By Steve Outing
Earlier this week, Jeff Reifman of Newscloud wrote an essay, “How Micro-payments Could Save Journalism,” which he says was inspired by most recent Editor & Publisher column, “Your News Content Is Worth Zero to Digital Consumers.” (I’m a bit slow to respond due to a busy work week.)
Reifman wrote: “I disagree with the premise of Steve Outing’s column last week. … I think consumers will pay for news content and that an aggregated micro-payment system has a place in solving the sustainability challenge facing journalism.”
In general, Reifman and I simply disagree, and you can read both articles yourself if you’d like to compare and contrast our views. (You’ll discover that both of us wrote headlines that overstate and exaggerate our positions!)
Rather than a point-by-point rebuttal of Reifman’s article (and I do find some good ideas in his writing), I want to suggest an alternative to one idea he pitched: turning on a counter or meter so that a website or blog reader sees how often he/she has used your site. He wrote:
“Place widgets on each page that show readers quantitatively how many stories they’ve read and how much time they’ve been spending on your site. … Set a threshold at which you expect readers to start paying.”
Now, I see that as essentially a negative approach. Let’s determine who our best customers are, then “punish” them by demanding that they start paying small amounts.
Here’s what I’d rather see. I like the idea of telling a reader how much they’ve used your website. If their personal counter widget clearly shows that they put a lot of time into viewing content on your site, then that’s a social cue to “do the right thing” and voluntarily donate some money to support it. (The donation mechanism must be fast and super easy.)
But just as Reifman admits that micro-payments alone won’t solve the news industry’s problems, neither will a donation strategy alone.
So let’s go one step further, and turn Reifman’s negative approach into a positive one! Instead of the counter or meter punishing a web user for over-using your website, reward that frequent user! Turn the personal counter into a tool to encourage more visits. (Most newspaper websites, in particular, have a problem with low average visits-per-month by users.)
This can be as simple and low-cost as making it a game. The “reward” for being in the top 10 users of a site in any month might be nothing more than being highlighted as one of the site’s biggest fans. (Run a photo of your site’s most frequent visitor each week.) Better would be some tangible reward, in the same sort of way that airline affinity programs reward you with points to be accrued and used to get free plane tickets. Reward points to individual users for visiting your site often; they might “spend” the points accrued over multiple visits on accessing the limited amount of premium content on your site rather than having to pay real money.
Or reward frequent visitors with real prizes: The most-frequent site users could win free-meal restaurant coupons or ski lift tickets from advertisers. The top 10 visitors could be entered into a drawing for a weekly prize supplied by an advertiser. I’m sure you can think of many more variations.
Will my approach save the news industry? No, of course not. But I think that Reifman’s micro-payment strategy will bring in little revenue, and turn off lots of online users of your site because of the negative nature of the strategy. By taking the positive approach, news sites can actually encourage more intentional repeat visits. User behavior is clearly trending toward people finding news on your website via other referral sources, rather than purposefully visiting your specific site. A positive “reward” strategy at least has the potential to encourage more loyalty and repeat visits.
None of this solves the news industry’s crisis. I think my positive spin on user usage-feedback could be one little piece of the puzzle. I put more faith in strategies like membership programs, charging for unique niche content (i.e., low pay-walls), network donation solutions (which I’ve written lots about in recent months), and improvements in online advertising. (In fact, I’m feeling more bullish about online advertising for news websites — for the first time in a long time — after learning about some developments that could be game-changing for media companies. Since I typically respect embargo requests from companies, I won’t be writing on that topic until a bit later on.)