The Rise Of Paywalls

Mar 7th
posted in

“Information wants to be free” was a phrase coined by Stewart Brand, a counter-culture figure and publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog.

This was the context of the quote:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other

Brand talks about distribution cost, but not the production cost. Whatever our views on information freedom, I think everyone can agree that those who create information need to pay their bills. If creating information is how someone makes their living, then information must make an adequate return.

Information production is not free.

The distribution cost has been driven down to near zero on the internet, but it is the distributors, not content creators, who make most of the money. “Information wants to be free”, far from being an anti-corporate battle-cry, suits the business model of fat mega-corporations, like Google, who make money bundling “free” content and running advertising next to it. In this environment, the content creator can often struggle to make a satisfactory return.

So, content creators have been experimenting with models that reject the notion information must be free. One of these models involves the paywall, which we’ll examine today.

Content Disappearing Behind The Wall

More than 300 US dailies now have paywalls, and that number is growing. Big players, like the New York Times and the Financial Times, have reported increasing paid subscription numbers for their online content:

The FT reported that it has breached the 250,000 subscriber mark, having grown digital subscriptions 30% during the last year. The FT charges about $390 for an annual subscription to its website, which would indicate total digital subscription revenues of nearly $100 million if everyone was paying the full annual price. However, the actual total is almost certainly lower than that, since print subscribers pay discounted fee and not all subscriptions are annual. However, the performance is still impressive. The FT said 100,000 of those subscriptions are from corporations

Their paywall experiment appears to be paying off. However, critics are quick to point out that those newspapers enjoy an established reputation, and that lesser-known media outlets might have trouble emulating such success.

Certainly, this seems to be the case for the Rupert Murdoch owned “The Daily” which went belly-up due to poor subscription numbers:

The Daily, a boldly innovative publication – in the platform sense – is over. It’s never pleasant to see a newspaper of any form go under. However, there are lessons to be made from its birth, growth, and eventual demise that have wide implications for the content industry that are worth discussing.Here’s the raw truth: The Daily lost too much money and didn’t have a clear path to profitability, or something close to it. News Corp stated this succinctly, saying that the paper’s key problem was that it “could not find a large enough audience quickly enough to convince us the business model was sustainable in the long-term.

Even with the clout of News Corporation behind it, the Daily folded in less than two years. It was reportedly losing an estimated $30 million annually.

But was size was part of its problem? Did that paywall model fail due to high overhead and the relative inflexibility of a traditional media operation? Perhaps success involves leveraging off an existing reputation, innovation and running a tight ship?

Some smaller media start-ups have opted for the paywall approach. Well-known blogger Andrew Sullivan left the Daily Dish and went solo, offering readers a subscription based website.

Was this a big risk? Could Sullivan really make subscription content pay when the well-resourced Daily failed?

Sullivan did 333K in 24 hours.

Basically, we’ve gotten a third of a million dollars in 24 hours, with close to 12,000 paid subscribers [at last count],” Sullivan wrote today. “On average, readers paid almost $8 more than we asked for. To say we’re thrilled would obscure the depth of our gratitude and relief.

Sullivan doesn’t have the overhead of The Daily, so his break-even point is significantly lower. It looks like Sullivan may have hit on a model that works for him.

Another small media outfit, called The Magazine run by Marco Arment, started as an “IOS newstand publication for geeks”. Arment was known to his audience as he was the lead developer on Tumblr and and developer of Instapaper.

The Magazine publishes four articles every two weeks for $1.99 per month with a 7-day free trial. It started off as an app for the iPad but has since migrated to the web, but behind a paywall.

There’s room for another category between individuals and major publishers, and that’s where The Magazine sits. It’s a multi-author, truly modern digital magazine that can appeal to an audience bigger than a niche but smaller than the readership of The New York Times. This is what a modern magazine can be, not a 300 MB stack of static page images laid out manually by 100 people. The Magazine supports writers in the most basic, conventional way that, in the modern web context, actually seems least conventional and riskiest: by paying them to write. Since I’m keeping production costs low, I’m able to pay writers reasonably today, and very competitively with high-end print magazines in the future if The Magazine gets enough subscribers. A risk, but I’m confident. Here goes”

So how’s this niche publication doing?

Arment walked me through the numbers. He has 25,000 subscribers who pay $1.99 a month. Apple takes a 30 percent cut, leaving Arment about $35,000 a month.his cost of putting out the magazine is a bit over $20,000 per month. It comes out every two weeks, and each issue costs about $10,000. Roughly $4,000 goes to writers. The rest goes mostly to copy editors, illustrators, photographers and editors

Then there is Paul Carr, ex-Tech Crunch journalist who started NSFW Corporation, a web publication that has, up until recently, sat entirely behind a paywall. It’s a general interest and humor site that, by Pauls’ own admission, doesn’t need a ton of readers, just enough readers prepared to pay $3 a month for access so they can make money. He figures if he gets 30K paying subscribers, then that’s enough to break even.

