We have hardly begun with paywalls

27 Dec

We have hardly begun with paywalls

I've been thinking about charging people to read content online - sparked in part by this post - How publishers can save themselves - by Greg Satell (he's well worth following).

His point I take issue with is this: "Paywalls are rarely profitable once losses in advertising revenue are factored in."

His 'golden rule' which summarises this thinking is "marketers will pay more for consumers than consumers will pay for content." (I don't disagree with the rule). But by extension, the thinking goes that you're better off gaining as wide an audience for your content as you can by making it free - so that you have more opportunities to 'sell' your readers to potential advertisers. (ie more pages to hang advertising off). He's not alone in this thinking of course. Many others seem convinced that free is the only way to go. Just recently the team at Matter who have been championing quality writing online have dropped their paywall. They're witnessing 4, 5 even 6 times as much traffic now by dropping a charge of 99c per article.

So, are paywalls a dumb idea? I don't think we're halfway to knowing yet.

It hacks me off that people are trumpeting the death of the model on the basis of 12 to 24 months of effort. (It’s a couple of years since the New York Times put up its paywall.)

Of course, it works just fine for the big players who aggregate content like Google if everything online is free and available to all. But I feel like the constant message 'free for all is how it should be' is very simplistic.

It is fair to say right now that a broadstream publisher of news like the New York Times in the US and The Times in the UK is quite possibly making less money pursuing a path of charging fairly high subscription fees to access their content. The much reduced traffic that comes with the paywall seriously reduces ad revenue. But it's early days. I hope that not everyone opts for the 'let's just give it away and hope we can make it pay somehow in the future' model.

A few thoughts then about how paywalls might pay-off and why I think they are a good thing.

1) Data. Sure, advertisers want eyeballs. But increasingly they want deeper connections with readers (see 3 below). The old adage that has never been attributed: 'I know 50% of my advertising doesn't work, I wish I knew which half' still holds pretty true. At what point does it become more interesting to a media business to be able to sell the data on say 100,000 highly engaged regular readers that they know all about versus a million that just flit across their pages and leave again? And if a publisher really knows their readers - there are heaps of other things they themselves could start to sell them. Tip of the iceberg. One trend that I do believe in right now is 'own the data'.

2) Quality. I've banged on about the trade-off for the reader when it comes to free content a lot. The advertiser-funded free content model encourages high volume publishing with low editorial resource. The result is large numbers of often poorly researched, low detail pieces. For people who want to be informed, it's often a poor experience. Candidly, it's turning the web into a craphole. It's encouraging short termism in the extreme.

3) Trust. The latest revenue stream 'innovation' in the free content model is called 'native advertising - allowing brands to create editorial-style features themselves. Everyone is getting into it - some are even talking about brand newsrooms. Well, he who pays the piper calls the tune. I challenge anyone to say they honestly believe that this kind of content won't be biased. This is not to say that editorial isn't, but this is way worse. A slippery slope indeed and ultimately readers will get turned off by it. I have been. (But let's face it, the 'proper' editorial on many of these free sites is poor, so who cares anyway?)

4) Technology. The paywall remains a clunky thing. It's not surprising that people bump into paywalls and don't come back. But the big players using paywalls are already looking at hybrid models and there's heaps more to do. For now these 'leaky paywalls' allow people a certain number of free reads a month. I think this is of limited use. I am amazed no one (?) has tried charging a really small amount to read each article. There was much talk of 'micropayments' many years back - but I've yet to see it. (Except perhaps the guys at Matter charging 99c a read - but I wonder if even that was too high?) Think about how often these days you find a news story via a search engine - not a newspaper's home page. We cherry pick our news from multiple sources just like we download single tracks rather than albums from the App Store. Someone needs to figure out a cheap, frictionless way to charge tiny sums for this casual viewing.

If there was an easy way for you to pay say 1 cent or 1 pence to read a feature with a single click - connected to your Paypal account, would you do it? I would. The friction for paywalls is too great right now. 'Sign up, provide heaps of detail, add your credit card info'... Someone needs to make them work better. Someone needs to find a more subtle way to slowly reel a potential subscriber in. Think of those 100s of millions of page views each month. Just a penny a view would be significant income. The Guardian achieves over 400,000,000 monthly page views. Sure, it's a very rough calculation, but 1p a view is 4 million quid a month.

