Tear down this Paywall

I would pay to stream a film or listen to music online, I would also pay to download a book but yet I don’t want to pay for news, celebrity gossip, restaurant reviews or fashion tips. There are endless websites where I can get content on these subjects for free so why pay?

A number of online publications are considering putting up paywalls on their websites; these paywalls will block access to a webpage with a window requiring payment.

When does written content online become a product?

With Rupert Murdoch leading the way with paying for content online the question on everyone’s lips is ‘does it work as a viable business model?’ Manchester Confidential bravely took on the challenge before performing a complete U-turn in less than 3 months. Mark Garner of Manchester Confidential recently alluded to Murdoch’s proposals, declaring at a digital content event in Manchester “your free trial is over”.  Within a week of this bold statement How-Do announced the collapse of his paywall for Manchester confidential, with Garner finally admitting “We lost money throughout the entire year,”

I understand that a paywall will work for industry specific content like the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times. They produce very detailed financial news and information for which a small group of people are willing to pay.

Where Murdoch’s plans may fail is when he will introduce charges for websites such as The Sun and the News of the World. Paying for online content is not what most people want or accept. There are too many alternative places to get that same news on the web for free, why would people pay for it?

It’s unwise to assume the paywall model will work on all content. It won’t. People use different sites for different things.

So what makes paid content online successful? Subscription models are working all over the internet for example E-consultancy, where you have to pay for reports, independent advice and insight on digital marketing and ecommerce. It works because the information provided is useful and very specific to the industry.

Reader loyalty is key too, if your readers visit you as a passing fancy every now and then it is doubtful they will pay for the content. If someone visits everyday and can’t live without the information the publication is providing then you have a case for a paywall. It is about differentiating between your readers and looking at what is going to work best for your site.

My housemate works, lives and breathes fashion. Her library of Vogue magazines are her bibles and a monument to her passion for the industry. She visits the Vogue website daily but also subscribes to the magazine, should such a loyal reader have to pay for her online content too?

I have a few questions to ask those putting up paywalls: if a reader doesn’t think the article was worth the cost will they get their money back?  What happens to consumer rights? If people are enticed to purchase an article by a catchy clever title but the content and bulk of the article was fluff, how is that fair. Can you be refunded if you have already consumed the product?

If a customer subscribes to a website paying a monthly fee does this mean they won’t have to put up with targeted advertisements? I don’t think so. The people putting up paywalls will still be gaining from advertising and affiliate revenue every chance they get. The paywall isn’t about paying for better content – in my opinion it serves no other benefit than to line the pockets of businessmen who declare, without evidence, that their content is worth paying for.

Adapting the entire print industry to the new digital platform is not going to be easy and there will be a place for both free and paid for content online. I understand the money has to come from somewhere to pay for journalists, photographers, copywriters and editors. But the one thing that needs to be factored in is the costs of producing content for the internet is no where near as high as the materials, printing costs and logistics needed to produce print based publications.

The content or services companies are providing online have to be different from any other free websites. Consumers that can get the same information anywhere else for free will do. Quality of the writing is irrelevant to most people if the information is the same.

To all those fat cats considering putting up a paywall on their websites consider one thing if you put up a paywall you need to have something that is worth paying for.

Michelle OBrien - Digital strategist
  • Keyce

    I was at that digital content evening, there will be blood yeah? Garner announced the failure of the paywall then, in pretty specific terms, he didn't suggest it was working and that the internet was to be paid for and then 7 days later How-Do outed him as screwing up – (I'm pretty sure that the How-Do article was as a result of his words that night, not some surprise story people didn't know about). Very miss-leading paragraph that. Hardly surprising given your pointed questions on the night mind ;) ;)

  • Phil Tolliday

    Some interesting points but it is worth considering that CPM rates on display ads have taken a massive nosedive over the last couple of years. This is owing to multiple factors, not least the recession and a massive oversupply of display inventory on the market.

    This change in market conditions has forced web publishers to look at their revenue models and make significant adjustments in order, not to “line fat cats' pockets”, but rather to cover costs and maintain editorial quality in a flooded market.

    I agree that quality content is key to forcing consumers to part with their hard earned cash. I also feel that paywalls almost nullify the free information supplying purpose of the web. However, quality content and journalism need funding in all (not just specialist) sectors and advertising based models are currently imploding. As such, I think all publishers need to find some balance between free and paid content to survive.

  • Stephen

    “if a reader doesn’t think the article was worth the cost will they get their money back? What happens to consumer rights? If people are enticed to purchase an article by a catchy clever title but the content and bulk of the article was fluff, how is that fair. Can you be refunded if you have already consumed the product?”

    How is that different to any product or service on or offline? Don't understand the point. E-consultancy reports are expensive but how do you know that what you're getting will be useful and accurate when you only have a brief synopsis to go on? The answer to that will be the reputation of E-consultancy. News International are clearly trying to trade of that reputation.

    I too was at the event you described and Mark Garner also said that he'd seen what News International was planning for its subscribers and it was pretty amazing stuff. I think this piece is a rush to judgement from the standpoint that 'all content should be free' without any real knowledge of what the subscriber offering will be. Somehow I don't think even the outspoken Mr Garner would compare Manchester Confidential with The Times.

    As someone who had been in the content publishing game a long time myself, a BBC journalist once attempted to lecture me that content they provided was somehow to the benefit of the world because they would be the only ones to provide it (I think it was Scottish Division 3 football results of all things). The argument was so fundamentally flawed as to be ludicrous. We pay the BBC through our licence fees, they pay 3rd party providers such as PA to deliver them a feed. Remove the competitive advantage the BBC has of flooding the market with free info across all areas and watch the free content disappear overnight. What will be left will be commercially viable content, much of which will require paying for when the ad supported market shrinks even further.

    As my posterous page said on the night, it's all about Micropayments. When we have the ability to pay 1p or 10p or whatever per article, free offerings for quality content will be something consigned to history.

  • Harry

    I would suggest that although printed publications are more expensive to produce than an article for use on a website, printed publications benefit from much higher revenue for each advert they print. They are also able to then use the article online and gain additional income from it.

    Where Manchester Confidential appear to have failed is in understanding their audience. You shouldn't just try out a paywall, you should undertake huge amounts of research into your readerbase and find if they will pay for content long before you require payment to enter. It looks like MC just jumped in head first hoping to see huge numbers of subscribers. You are correct in the content needing to be unique, Niche or of a high value which I don't see Manchester Confidential as (generally) having.

    News should, and likely will, always be available for free online in some form. As amateur reporting grows and the ways in which to submit, find and view their homemade news become easier and better at filtering the good, bad and ugly more people will begin to trust and rely on the sites who promote it. Examples such as tweets and video from Iran and China recently don't need going into, but form a firm foundation for the open-news future.