Today the Westminster Forum ran an interesting event on Payment for Content 2011 at which MB Christie, Head of Product Management at FT.com made the plea to stop using the term paywall. Her argument was that when we buy milk or any other physical goods we just called it payment – so why the ‘wall’ when it comes to digital content?
I’d argue that paywall is actually a very good and apt term the use of which sheds light on some of the other issues discussed at this morning’s event.
Firstly, a paywall is a barrier designed to shield content. Content is hidden and secure and access is controlled. After all it has been actively interposed between a consumer and a product with the explicit motive of restricting access to what was recently freely available. Whether you agree with them or not and whether they are effective or not, Paywalls are by their nature barriers.
Secondly, as Bryan Glick, Editor in Chief of Computer Weekly and another guest speaker at the event, pointed out, they are also the first thing that you encounter as a consumer. Unlike a checkout – be it physical or online – which comes after you have browsed and made your selection, you must negotiate the paywall first. You can’t see what you are going to buy until you’ve overcome the barrier. In this respect an analogy of a night-club is perhaps better than that of a corner shop – you don’t know if it’s any good until you’ve paid your entry fee.
Obviously brand plays a role here. If you know and like The Times as a newspaper then it’s a good indication that you’ll like what’s behind its paywall on any given day. However, you could argue that the more that is behind the paywall the harder it will be to maintain the visibility, reputation, influence of that brand with those that are on the outside.
This is different from buying the physical newspaper in a number of crucial ways. We all know that the front-page story will determine for many which paper they pick up – so to some degree they have sampled and committed to the content before purchase. Also, buying a paper is a one-time commitment, if you don’t like it you can buy something different the next day. And, by the very fact that you’ve picked it up and taken it to the checkout you have made a behavioural commitment to reading at least some of the content. Even with subscriptions (and possibly with iPad apps) the product is actually delivered, making it more likely that it will be consumed. And when those magazines pile up still in their plastic wrappers we quickly decide to cancel the subscription.
For me the biggest problem with a paywall is that it seems that publishers are asking consumers to pay for the right to access their content – whether or not they actually consume it. With a paywall newspaper publishers are asking consumers to commit to a long-term relationship that they pay for even if they never read an article online again, and without necessarily any indication of what sort of content they will get (other than that suggested by the brand).
Clive Gardiner, SVP of digital content at music streaming service we7, made an excellent comment that the ‘digital natives’ that are increasingly dominating online activity prefer terms such as ‘200 plays’ or even 5MB to terms like subscription. I think this confirms the same point – people are happy to pay for digital content, but they do not want to enter into long-term, open ended commitments where it is not obvious exactly what they are getting in return. Which really is not that surprising – who in the physical world would pay a regular fee for something without knowing whether they will use it enough to get value (the obvious exception being gym memberships!), or even if they will actually like what they do consume. A per-use micro payment arrangement, or even a pre-paid amount that allows a fixed number of views over an extended period would seem to be much more of the internet and digital psyche.
Unfortunately, I do feel that paywall is a very apt term as the publishing industry struggles to defend itself against the onrush of the digital world.