Interestingly, he's announced that they are diversifying into print. He claims NSFW will be profitable by the end of the year:

They’ll curse at SEO-driven headlines and at a public unwilling to pay even a few dollars for journalism that costs many thousand times that to produce. .......Rather than mourning the loss of long-form investigative pieces, we’re combining an online subscription model with ebooks and even print to make that kind of journalism profitable again. Instead of resorting to cheap tricks to jack up page views to sell another million belly fat ads, we’re inventing sponsorship products that provide more value to sponsors as editorial quality (not quantity) increases.....

It’s probably too early to draw many firm conclusions on the paywall experiment, although it’s clear that some operators are making it work.

News is a difficult form of content to monetarize on the web. It’s ephemeral, time-sensitive and ultimately disposable. However, if you’re providing educational and consultancy content, then it should be easier. If you do publish this type of content, how much of this should you be giving away? And if you do, what return are you getting back? Do you have a way to measure it?

The answers will be different for everyone, but they are interesting questions to consider. Many publishers are making paywalls work. And these people are making money from web content without exclusively pandering to flaky search engines in the hope some traffic may come their way.

The free content in exchange for free traffic “deal” is simply no longer worthwhile for many publishers.

Paywalls Are Hard

Paywalls are difficult to get right.

When “The Magazine” launched, it placed too much content behind the paywall, in the form of an app, meaning people couldn’t link to it. This meant the conversation was happening elsewhere.

I hastily built a basic site while I was waiting for the app to be approved. I only needed it to do two things: send people to the App Store, and show something at the sharing URLs for each article. Since The Magazine had no ads, and people could only subscribe in the app, I figured there was no reason to show full article text on the site — it could only lose money and dilute the value of subscribing. That was the biggest mistake I’ve made with The Magazine to date

The Magazine is now offering one free article view per month. The casual reader will still be able to assess the value and conversation and interaction can still happen, whilst most of the valuable content sits behind a paywall, helping ensure content creators paid.

Taking a different approach, The Times of London erected a “Berlin Wall”, locking content inside a fortress. How did that work out?

Not so well.

While the Times once had 10m monthly unique visitors, figures in September show that it has only managed to attract 100,000 digital-only subscribers, although print subscribers are able to access the site as well. As a result, Murdoch was recently forced to capitulate and allow Google and other search engines partial access to his content

When it comes to paywalls, mixed models appear to work best. Some content needs to appear where everyone can see it. Some content needs to appear in search engines and social media. The question is how much, and via what channel?

Some sites use a free-on-the-web model, whilst charging for mobile access. Other’s use a freemium model where some content is free in order to entice people to pay for premium content. One of the more successful models, of late, has been a metered approach.

The New York Times allows you to view five free pages if you come via a search engine because they get some referral revenue from the search sites. If you come to the site via Facebook, Twitter, blogs or other social media it does not count towards your monthly allowance

People don’t like to be forced into paying for content, but don't seem to mind paying once the value has been demonstrated. One of the most successful apps in the Apple store, Angry Birds, enticed people to pay by giving the basic game away. Once they could see the value, people were more willing to pay.

Fred Wilson labels this “ex post facto monetization” — “you get paid after the fact, not before.” Under this strategy, you let people receive the value of your product first, then pay later — because they want to. Those who do sign up willingly are likely to be long-term, loyal customers. Those who never sign up probably haven’t discovered enough personal value and would have unsubscribed after a month even if they had initially been forced to subscribe

Paywalls can also be difficult to get right on a technical level. Some paywalls are porous in that the content can be seen so long as you know enough to jump through a few digital hoops:

When we launched our digital subscription plan we knew there were loopholes to access our content beyond the allotted number of articles each month. We have made some adjustments and will continue to make adjustments to optimize the gateway by implementing technical security solutions to prohibit abuse and protect the value of our content

However, even if some content does leak - and let’s face it, anything on the net can leak as a cut n’ paste is only a few keystrokes away - at least an expectation of payment is being established. The message is that this content has a value attached to it.

Another way of approaching it could be to make content available in formats that are more difficult to crawl and replicate, such as streaming video, or Kindle books. Here’s a guide on how to self-publish on the Kindle.

Think about different ways to make it difficult for scrapers to extract all your value easily.

Paywalls Are Strategic

Paywalls are not just a sign-up form and a payment gateway. Paywalls are also a publishing strategy.

How much are you prepared to give away for free? How does giving away this content pay off?

