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Media

To free or not to free

Cash for content?

Two interesting articles featured in the Guardian today – around the issue of paying for content on the web.

Frederic Filloux examined the metered access for content business model, Charlie Brooker looked at the difficulty of transitioning users onto such a model after the internet has created a generation of users only used to free.

I don’t want to go over the whole paywall thing. It’s been done to death. I do think it’s too easy to take a black and white position over whether people will or should pay for content.

But I do think paid for content does have a role to play as long as the value in exchange calculation adds up for the user. If the user feels the benefit of the content is worth the money being charged, they’ll part with cash for it. If they don’t, they won’t.

I want to offer a brief example.

I worked for a digital broadcaster. We provided all our content for free, the services we offered were largely paid for by advertising and a few basic commercial offerings off the back of our editorial.

The belief was it would be impossible to charge for our content.

Still, the advertising only model wasn’t going to support the editorial team so eventually a small team of us decided to try a small experiment. We managed to launch a proto-freemium service – a digital TV Sudoku puzzle.

The free part allowed TV viewers to play a Sudoku puzzle using their TV remote control. If they managed to complete the puzzle they received nothing more than a ‘digital’ pat on the back. A little well done message.

The paid element was a prize Sudoku. Viewers used a text shortcode to receive a daily pin code. Entering the code would provide access to a second puzzle. On its completion  a short code word appeared on-screen, by texting the code word to a second shortcode they stood a chance of winning – drumroll please –  a £10 book voucher. I should add this was a weekly prize.

This was only ever designed to be a proof of concept. We wanted to see if a payment gateway would work on a free-to-air service. If it did the plan was to offer additional paid-for content in specialist areas – mainly around sports betting and gaming.

Once developer and editorial costs were factored in, the project needed to generate a couple of hundred pounds a week to ‘wash it’s face’.

It washed it’s face. In fact it had a fairly luxurious bubble bath. All this for a chance to win a tenner. Once a week.

I took two things from this.

Getting the correct pay mechanism was crucial

Having a “don’t-think-twice pay mechanism” helped. People were prepared to pay-to-play because we made the payment gateway easy, and in the purchase calculation it was felt to be worthwhile.

Getting the content right

People liked the content, they enjoyed doing the puzzle. We quickly had a group of core users willing to pay for the service. It was also rare. It wasn’t cutting edge or really state-of-the-art, but it was content they couldn’t get anywhere else in the same format.

An ex-colleague of mine tells a great story about how News International decided to charge for access to the Sun’s website. They swiftly found that the lure of page 3 luvvlies was not enough for people to part with their hard-earned.

This brings me back to the two articles by Filloux and Brooker.

Brooker says people are reluctant to fork out for paid content as they’re used to getting it for free, we’ve devalued it. Filloux says payment works, its the mechanism that needs attention. He says the metered-model deserves another look, after all it appears to be working for the likes of the FT.

The metered-acess mode has merits, but it is never going to be answer to everything.

What works for the FT works, because the subscribers value the content for which they are being charged. Spotify’s difficulties of converting free users to their subscription model is they haven’t successfully made the value in exchange argument to their users.

As with everything content is key.

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