How Can I Make You Pay for This Post?

In an article earlier this week explaining why she won’t be self-publishing anytime soon, Edan Lepucki paused to enumerate the hurdles facing traditional publishers. The last in her list was “how to make people actually pay for content.” The phrase suggested to me one more challenge she might have added: “How to stop thinking of your customers as peons and thieves.”

It’s troublesome enough that media should be so concerned with how to make people pay. But the phrase implies something worse: that if people aren’t paying for content, they must be stealing it.

I have no issue with paying for content, nor do I think content should always be free. But I’d rather think of the challenge this way: how to create content so good, and a distribution mechanism so simple, that people want to pay for it.

The content market is no longer about control, but collaboration, about equal exchange. The longer traditional media thinks in terms of how they can make their customers do things, the closer they are to extinction.

Arianna Owes Me (and Maybe You) Big Bucks

Time to pay up

I’ve never written for the Huffington Post, but I’ve given them something worth much more than words: my attention. So I think it’s only fair that Arianna hand over a reasonable chunk of the $315 million that AOL paid for her site.

Sure, Jonathan Tasini and all those other cry babies who are suing her wrote a lot of great content for HuffPo. But what’s content worth in dollars and cents without readers? Not much.  (Exhibit number one: the awesome blog you’re reading right now.)

Everybody knows it’s audience that bestows value. It’s an attention economy, not a content economy. As Jeff Jarvis puts it, ‘’Content is becoming a cost burden, what you have to have to get the links, but in and of itself, content can’t draw value without an audience, without links.”

And as Clay Shirky says, our precious attention is in high demand.  I figure mine is worth at least $50 an hour, but has Arianna paid me a single penny? Not on your life.  And that’s not counting my finder’s fee for all those HuffPo links I’ve shared.

When you add up all of us who’ve read HuffPo at some point, you have to figure it amounts to a lot more than $315 million. But we’ll settle for $105 million.

We’ve been modern-day attention slaves on Arianna’s content plantation long enough. So go screw yourselves, Tasini et al. This is our money.

Social Media and the Perils of Monetization

Are profits and social media compatible? Does making money from a friendship make it less social? The path to monetization is full of perils, and inevitably changes your relationship with your audience. For B2B professionals, mixing social media and business requires a delicate balance of giving and selling, sharing and monetizing. Too much giving and you’re out of business; too much selling and you’re out of friends.

I was reminded of how tricky this balance can be last Friday when I logged onto my RSS reader. There I learned about a new experiment with monetization being tried by one of my favorite bloggers, Mark Schaefer. As I’ll explain in a moment, the way I learned about it was vaguely, if misleadingly, disappointing.

As he says in his post, Schaefer’s monetization experiment involves a couple of small but notable changes. Fed up with many shady web sites stealing his copy and, presumably, making money on it, he wants to make his own direct money from the site. For that reason, he’s now including “a modest amount” of advertising in his sidebar. In addition, he’s vowed to share any revenue from the site with four frequent guest bloggers.

To my mind, neither of these changes has any effect on the social aspects of his blog. There is one unmentioned change, though, which does: As I discovered last Friday, his RSS feeds are now short summaries instead of the full text of each post.

For those many people to whom RSS is still a mystery, the change is meaningless (if you’re one of these people and are curious, you can read about it on Wikipedia).

But for anyone who reads many blogs each day, as I do, a good RSS reader is essential, and a full-text feed of each post is vastly more efficient than a summary. With the full text in my reader, I can immediately read the entire story. I’ll often click through to the full blog if I want to make or see comments or view the original layout and graphics. But clicking through is optional.

When I have only a sentence or two from a post in my reader, however, I have to decide whether to click through to read the full story on the blog. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t—but it takes a few seconds to make the choice. For one blog, it’s a minor inconvenience; for many, it would be a disaster.

The logic behind using summary feeds is clear, if debatable. It requires readers to visit your site (and see the ads) and makes it harder for disreputable site owners to scrape your site’s content onto theirs. But for dedicated readers like me, it feels, well, ungenerous.

My first thought was that Schaefer’s switch to summary feeds was part of his monetization plan. But when I asked him about it over Twitter, he expressed surprise at the change and emphasized that it was not intentional. I’m glad to know that (although several days later, the feed is still partial-text only).