5) Creativity. There are many many ways to slice up content and sell it. Here's just one idea for the travel sector. How about The Times (which has its content locked behind a paywall) does a short term promotion for people to read just its travel content during January when many are trying to choose a summer holiday?  There are heaps of smart promotional opportunities that could be tied to the pay-for-content model based on different audience sectors and interests.

But why bother?

It's a subtle, but crucial distinction. The publisher is then being paid for their content, by the reader they exist (in theory) to serve. The alternative model in all its guises will slowly but surely turn publishers into little more than the mouthpieces of brand advertising departments, offering up only the most shallow of editorial to pad it out. This week London's Time Out magazine - which went free relatively recently - ditched its LGBT section in another round of cost cutting. As the Guardian's commentary put it - a 'high price to pay for free'.

I guess advertisers weren't that bothered about advertising in that section. How about a few more top ten lists of dream cars or handy tech gadgets to replace it?

Would you be happy to pay small sums of money to read single articles?

Spare a thought for your free content provider this Xmas

17 Dec

Spare a thought for your free content provider this Xmas

It's that time of year when we all need to think about our fellow men and women and give a little. I'm not talking about Christmas. I'm talking about Wikipedia.

For the last few weeks a big banner pops up at the top of Wikipedia pages saying:

"We are a small non-profit that runs the #5 website in the world. We have only 150 staff to serve 450 million users and have costs like any other site… If everyone reading this gave £5 our fundraiser would be done within an hour… "

It goes on. It's Jimmy Wales' regular (how many years has it been going?) request - going cap in hand to the people who use Wikipedia. I donated last year. And as a result I got a personal email too asking me for cash this year. Some people are suggesting that actually Wikipedia is awash with cash and sure doesn't need more. But I'd already ponied up my £10 this year by then.

Next, the Firefox browser. A similar message: "Mozilla, the maker of Firefox, is a non-profit and we rely on donations and grants. If everyone reading this gave $3, we would only have to fundraise 1 day a year. Donate today."

And then I read a random piece on Voice of San Diego a 'member-based news organisation'.

At the end of the piece: Value investigative reporting? Support it. Donate Now.

In fact there are requests to donate all over the site.

I guess people have worked out that this approach works for Wikipedia, so why not try it? I've banged on and on about people being dumb for accepting free stuff just because it's free without considering the consequences when it comes to the quality of the product.

But now we're being asked to pay for the 'free' stuff anyway. There's some interesting stuff here about psychology and people.

If you provide a service for free and aren't directly reliant on your customers/users, well you don't have to do what they might want and you don't have to be that bothered about quality either.

If you work for free - how does that make you feel about yourself after the warm glow of 'doing something for the good of humankind' or whatever has worn off?

I have no idea, but maybe these are early signs that finally people might be realising the VC cash won't last forever and good will won't either. If the essential connection between using a product and paying for it is finally to be restored I say bring it on… as soon as possible.

Content marketing will never work

12 Nov

Content marketing will never work

This is a guest post by Mark Higginson. Mark worked with me for several years at iCrossing heading up the Social Media team. He wrote a similar post on his blog which I found so thought provoking I asked if he could write something similar for Travelblather. Enjoy!


Content marketing on the web does not work and will not work for brands. Closing your eyes and wanting it to be true won't make it work either.

It just costs way too much for a business to create the quality and quantity of content required to win the kind of attention needed to achieve a decent return on the investment.

Certainly not enough to get new visitors to their site and to convert them into sales.

There are currently two in vogue arguments for doing content marketing

First - It creates awareness.

This is intangible; but more to the point, it's also untrue. Attention doesn't work like that on the web.

Attention on the web follows a heavy-tail distribution.


An abrupt curve with just a handful of pieces of content receiving almost all the attention whilst the majority receive next to none. A few winners, lots of losers.

Look at your own analytics data. Focus on the pages that feature original content rather than those that help visitors navigate, such as your home page and booking engine. Plot the top few hundred data points and see what kind of a chart you get. Now divide all those figures by four. This will give the approximate number of people who bothered to read the whole page in each case.