A consultant may publish far and wide for free. The pay-off is more consulting gigs. The consultancy “content” sits behind a paywall in that you have to pay for that service. Not many SEO consultants give their detailed analysis away for free. The content we see in the public domain on SEO is a tiny fraction of the information held by the professionals in our niche, and that information may want to be free, but the owners, wisely, hold onto most of it, else they wouldn't eat.

Be wary about giving away your labour in exchange for "awareness". Here's a story about how The Atlantic tried to get a journalist to work for nothing.

From the Atlantic:

Thanks for responding. Maybe by the end of the week? 1,200 words? We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month. I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.

Thanks so much again for your time. A great piece!

From me:

Thanks Olga:

I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children.....

Such arrangements suit the publisher, of course, but all the risk sits with the content creator. Sometimes, those deals can work if they lead to payment in some other form, but ensure you have a means to track the pay-off.

Another way of thinking about a paywall is a switch of channel. We’re seeing the rise and rise of mobile computing and, as it turns out, mobile consumers are much more willing to pay for content than people who browse the web:

The upshot: paid content, it seems, is alive and well, but some media categories are doing a lot better than others.Taking just the use of paid content on tablets in Q4 2011, Nielsen found that in the U.S., a majority of tablet owners have already paid for downloaded music, books and movies, with 62 percent, 58 percent and 51 percent respectively saying they have already made such purchases

Could your content be better off pitched to a mobile audience? Made into an app? Published and promoted as a Kindle book?

The Hamster Wheel

This is not to say leaving content out in the open can’t pay the bills. Perhaps you don't feel a paywall is right for you, but you're growing tired of running faster just to stay in the same place.

Brian Lam used to be the editor of Gizmodo, Gawker media’s gadget blog. Gizmodo was run on a model familiar to search marketers where you first find a keyword stream then capture that stream by writing keyword-driven articles.

He likens this approach to a hamster on a wheel as he relentlessly churned out copy in order to drive more and more traffic.

It led to burn-out.

He loved the ocean, but his frantic digital existence meant his surfboard was gathering cobwebs. “I came to hate the Web, hated chasing the next post or rewriting other people’s posts just for the traffic,” he told me. “People shouldn’t live like robots.

The problem with ad-supported media models, such as Adsense, is that they depend on scale. With advertising rates decreasing year by year as the market gets more and more fractured, content production increases just to keep pace.

Lam went in the opposite direction.

His new gadget site only posts 12 times a month, but goes deep. The majority of his income comes from Amazon’s affiliate program. He achieves a 10-20% click-thru rate.

Mr. Lam’s revenue is low, about $50,000 a month, but it’s doubling every quarter, enough to pay his freelancers, invest in the site and keep him in surfboards. And now he actually has time to ride them. In that sense, Mr. Lam is living out that initial dream of the Web: working from home, working with friends, making something that saves others time and money.....The clean, simple interface, without the clutter of news, is a tiny business; it has fewer than 350,000 unique visitors a month at a time when ad buyers are not much interested in anything less than 20 million.But The Wirecutter is not really in the ad business. The vast majority of its revenue comes from fees paid by affiliates, mostly Amazon, for referrals to their sites. As advertising rates continue to tumble, affiliate fees could end up underwriting more and more media businesses“

Is running on a search-driven hamster wheel, churning out more and more keyword content the most worthwhile use of your time? Lam is making more money by feeding the beast less in terms of quantity and going deep on quality.

Loss Leader For The Search Engines

But, hang on. This is an SEO site, isn’t it? Aren’t we all about getting content into the search engines and ranking well?

Of course.

SEO is still a great marketing channel, however this doesn’t mean to say everything we publish must appear in search engines. I hope this article prompts you to consider just how much you’re giving away compared to how much benefit you’re getting in return.

It all comes down to an ROI calculation. Does it cost me less to publish page X than I get in return? If you can publish pages cheaply enough, and if the traffic is worth enough, then great. If your publishing costs exceeds your return, then there are other models worth considering.

This article is mainly concerned with deep, researched, unique content that doesn’t have a trivial production cost attached to it. If the search engines don’t deliver enough value to make deep content creation worthwhile, then publishers must look beyond the “free” web model many have been using up until now in order to be sustainable.

Don’t let distributors suck out all your value so only they can grow fat. A paywall is more than a physical thing, it’s a strategy. If you publish a lot of valuable information that isn’t getting a reasonable return, then think about ways bundle that information into product form and ask yourself if you should keep it out of the search engines. Decide on your loss-leader content and create a sales funnel to ensure there is a payday at the end. The existence of content farms showed deep, free content often doesn’t pay. The way they made their content pay was to make it dirt cheap to produce and so useless that the advertising became the most relevant content on the page.

