Wanted: a handshake across the paywall

For five years I was a loyal subscriber to the Boston Globe. When I was out of town, which was a lot, I’d read it online, because the print subscription covered that too.

This academic year I’m out of town more, so I canceled the subscription, because I didn’t want to pay $3.99 per week for a digital-only subscription. Not when I’m also in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and other places, with other papers that I also like to read — and to pay for, preferably on an à la carte basis, or something close to it, like I can when I buy a paper at a newsstand. There’s no way to do that. But I still go to the Globe often, to catch a story, such as this one, which hits a paywall:

I only get that on the browser I use most, and which I assume carries a cookie telling the Globe that I’ve visited too often without subscribing. It’s annoying, but I get around it by using other browsers and other machines.

I don’t do that to avoid paying. In fact I’d be glad to pay, because I believe information wants to be free but value wants to be paid for. That means I’m willing to pay something for all the media I use, including music for which I hold rights to play (one doesn’t really “own” music, but instead holds rights to it). But this is impossible as long as media vendors supply all the mechanisms of relationship. There’s no handshake with that system. Just the sound of one hand slapping.

The promo-covered paywall in the screen shot above tells me the Globe’s subscription system has no idea that I was a loyal subscriber for a long time, and am willing to pay more than the $0 that I’m paying when I go around their wall. It also tells me the Globe values data justifying its 99¢/week promo more than its relationship with me as a reader and a long-term subscriber. But I’m not insulted because I know I’m not dealing with human beings here; just a software routine.

Many questions come to mind when I look at a fail like this. Like, Why should a new subscriber get a better deal than a veteran one? Why not have, say, a frequent-reader program, modeled on airline frequent flyer programs?

The answer is that it’s a pain in the ass for a paper (or any business) to do something different than what it already does. In the Globe’s case the bureaucratic overhead is even higher than it looks, because the Globe is a subsidiary of the New York Times, which has the same 99¢ promo (that I wrote about almost a year ago). Even if the two papers don’t use the same content management and subscription software, the policies obviously work in tandem, meaning there is at least twice the inertia to overcome.

Additional inertia is locked up in the heavy burden of sole responsibility for a “relationship” that barely qualifies for the noun. If I had a real relationship with the Globe, I could respond to the above with a message that says “Hi, there. You know me. Remember? I do. Here’s the evidence. Now, can we come up with something that works for both of us here?”  CRM (Customer Relationship Management systems should help, but typically don’t. “Social” CRM is built to listen for signals from prospects or customers; but neither Twitter nor Facebook are mine, nor do they represent me as fourth parties — ones that work for me.  (Twitter and Facebook may serve me, in a way; but they are paid for that work by advertisers.)

There are some VRM-friendly signs on the horizon. For example, in this Guardian interview, Tien Tzuo, the founder and CEO of Zuora, explains what he calls “Paywall 2.0.” Here’s what he says about 3:50 into the video:

Don’t think about it as just a paywall. Don’t think about it as just a tollbooth for you to make money. Think about it as an ongoing dialog with your customers, and allow your paywall to stretch, and go to where your customers really want to go.

(Disclosure: last year I gave a speech at a Zuora event in London.) I want the Globe and the Times to have 2.0-generation paywalls: ones that stretch to embrace my loyalty and my good intentions. I would also like that embrace to appreciate independent signaling from my side of the relationship, not just what it picks up from CRM radar pointed at social media. (And let’s face it: If I have to go on Twitter to get some action out of a company, there’s a failure in direct communication. Here’s one example.)

We also need the VRM tools that match up with 2.0 generation ones on the media sellers’ side. For example, let’s say I budget $2 per day toward all the media I use. (A lexical digression: I don’t “consume” media any more than I consume a hammer. That’s why I say “use” instead of “consume.”) And let’s say  I have the capacity to track what I use, in a QS (quantified self) kind of way. Then let’s say that I’m ready to divide that $2 up and parse it out, using an EmanciPay system. This would put money on the market’s table.

Then maybe, once the money is on the table, we can shake hands over it and actually do business.

Bonus link: House of news

 

 

4 Comments

  1. My company, Kachingle, built a voluntary microdonation system that works EXACTLY as you describe.

    “We also need the VRM tools that match up with 2.0 generation ones on the media sellers’ side. For example, let’s say I budget $2 per day toward all the media I use. (A lexical digression: I don’t “consume” media any more than I consume a hammer. That’s why I say “use” instead of “consume.”) And let’s say I have the capacity to track what I use, in a QS (quantified self) kind of way. Then let’s say that I’m ready to divide that $2 up and parse it out, using an EmanciPay system. This would put money on the market’s table.” – Doc Searles in his post above

    But none of the major news sites had any interest. So we pivoted to SaaS applications and are having great success.

    We still believe that people do want to pay for news and content based on their personal value received.

    Our original voluntary micropayment system is still up and running, and if only ONE major news site would become a leader, others would follow.

    Contact me directly if you want to discuss.

    Cynthia

  2. Doc
    This is a great article !!!!!
    I was in a meeting today with a venture capitalist trying to explain some of the points that you have raised. My explanations concerning and elastic paywall fell on dead ears as the venture capitalist believes that you cannot charge for digita content.
    We are developing some tech allows for the easy creation of content subscription channels…We will have some announcement about this in the coming weeks

  3. Firstly – I do not mind paying for content on an on demand basis. I support the fact that a media outlet has to generate revenue and I understand that the revenue from online (in terms of advertising) is roughly about a 7:1 ratio. ….

    VRM is needed and I don’t think I can add much value to doc’s comments. I observe the same issues.

    As far as industry changes for consumption and access to news content. It’s interesting to see igoogle closing down – I would guess that some of their reasoning has to do with paywalls and providing a quality service and a reasonable profit margin. Yesterday Amazon also announced they were closing down their news service in Canada – which allowed subscribers to pay for on demand content. I’d be interested to hear how/if these items are related to the current paywall craze …. as we see it today.

    Tx
    Joe Wozny
    author of The Digital Dollar

  4. There is a lot here I want to take with me and share with friends. Bravo!

    But… if your relationship to media is just as a tool for specific produced outcomes, then I understand why you would “use” it and not “consume” it. For me, and for many others, media much more resembles a diet, part of our daily sustenance, and is much more accurately described as a consumed product. Like coffee, we don’t *have* to consume our daily media appetite, but it’s a habit we enjoy.

    -J

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