Now try plotting the number of people who completed a goal on each of those pages; the thing that you want each person viewing your content to do next in each case. (You should have set this for each page. Or why else would you be spending vast resources on publishing hundreds of pieces of content?)

The numbers will be tiny for the vast majority of your posts. Perhaps a few will have really gained traction.

Problem is, there is no way of predicting ahead of time which of your posts will do significantly better than the majority. You have to do the lot. This is why this whole approach does not scale, unless of course your entire purpose is to be a content destination.

Take this post: Transforming Your Brand into the Next Media Company

It suggests that brands need to become media companies. It's telling that author Michael Brito uses the New York Times as an example, claiming they publish over 1,500 articles per day. If you were to publish content at anything like the scale needed to compete against these vast content destinations for whom this is their entire business model, you'd be a publisher too, not whatever business it is that you are actually in.

Given the huge problems web publishers are having making this work I'd suggest becoming a 'media company' is a sure way of sinking your business. It's most unlikely you can create advertorial that's going to generate sales off the little attention you will be generating from this kind of editorial content. Content which usually is so far removed from your product or service that it's highly unlikely to drive conversion anyway.

As ever, Baekdal is good on this, making the point that more page views from 'content marketing' activity doesn't usually mean an increase in an outcome you're actually looking for, such as sales, because of the lack of intent behind the visit.

But maybe your content marketing isn't really about awareness?

So Secondly… some say it's about influencing search engines

In this recent post: Content marketing fairy dust the author suggests you need to spend as much resource promoting your content as you do creating it.

He's particularly thinking about promotion to gain links so that your content ranks better in search engines (and as a result pulls in lots of traffic). But it's an interesting concept for the awareness advocates too.

These days the SEO industry can't scale what it does in a safe way (ie one that won't get penalised by Google). This is particularly the case for really competitive terms like say 'car insurance'. Individually negotiating the posting of one piece of content at a time on other people's websites which is a core part of the strategy recommended in the post above is way too time-consuming and costly. But this is what SEO agencies have been reduced to persuading clients to buy into. Guess what. They're also calling this 'content marketing'.

Two definitions - two activities that just don't scale. You need to chuck vast sums of money at both to be successful.

Problem is, there are enough people out there who really, really want to believe in this who are prepared to pay other people to tell them it is true. Just read this to see what I mean. It's Come to This: A Newsroom Devoted to Brands

If marketers are prepared to spend money on display advertising which is full of fakery, then I guess they'll sure as hell throw money at this kind of thing too. As soon as they do, we'll start seeing fake traffic from fake sites to inflate total page view figures as this will no doubt be the big number waved around to reassure everyone that 'success' is being achieved. One thing this activity probably won't do is turn people into customers,

So - If someone is claiming that your business needs to be 'telling stories all of the time' ask them to demonstrate this working for someone else across several hundred posts. Ask them for charts showing page views, comments, shares and backlinks as well as a list of the URLs for you to check. If they actually do 'content marketing' they must have this data. Look at the trends and draw your own conclusions.

Turkish airlines are you listening?

26 Sep

Turkish airlines are you listening?

Well. It seems like these days the only way to get big companies to listen to you if you have a problem that falls just slightly outside the normal workflows is to shout about it online.

So here goes.

Back in April (APRIL!) I flew business class with TAM Brazilian airlines from London to Sao Paulo. I figured there’d be a decent chunk of miles from a flight like that. So I had a look around and worked out that I’d be best off trying to accrue them with a European partner airline also in the Star Alliance.

I chose Turkish Airlines and applied for a card. On check in at Heathrow I provided my membership card and was told the points would be applied to  my account.

On the return leg of the journey I checked in. And was assured by the check in attendant that the points for the return leg would also be added to my Turkish Airlines account – no need to produce the card, my membership number was logged on the system.

My first statement from the Turkish Airlines miles programme Miles&Smiles didn’t have the points for the return leg on it. But I assumed they’d show up on the next one.

They didn’t.

It took ages to work out how to contact them online. I was asked for my boarding card. Which I had binned weeks previously. So I contacted TAM who resent me the e-ticket for the flight. I then filled in a long online form with Turkish airlines and attached the e-ticket and…


I called them IN ANKARA! – and was told it takes 2 weeks for them to even receive communication via that method! Unreal. A few weeks later no response. I found an email for the London office. I was advised by them to resubmit my query so went all the way through the process again.

