Which brings up a fundamental rule of online subscriptions: there is zero correlation between value and price. There are lots of incredibly expensive stock-tipping newsletters which have a negative value: you’d be much better off if you didn’t subscribe to any of them at all. And of course there’s an almost infinite amount of wonderfully valuable content available online for free, starting with Wikipedia and moving on through the sites of organizations like Reuters, Bloomberg, the Guardian, and the BBC.
Or look what happened when Newsweek and Sullivan parted ways: both of them started subscription products, at almost identical prices. (Sullivan wants $20 per year; Newsweek wants $25.) That doesn’t mean the two products have almost-equal value; it just means that both Newsweek and Sullivan — just like Marco Arment, for that matter — came to the conclusion that the $20-a-year range was more or less the point on the supply-and-demand curve where they would maximize their income. They might be right about that; it’s hard to tell. Paywalls are put together in so many different ways, at so many different price points, that trying to work out their relative merits, in terms of income generated, is almost impossible.
But there’s another consideration, too: the more formidable the paywall, the more money you might generate in the short term, but the less likely it is that new readers are going to discover your content and want to subscribe to you in the future. Amazing offline resources like the Oxford English Dictionary and the Encylopedia Britannica are facing existential threats not only because their paywalls are too high for people to feel that they’re worth subscribing to, but also because their audiences are not being replaced at nearly the rate at which they’re dying off. The FT, for instance, has discovered that its current subscriber base is pretty price-insensitive, and has taken the opportunity to raise its subscription prices aggressively. That makes perfect sense if Pearson, the FT’s parent, is looking to maximize short term cashflows, especially if it’s going to sell off the FT sooner rather than later anyway. But if you’re trying to build a brand which will flourish over the long term, it’s important to make that brand as discoverable as possible.
And the lesson of very porous paywalls, like Sullivan’s, or even of pure tip jars, like Maria Popova’s, is that on the internet, people prefer carrots to sticks. That’s one of the lessons of Kickstarter, too. To put it in Palmer’s terms: if you want to give money, you’re likely to give more, and to give more happily, than if you feel that you’re being forced to spend money. If you look at the $611,000 that Sullivan has raised to date, essentially none of it has come from people who feel forced to cough up $20 per year in order to be able to read his website. To a first approximation, all of that money has come from supporters: people who want Sullivan, and the Dish, to continue.
Palmer concludes her talk by saying that “people have been obsessed with the wrong question: how do we make people pay for music. What if we started asking: how do we let people pay for music?” The same question can and should be asked about other forms of online content, too. Tomorrow magazine raised $45,452 — more than three times its goal — from 1,779 people, none of whom felt in the slightest bit grudging about the money they were spending. A mere 296 people clubbed together to raise $24,624 for Baltimore Brew. 99% Invisible, a radio show, raised $170,477 from 5,661 people. And that’s just a few of the Kickstarter journalism projects which were funded in 2012. There are lots of other models, too, like membership of Longreads, or Spot.us, which helps to fund all manner of interesting and amazing journalism. What all of these projects have in common is that they’re free online even as they’re asking for money: they’re not going to punish anybody for not supporting them by throwing up a paywall and saying “well, in that case, we won’t give you access”.