If you want to read The Dish, you can’t get there by going to thedish.com or to thedailydish.com or anything like that: you get there by going to andrewsullivan.com. The person is the site, and when that happens, the readership becomes much more willing to hand over money. Do I want to give Fortune $20 a year so that I can read its magazine articles online? No, I do not — especially when we live in a social world, where if I find a story I love, the first thing I want to do is be able to share it. On the other hand, I’m much more willing to spend $20 a year to support Andrew Sullivan, even if I rarely visit his site, precisely because I don’t particularly have to do so, and can read any of his stuff whether I pay him or not.

We’re not talking about micropayments here: those have never taken off, and I doubt they will, at this point. For a long time, people thought that the sheer size of the internet would enable enormous numbers of people to pay negligible sums of money, which would add up to substantial amounts in aggregate. The problem with that was that it’s just too hard to spend money online: the effort involved just isn’t worth it, for sums of a dollar or less.

Instead, the sheer size of the internet enabled the opposite to happen: it enabled smallish numbers of people to pay modest amounts of money, which can add up to just as much in total.

So if you’re a huge publicly-listed corporation, by all means create an elaborate paywall in the hopes that people will decide that they need your content and will just have to pay for it. Every so often, that can work, as it has at the FT and the NYT. But frankly I don’t think those examples are particularly replicable: they’re both sui generis in many ways. Instead, it seems to me, the most promising aspect of content payments is at the other end of the spectrum. Build up a relationship with your readers, in large part by giving your content away for free; ask for money with pride and shamelessness; and place no cap on how much you let your readers spend. Give them the opportunity, and you might be very surprised at what they’re willing to buy.

 

Felix Salmon is an Audit contributor. He's also the finance blogger for Reuters; this post can also be found at Reuters.com.