You only have to read the extensive comments on his post and his replies to see how complex monetization of social media can be, and how sensitive Schaefer is to its perils. His concern is not new. In a blog post almost exactly a year ago, “The End of the Trust Agent,” Schaefer noted how Chris Brogan had shifted his social-media approach from giving content away to taking making money from it:

Around the time of his book release last year, Chris flipped this philosophy upside down and took steps to aggressively monetize his audience.  He explained this change by saying that he had been giving stuff away for a long time and that it was time to make money.

Although Brogan thought otherwise, Schaefer’s post struck me as a thoughtful analysis rather than an attack. (A year later, though, he seems to have given up on Brogan.)

As Schaefer noted last year, the more the emphasis is on business, the harder it is to maintain the social nature of social media. Each of us has to come up with the right balance and hope that it works for both us and our followers. As Schaefer himself says, he’s experimenting with that balance now. I hope his results—or my pleas—will persuade him to err on the side of sociability and resume full RSS feeds.

UPDATE: Happily, the full-text feeds have been restored. Thank you Mr. Schaefer!

Making Paying for Content More Personal

Laporte: His audience will pay

Laporte: His audience will determine his salary.

In all the discussions I’ve seen of the virtues and evils of paywalls, I have yet to see any mention of the relation of paid content to social media. This is perhaps because paying for content comes off, even to its proponents, as a kind of uncool, regrettably antisocial gesture (“we don’t want to charge you, but we have to in order to survive”).

It’s not so much that money has no social role—it obviously does. But the models commonly discussed, whether subscription or micropayment, don’t quite have the give-and-take, equal-participant ethos inherent in the concept of markets as conversations. The very word paywall implies just how antisocial the concept is: “you can’t come in here unless you pay, buddy.”

It’s no surprise that most of the noise about the need for paywalls is coming from old-media behemoths like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.  or Mathias Dopfner’s Axel Springer. They want to set the terms of the payments, naturally, and I don’t imagine those terms will be very favorable to the content purchaser. In this model, payment doesn’t necessarily reflect what I as consumer think the content is worth, but what the provider thinks he can get for it. Can I get a refund if the article I buy is disappointing, or a discount if the site I subscribe to goes through a spell of lame or irrelevant content? Not likely (after all, paid circ sucks).

A very different model for payment has recently been proposed by new-media pioneer Leo Laporte. Laporte is the founder of the TWiT network (not related to Twitter, as he would be the first to exclaim here), a burgeoning new-media business producing podcasts and online video.

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A B2B Perspective on Paywalls

Because asking readers to pay for content has not been the norm in the B2B world, the recent debate over paywalls for newspapers hasn’t inspired much B2B-specific comment. Today, though, a post by UK trade journalist Adam Tinworth takes an interesting look at the topic from a B2B perspective.

The occasion for Tinworth’s commentary was a column in the Guardian by journalism professor Tim Luckhurst called “Why Journalism Needs Paywalls.” With an argument like “it’s time to admit that giving away value undermines democracy,” Luckhurst makes an easy target. So what’s most interesting to me about Tinworth’s demolition job is not the case he makes against paywalls, but the limited one he indirectly makes in favor of them.

Tinworth works for Reed Business Information, which has historically built a business on both controlled-circulation trade books and subscription-based information services. His positioning of paywalls in the B2B context reflects this background:

“I’m not suggesting that paywalls don’t have a place in publishing businesses. After all, I work for a publisher that makes more than half its revenue online—and some of that is generated by paywalls. But the path to that point has taught us many things about making money online, and one of those is that just shoving traditional content online is not the way to go—especially if you’re going to stick a paywall around it. Indeed, I find it amusing that I spend half my week helping build free-to-air content around a very successful paywalled site, just as others are getting rid of free content.”

What’s important about this perspective for B2B publishers is that paywalls are not rejected, but simply properly placed along the continuum from commodity content to high-value information. As I’ve argued before on this blog, paywalls can be an important component of a trade publisher’s revenue strategy.

Given the predominantly all-or-nothing tone of the paywall debate, it’s refreshing to see a balanced view like Tinworth’s—and gratifying that it comes from a B2B journalist.