I tweeted, I emailed. I phoned.

Weeks later I got a message on email:

The flight you have claimed dated 19/04/2013 and flight numbered JJ8084 from GRU to LHR can not be credited into your Miles&Smiles account.

Err. Why?

And to make life more interesting on my next statement, the following entry:

19.07.2013           JJ8084 GRU-LHR 18.04.2013 Already credited to othe                                       0

Err. What?

Since then no one answers my emails. Each month I get my statement and it reminds me how utterly useless they are. It’s such a simple thing this. And it must happen loads. And of course I can’t help thinking they’re just trying to avoid crediting me with the miles.

Anyone got any suggestions or similar crap experience with customer service from Turkish Airlines Best Airline in Europe 2013* (yeah right)

The blogtrip that never was

7 Sep

The blogtrip that never was

I get a lot of press releases. I get occasional follow up phone calls from PRs too. Usually I’ve at least scanned the subject line. Usually I’m pretty short with whoever is calling. If I've not responded, that means I'm not interested.

I got a follow up call from Poland a week or so back. Just seeing it was an international call piqued my curiosity so, I answered. A nervous girl asked me if I’d seen their tweets and email about visiting Gdansk. I had. They’d tweeted me and followed up with an email. I’d read the contents, but it talked about watching a video. Bound to be a crap attempt at a ‘viral video’ I thought and ignored it. The girl said they wanted to invite me on a blog trip to Gdansk. I explained that I don’t really blog about travel. ‘Yes, but you’re very active on social media,’ she explained. Fine, I said. Let me take a better look at your email. If what you want is promotion on Twitter and Flickr maybe that would work.

I read the email and watched the video. It was clever. The video was personalised for me. At the start of it there was a message written on a chalk board – “Jeremy Head - Are you ready for an adventure?"

So I replied to say I’d go. In return for the trip I’d tweet and post images whilst there and I’d probably write something about how the trip was organised on my blog – particularly because I thought the video idea was really neat and worth sharing.

Next day I got a follow up email asking for stats about my blog. City Hall at Gdansk wanted to know more. I replied asking what exactly they wanted in terms of stats. This blog is hardly a mega traffic driver. I got a reply explaining that after reviewing my blog maybe the Gdansk blog trip wasn’t so appropriate. Maybe I fancied attending a blogger conference instead – with a link to a website. All in Polish.

So, a blog trip that never happened.

Why recount all the above? I think it shows a few things that are worthy of debate.

Blogtrips are gaining traction as a means for promotion among destination marketing organisations (or tourist boards as we often call them in the UK). Lots of people will testify to this – Keith and Melvin who set up iAmbassador, Steve and Mark who run Travel Perspective. There’s clearly an appetite. So, presumably people think they work.

But what does that mean?

I’m not sure people know what they are looking for. My sample of one certainly suggests that. Gdansk is not the most obvious of tourism destinations and probably not somewhere with buckets of cash to spend on marketing. So why create a personalised video for me when I’m not really the right kind of blogger for them?

Working out what you want from this kind of activity and then working out if you achieved it is complex.

I don’t think anyone has really cracked it yet. I’m reminded of the old maxim from someone famous “I know 50% of my advertising doesn’t work. Just wish I knew which 50%”.

There are some nascent models around. Keith and Melvin have done some interesting work trying to compare the value of online articles and tweets with the traditional PR measure of advertising equivalent rates. But it's quite complex. Typically a PR who sets up a trip for a client and gets coverage in a newspaper on say 2 pages will compare that with the cost of buying advertising on 2 similar pages of the same paper. It has been used by the industry for decades.

I’m not completely sure. Most tour operators who send a journalist on a trip aren’t that bothered about advertising equivalent. For them it’s the far harder very simple metric – did it generate enquiries?

In theory at least the plethora of data available in the digital realm (compared to the print one) ought to make the job of assessing the value of editorial coverage easier. But with no one model that's taken as the standard for all to use, it isn't.

The key to all of this for now?

Work out what you want to achieve first and work out too how you’ll measure that success. That way you’ll have a decent chance of working with the right kind of bloggers in the first place.

Have you worked with bloggers or are you thinking of doing so? How do you think we should measure the value of their activity?