Content that relies heavily on search engine traffic is a high risk strategy. Some may recall a Mac site, called Cult Of Mac, that got hit by Panda. They were big enough, and connected enough, to have Google reinstate them, but the first comment in this thread tells it like it is:

It's great news that Google reinstated Cult of Mac although that will not happen to other smaller genuine blogs and websites..

True, that.

It’s not enough to “publish quality content”. A lot of quality content gets hammered and tossed out of the search engines each day. And even if it stays listed, it may not make a return. There are no guarantees. Instead, build a brand and an audience. And then sell that audience something they can’t get for free.

Content may want to be free, but free doesn’t pay. For many publishers, the search engines aren’t giving enough back so be wary about how much you hand over to them.

Published: March 7, 2013

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Comments

March 8, 2013 - 10:39pm

Could paywalls become big enough so that their proliferation significantly reduce the availability of valuable content for search engine databases?

Lots of people who already create (or are able and willing to start creating) real value might realize that building a loyal readership or community, and amassing 2-3 thousand subscriptions or paid accounts at a couple of bucks each is a worthwile project, as it can provide them with a much safer livelihood than search engines ever would.

Indirectly, it would also create an incentive for spamming. When you grow to the point where your real money-maker is not dependent on Google, ultimately it will not need to be in its index.

Then, to acquire additional visitors you might as well put your appetizer articles or excerpts on throwaway sites which allow you (or someone you hire) to experiment with every imaginable spam tactic practically risk-free.

March 8, 2013 - 10:57pm

When you grow to the point where your real money-maker is not dependent on Google, ultimately it will not need to be in its index.

This is not necessarily true. Every paid membership site has some level of churn. You still need some amount of exposure to offset the rate of churn and keep the site growing, or at least stable.

Then, to acquire additional visitors you might as well put your appetizer articles or excerpts on throwaway sites which allow you (or someone you hire) to experiment with every imaginable spam tactic practically risk-free.

I suspect that if this problem started to scale up & Google wasn't getting a sufficient cut, then Google would start to try to claim that publishers are responsible for the actions of their affiliates (unlike Google with YouTube, AdWords & AdSense, of course). :D

But it is hard to cross-sell something where people are willing to pull out their credit card if it is cross-domain. It is not impossible, but many of the top affiliates are people who already have a following & trust in the marketplace. Writing guest columns and so on will make a lot of sense. But I don't know if out n out spam will drive subscription-based sales.

Smoother systems of micropayments might offer some hope on this front, but they have thusfar been a decade of hope without much delivery. Though certainly app ecosystems could easily hook into websites & I am sure Microsoft + Apple + Google could drive 10s of billions in sales.

March 9, 2013 - 9:30am

> Every paid membership site has some level of churn

I believe so. However, churn is a relatively slow and calculable process causing a budgetable amount of loss. (During an algorithmic change you can lose a huge chunk of traffic without warning, from one day to the next. It's obvious which scenario is more preferable risk-wise.)

"Exposure to offset the rate of churn" does not necessarily come from the money-making site itself maintaining some kind of presence in the index. That's where the throwaway (or shall we rather say, content re-marketing) sites come into play.

> I don't know if out n out spam will drive subscription-based sales

I'm not talking about scrape sites, automated garbage content sites, or any other similar trash people have good reason to hate. I'm talking about the aspect of spamming that the search engine might be frowning upon, but most users would never even notice: offsite.

The supporting sites would also be (indirectly) managed by you; and they would repackage the original quality content into various interest-grabbing angles, in a condensed form. That would still make those sites readable and feeling real.

1. The content creator spends his/her time on producing a well-written piece (that's where real insight, authority, originality etc. matters) and publishes it on the main site, behind a paywall

2. A co-worker or student creates several shorter reworked versions, either condensing the whole, or focusing on one aspect of the article in detail. These versions are themed and titled in various ways (calling for some intelligence and creativity, but no outstanding knowledge of the field, or originality of thinking), then publishes them on different lead-generator / doorway sites

The "spamming" I'm talking about is basically the multi-pronged search engine promotion of these doorway pages. You can experiment without serious consequences: try one approach with Site A, another with Site B and so on; any color of hats from black to white. If some get burned, you (or your SEO) start a new one. None of this would cause irreparable harm, or even a ripple, for your main site.

> Google would start to try to claim that publishers are responsible for the actions of their affiliates

So what? It's not like Google is some official authority that can actually hurt or punish you. They can claim whatever they want if you're basically not dependent on them any more, and THAT is the whole point.

With your livelihood built on Google, they say jump, you ask how high, as someone mentioned in another comment. After you achieve "independence", the tables are turned: Google's search results are your playground to exploit with impunity (for additional profit, and not for your basic financial needs).

March 12, 2013 - 7:50am

thanks again for your comments :)

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