A New Way to View and Judge Paywalls…

A reverse paywall would reward your most loyal readers

John Paton emerged from running the regional Journal-Register newspapers to become the CEO of the enormous MediaNews Group—and he does not like paywalls. He wants audience and more audience—thinking that once that comes, monetization will follow. In a speech last month, he urged the media industry to give up the information gatekeeper model.

“One of the reasons I am so stern on paywalls and other walled gardens is because I firmly believe that in the future content will go to the audience and not the other way around,” Paton recently said, as reported on the site GigaOM. “Smart, original content, tagged with advertising will gain value by being shared through networks. Shared content equals influence. And influence in the new ecosystem equals engagement. And engagement equals value to those advertisers and others trying to reach that engaged audience.”

Paton made his name through a digital-first revolution and several innovations and partnerships: Flip cameras to all reporters, a newsroom cafe that’s open to the community, the dumping of old newsroom software in favor of free, Web-based publishing tools. He has also financed a lab to foster employee innovation and formed partnerships with other Web companies to provide news and information.

Digital media strategist Jeff Jarvis thinks on the same page as Paton. He has put forth the idea of a reverse paywall that charges everyone for access to content but then gives discounts to the most engaged users—those who view more ads, post more links to content, comments on stories, etc. Could that work in the specialized information publishing industry where subscriptions remain the lifeblood? Perhaps a variation. Jarvis wants businesses to understand that all readers are not equal; know who your more valuable readers are; get more of them and make them more valuable.

The Washington Post has come out and said they will not be going to the paywall model, preferring to grow their audience through strong content and social media. Post managing editor Raju Narisetti asks why not find ways to provide rewards to the more engaged readers and then integrate ways of monetizing that relationship? Easier said than done, of course. Matthew Ingram suggests that your regular readers get credits for activity and engagement which they could then redeem for special features. He points to the web community Slashdot, “where users get ‘karma points’ for posting comments, flagging negative comments, and other positive behavior. Apparently, Gawker does something like this as well.

The New York Times has tried a lite version, awarding readers with a history of good behavior with “trusted” status, which allows them to post comments without having them moderated. Ingram asks if this could possibly be a membership platform, with more features for those who are more engaged. (He actually compares some of this to the online game World of Warcraft: “…in other words, it creates incentives for good behavior by allowing users to “level up”—that is, improve their online character, add features, etc.—and that investment by users creates a stronger bond between them and the community.”

Here is an idea from Ingram that translates to SIPA members: “Why couldn’t loyal readers or fans of a writer like Nick Kristof—who has built a huge following through his use of social media—win rewards for their activity and then redeem those points for something special involving the writer, like a personal appearance or invitation-only forum of some kind? Some of this could even be integrated into a Kristof-specific app.” Your subscribers are obviously your most loyal audience, a tribute to the brand and high level of professionalism that you’ve established. Ingram, Jarvis and others ask why charge those people the most. “…why not try to come up with ways of turning that loyalty into a benefit instead of a penalty?”

The question of a paywall is a financial and personal one for each company. Can you sustain what you do without it? Are people reading and not paying? A week ago, Patrick B. Pexton, the ombudsman for the Washington Post, asked this: “What if The Post, through its innovative uses of technology and social media— witness its Facebook app Social Reader; more than 15 million people downloaded it in just over five months—cracks the code for how to make money with digital content?

That’s quite a big what if. Stay tuned.


Tune in tomorrow for…
SIPA’s Weekly Twitter Chat
The subject: Renewals
(Last week’s subject was paywalls: Here’s the archive.)
Please join us, share your knowledge
and learn from others who practice it.
Wednesday, April 4, 2012, 12 p.m. Eastern Time
using the hashtag #NicheInfo.

If you don’t already have a Twitter chat client,
we recommend TweetChat.com.

Once you are on their site, simply
log in through your Twitter account;
type in the hashtag #NicheInfo, and you’re set!
See you tomorrow on Twitter!

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