fact that quality never comes free. Or cheap. And if we refuse to foot the bill, then the publishers have no choice but to turn to advertisers. And let me tell you, advertisers know nothing about what we as web consumers want. They know what they want: numbers, engagement, clicks. And they will do pretty much anything to get that. And the publishers usually have no choice, but to play along.

If you haven’t thought about it before, I suggest you do so now: Ask yourself how exactly the advertisers are affecting the web that you consume. Those stories that carry over multiple pages? Advertisers’ fault for insisting on page views. Those annoying insurance banners that pop up when you least expect them? Advertisers’ fault for refusing to pay for anything other than an actual conversion-to-customer. Display ads that mislead you in their message? Advertisers’ fault for looking for clicks through. Your favourite sites shutting down because no advertiser will sponsor them (think hayibo.com). Advertisers’ fault for being narrow minded and unwilling to begin to understand the value of a loyal site user.

Instead of the advertisers responding to the changing needs of the web users, advertisers are responding to the advancing technology of the web. Animated display ads, voice overs, pop ups, splash pages and more. Combine that with the growing inventory of publishers who have no choice, but to play hostage to the advertisers’ demands, and we as consumers are getting pretty royally screwed.

Which is a really, really stupid move on both the publishers and the advertisers part. Piss off your readers enough, and they will go elsewhere. It’s not as if there is nowhere else to go.

But if we, as readers and web users, are going to start investing time to look for online places that make us feel more welcome and cherished, we will insist on some sort of security that we aren’t going to get screwed again.

And the best way to do that, is to enter a contract which ensures a value-for-value proposition: and cash is a language we all understand. We, as readers, will pay you, if you, as publishers, treat us right. And by right, we mean excellent content, unobtrusive advertising and mutual respect. And hey, did we mention we will bring cash in exchange?

The most important change in this ideology is that the consumer will move away from the misleading concept that he is entitled to value from the web, for free. And that change will create a stronger, more valuable, smarter web for everybody. It’s also not without precedence. After all, plenty of people are making money online already. Not many in the content game, but that has to change.

There are various business models that will facilitate this change. The one I like best so far is a monthly fee for access to multiple sites (think of one cable TV subscription for access to many channels). Choose a package that you like, need and can afford, and then pay for it. Access worthwhile sites, and benefit from the revenue that the publisher is collecting. Force the advertisers to be less prescriptive, and more responsive. Vote with your wallet.

It might be a while away yet. Early experiments that insist on readers paying for content are failing miserably, like The Times in the UK. Well, all except for the experiments that are succeeding, like The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and magazines for the iPad. Notice a trend? Value is worth paying for. Drivel, or content that is easily substituted by reading something else, is not. The continuous information overload, and the lack of a reliable filter to deal with it, will drive us to insist that more sites create the value. And if that means we have to pay for it, well, okay then.

But here is a word of warning: We don’t have much time. Advertisers are squeezing the publishers, and as that is the main source of revenue, many (all?) publishers are suffering. Expect more tightening of editorial staff, and even site closures. Ask yourself, while you read online, whether the content you have just read would be worth paying for? If not, don’t bother returning. If yes, stick around. Let the editor know. See if there is a way to support the site financially – maybe through buying branded merchandise? (Incidentally, I used to advocate that we click on ads on sites that provide value, because that would bring in more money to the publisher. Now I realise that just feeds the monster.)

And in the meantime, while the web catches up with the inevitable, start getting comfortable with the idea that you won’t be freeloading forever. And be one of the first to understand why that is actually a good thing. DM

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