Data from six months of Piano’s experiment has revealed that readers who decide to pay are not motivated by concern for access to specific content. Rather, they decide to pay because they want to be the kind of person who values intellectual work and pays for it, and because they like paying just once for access. “Some readers,” says Bella, “are even paying for the articles that are from the news agencies, which makes no sense because they can easily get them anywhere else. But the thing is, when it’s an easy payment, when it’s very convenient, and when it’s not a lot of money, it’s easier just to pay than to go looking elsewhere.” The fear that users will always flee a paywall and congregate wherever content is still free has not materialized in post-Piano Slovakia.
Piano’s subscribers are not even usually aware of what content is behind a paywall and what they can get for free on any given website. And they don’t decide to subscribe in a moment of frustration after being denied access. Most often, they make a reasoned decision to pay after a period of offline reflection. Says Bella, “they ask ‘Am I the kind of person that can appreciate intellectual work?’ That’s the level they make a decision on.”
Piano’s implementation may be novel, but what they are selling—curation and ease of access—is as old as the printed newspaper. A good chunk of Piano’s subscribers even signed up before the metered request function asked them to, Bella says. “We are basically selling peace of mind.”
Six months of detailed data from users has yielded some surprises for Piano and its clients. “What people are willing to pay for is very different from what publishers think is valuable,” says Bella. One of Piano’s clients discovered that their readers valued a bare bones, chronologically arranged list of articles. Another client found that readers cared a lot about the news summary. Editors in both cases had long put little value on those services, but have since made them more prominent on their sites.
Piano was surprised that some readers shied away from purchasing subscriptions because they were afraid of supporting publications in Piano’s network whose politics they disagreed with. Bella says those concerns dissipated after Piano explained how it splits up its profits: A third of each fee goes straight to Piano, a third goes to the site where a subscriber signs up, and the remaining third is divided up according to where a reader spends their time (with time spent in comment forums excluded). If a subscriber does not want to support a particular news organization, all they have to do is never visit its sites.
One benefit apparently enjoyed by both readers and publishers was not part of Piano’s initial vision—regulated comments. By limiting the number of free online comments subscribers can make, and by excluding non-subscribers from commenting at all, publishers believe that the level of Slovakia’s Internet discourse has been raised up a few notches. One news editor, happy to be free of the burden of comment moderation, said simply “All the idiots have left the forums!”
Piano’s success has depended on both understanding and changing the mindset of readers. But before they could tackle reader psychology, Bella and his team had what was arguably a tougher challenge: understanding and changing the mindset of news publishers.
Demoralized by decades of falling profits and the assumption that there was no way out of giving their product away for free, Slovak news publishers did not take easily to Bella’s plan. “Basically, the publishers said ‘Why the hell do you think this idea can work here? Why should Slovakia be the first country in the world where this works? Why haven’t the Americans thought of this before you?’”
But Bella persisted, realizing that he had an advantage over those putting up paywalls in other, bigger countries: a set of personal relationships with the entire news media establishment.
Slovakia’s population is less than six million. Bella had worked in journalism both as a reporter and an editor, and his time running SME.sk’s website had made him known to just about everybody in the business. He had enough clout to get all the major players on board, though it took him a year of meetings to do so.
To persuade commitment-phobic publishers, Bella made participation in Piano month-to-month rather than contractual. And by raising the capital to build the technology from outside the newspaper industry, he made it an almost no-cost investment.