Apologies for the delay between part 1 and this: I wanted to wait until Amanda Palmer’s TED talk appeared online, because it’s an important part of the other big aspect of content economics. Part 1 was about the ability of publishers to sell readers to advertisers; part 2 is about the ability of publishers to persuade readers to pay the publisher directly.
There are basically three ways to go about this. You can put up a paywall; you can ask for donations; or you can sell non-digital things to your digital audience.
On its face, Palmer’s talk is about the second strategy, but in fact it’s about all three. (And yes, I’m the “financial blogger” referred to in the talk.) For instance, when it comes to online publishing, why are paywalls more common than tip jars, despite the fact that they’re much more difficult to implement? Palmer does a great job of walking us through the answer to that question: there’s something shameful, there’s a whiff of the panhandler, in asking strangers for money.
At the beginning of the talk, Palmer talks about her early career as a living statue, and the people who would drive by, shouting “get a job!” as she waited for people to drop money into her hat. The implication, of course, was that being a living statue is not a job (its surprisingly consistent revenue stream notwithstanding), and that a living statue’s income represents an entirely one-way transmission of value: spectators give money, and receive nothing in return. The rest of Palmer’s talk is an attempt to explain that the value goes both ways, and that there is (or should be) nothing shameful about creators asking for money. But the attitude she’s pushing against is deeply ingrained.
A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I asked Andrew Sullivan why he chose to put up a paywall rather than putting up a tip jar. His answer (at about 23:00) was unambiguous:
This is not a tip jar. And it is not a pledge drive. It is a subscription. And that makes it a different proposition. It’s telling people I’m not an amateur, and I’m not a charity. I’m doing work that I’m asking people to pay for. And it seems to me that at some point, we have to say that, in new media. Or else it is not going to continue to exist…
I had two pledge drives early on, in 2002 and 2003, which netted a certain amount of money. But this is a different model. This is trying to make it sustainable, long term: don’t give it money just because you like me. We are trying to create an actual site that is news and opinion that people value and pay for, and become associated with in the long run. We could have done a tip jar. We decided no. We wanted to be a business. And do it the right way.
The distinctions here are subtle ones: Sullivan still nags his readers, just as public radio does during its pledge drives, but in his mind those nags aren’t part of a pledge drive, because he’s a business, rather than an amateur, or a charity. And similarly, although he raised $500,000 from readers before his paywall even existed, those dollars weren’t donations, for much the same reason. There’s something shameful, on this view, about working for tips; there’s an unpleasant neediness about asking for charity. And it was those reasons, as much as any simply financial considerations, which resulted in Sullivan plumping for a paywall model.
Truth be told, Sullivan’s paywall is not much of a wall at all. 70% of his readers don’t click on the read-on links at all; they just stay on the home page, which is always free. And of the 30% who do click on read-on links, 91% are still within their allocation of seven free stories. Which means that overall, just 2.7% of his readers are reaching the point at which it gets a little bit harder to read what they want to read. And the actual number is lower even than that: many of his readers use RSS readers to consume his content, or else they disable cookies, or otherwise don’t get counted among the people visiting his website.