Paying for it

Oliver Reichenstein’s take on ‘business class’ for news is really interesting. The working analogy is airline ticketing, distinguishing between coach and business class:

online news still doesn’t make enough money it seems. Some newspapers try to tackle the financial problem by erecting pay walls. “You want information? You pay!” But, as many have noted before, that’s a tough sell in a medium where information exists in overflow. The strategic problems with pay walls have been discussed back and forth:

  1. There is no information shortage online—if I can’t read this article, I’ll read another.
  2. Pay walls weaken the main attractor (content) of your site and complicates the user experience (login on different platforms). Some leave social media back doors for pro users, but that’s not a good long term strategy either, as more and more people are using social media to find content.
  3. Often pay walled news sites feature the same amount of marketing noise as free sites. Paying customers of course are more attractive clientele, but… Paying for news and then dealing with a silly blinking bonanza while reading doesn’t seem like a fair deal.

To be clear: content pay walls are not what we are suggesting. Remember, whether you fly Economy or Business: the result is the same (you travel from a to b), and only the experience differs. And likewise Business Class and Economy class seats on news sites should deliver the same content.

The idea of creating a business class for online news where is not about buying information, but buying better experience, it’s about service and customer experience. That’s right: Customer (paying), not user (free).

I like the idea, though it relies on the fact that the modal experience of flying really sucks. It reminds me of Erin Kissane’s awesome little book The Elements of Content Strategy, which Kieran turned me on to. Her description of content as being wrapped in layers after layer of annoying, sidetracking, distancing marketing is spot-on. And that we press on despite this is as surprising as, well, the fact that we continue to fly coach. Stripping this down, it’s something of a sad state when any client/consumer/customer experience devolves to a version of ‘crap’, for which a premium, better experience could be differentiated.

Nevertheless, this seems to be a new-ish model in the news/media/data space. The first is to institute some sort of paywall (WSJ, NYT, Financial Times, most proprietary library databases, New Yorker). The idea is to force users to pay for content. But as many people have commented, we live in an era of information glut rather than scarcity. And the web is social – walled gardens are necessarily going to be excluded from wider environments. Although I haven’t been active in a while on this blog, the fact is that I read the NYT less and link to it almost never in the post-paywall world.

The second model consists of organizations, and news organizations in particular, that have gone for ‘premium content.’ I mean, Glenn Beck gives his subscribers ‘behind the scenes’ content, and Bloomberg Professional has both (free) news and data feeds that have become a de facto part of the finance community. So you give subscribers additional content that they can choose to pay for. Kickstarter, it seems to me, employs a form of this. If the Ai Weiwei documentary gets funded, we can all see it. But donating more to the project gets you bonuses in the form of special access, special recognition, etc. Maybe I’m eliding multiple models contained in this one approach, but the idea is that there is addition rather than subtraction based on paying vs. not-paying.

The first-class vs. coach idea is slightly different. It assumes that content is universally ‘free’, but that users might pay a premium for a better user experience. Looking at the two NYT pages side-by-side, it certainly makes a cogent case for the user experience being more central to content than we normally credit. What’s interesting about content is that the wrapper matters more than in many other kinds of goods/services. This is not ‘just’ better packaging, like putting an Arby’s sandwich on china, but with content, the medium and message are tied so much more closely together.

Of course, there are already tools to extract the content wheat from the advertising chaff, as it were. Readability, Instapaper, and of course ad-blockers like Adblock all do the job of making your content easier to read. Some reformat the content for you, while others pull out the advertising from the websites you are browsing, leaving you just that sweet, sweet content. So ultimately, I’m still not sure that users would be willing to pay for something that they can already get for free. But I certainly like the attempt to innovate here.

Comments are disabled for this post