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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?

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?

Can we ever cut through all the crap?

24 Jul

Can we ever cut through all the crap?

Is the web doomed to become a cesspool of mediocre content? I often wonder.

Here's a guest post from Matthew Barker who runs Hit Riddle an online travel marketing business. He has a solution. Do you think it will work?


As a some time travel writer, editor and marketing consultant, I find myself in the weird no man’s land between content creators, publishers and travel brands, from where I glean insights from all sides and do my best to empathise with each perspective.

It seems to me that one of our biggest collective challenges is the signal-to-noise problem; that the sheer volume of digital travel content has overwhelmed our ability to filter through the deluge and find the great travel journalism that certainly exists out there.

There are many contributing factors to the ‘churn it out’ school of digital content creation, but the net effect is very damaging. It distorts the economic model (and livelihoods) of creating “quality content,” it provides an incentive for cheap, thin and superficial space filler and click bait, and it erodes audience faith, loyalty and interaction. It is often, as has been pointed out here before, just a bit crap.

Our collective response to the deluge has been to surrender many of the old ways of organising, quantifying and valuing all this content. We can’t keep up so we have abdicated responsibility to the algorithms of search engines and social media.

But the idea that an algorithm is an adequate substitute for human editing and publishing is nonsense, despite all the protestations made by Google on its never ending quest for “quality” search results.

Search and social media algorithms are gamed or at least manipulated (I know because I do it for a living). They tend to reflect and reinforce their users’ existing interests and familiar sources of information rather than expose them to new or challenging perspectives. They frequently resemble popularity contests that serve the established publishers and bloggers best - with very little room for smaller and lesser-known entities to break in.

Surely there must be a better solution to the signal-to-noise problem?

I believe there is, and I think that by combining the most useful aspects of mass community participation with a robust algorithm and – crucially – muscular and proactive human editorial oversight, it is possible to cut through the deluge and begin to curate a stream of demonstrably great quality travel content.

This is the ambitious challenge that we have set ourselves with the project, currently in public beta at We have partnered with the team behind the hugely successful (comprising Rand Fishkin of SEOMoz and Dharmesh Shah of HubSpot, among many other talented individuals) to create a platform that does exactly this.

At first glance the concept seems similar to some other well-known sites. Users submit and upvote content that they consider reliable, high value and inspirational. The more submissions or upvotes a piece of content gets, the further it rises through a leaderboard, which can then be filtered into categories and locations. An algorithm factors in things like weighting against repeated self-submissions and time decay to produce a continually evolving list of the most influential travel content on the web, as selected by the vast community of content creators, publishers and our audiences.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘So far, so Digg’.

The critical difference is that sitting on top of this mass, open participation is a team of around 20 dedicated editor-moderators, all professional travel journalists or bloggers, whose job it is to monitor the stream with a stringent set of editorial criteria.

We filter out the bad stuff (spam, weak content from popular publishers, etc) and we promote the great content that deserves extra attention, typically from lesser-known authors and publishers.

We believe that this filtering process can produce what countless travel brands, publishers, editors and consumers all want and need: the definitive source of the best travel content on the web.

But our ambitions don’t stop there. We want to then distribute this great content as widely as possible.

Our platform produces feeds and embeddable widgets that can be integrated with third party websites, publishers and platforms - pretty much anyone who has a need for well-curated travel content. Eventually our feeds and widgets will feature on sites and platforms across the web, including in our own digital magazines and publications, and through regular emails to our subscribers.

In each case our feeds link exclusively to the source site, sending new audiences directly to the original publication.

We believe that our solution provides a substantive improvement on all the existing methods of content curation and discovery. It allows the community to self-curate the very best of our own output while re-establishing the value of human editorial oversight in a transparent and open way.

Furthermore we think that by connecting the curation process with a new distribution mechanism we can contribute something of great value to the community of travel content creators, publishers and our audiences. A mutual asset that rewards and promotes reliable, useful and inspirational travel journalism over the dross that has been promoted under the reign of search and social media algorithms.

We are busy finalising a number of features before launching our public site in a few weeks. In the meantime we’re inviting anyone with an interest in what we’re doing to pay us a visit, start to share & participate, and help bang the drum.

And if you have any thoughts or comments I’d be happy to answer in the comments here.

Goodbye ads and editorial – welcome the new edvertorial

30 May

Goodbye ads and editorial – welcome the new edvertorial

Can you be sure the piece you’re reading online these days is totally unbiased? Does it matter?

Increasingly web-only publishers don’t seem to care. At all. is a really interesting example. They’ve developed a whole new program called Brand Voice. It allows brands to publish their own content right there on the website with – as far as I can tell - no intervention at all. (There is a selection process to begin with, but then they can just publish with no oversight.)

More than this… if people are reading these pieces and liking them, they get shown alongside ‘normal’ editorial in the ‘Most Read on Forbes’ trending box. According to this really interesting post on

Their content rises and falls on merit, just as it does for staffers and contributors.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about this, both as a journalist and as a reader. All I can say is I ‘think’ this piece is an example of the Brand Voice content… and I struggle tell the difference. It looks identical. It is signposted at the top of the piece. And… at the moment the link to the explanatory page about the Brand Voice concept is um, broken.  (click 'What is this?' to see what I mean)

Forbes Brand Voice: Connecting marketers to the Forbes audience. What is this?

Buzzfeed is another oft quoted example of a publisher going down this route. But perhaps a little surprisingly the signposting with this example in partnership with the Economist is much more explicit (ie better?) And then there’s Quartz. I can’t for the life of me find a story written by a brand on there. But it’s certainly  happening. Does that mean I didn’t find any… or is the distinction so blurred it’s impossible to tell?

In a business to business environment this kind of thing feels totally fine and is pretty common. You get the CEO of say a major travel company writing his weekly column for Travel Weekly - and it has been like this for years. (But it does tend to be a column). How about Tyler Brule writing his regular column for the FT when he also happens to be the driving force behind Monocle magazine? So what? No big deal.

But these examples above feel more out there. I’m convinced that the Forbes model in particular is blurring the line between editorial content written by journalists in the employ of the publisher and content written on behalf of sponsors so much people will  very quickly forget all about it and read one piece just like any other. Except it isn't. One piece has been paid for by a company that wants ultimately to influence you to buy their stuff, not by an impartial journalist who will try and show both sides of a story.

I think it’s particularly concerning that there’s apparently little or no editorial control. The crowd just decides whether they ‘like’ a piece enough for it to trend and thus get read by more people. It 'rises and falls on  merit'. (What the heck does that mean?) And, how easy could it be to influence that little algorithm if you wanted to - vote it up by getting a bunch of people to rate it?

People often bemoan the death of the writer in the wild world of web, but for me it’s the death of the editor that’s perhaps even more concerning. Editorial oversight – to ensure quality, accuracy, lack of bias and appropriateness for an audience. It's all being totally cast off.

What do you think?

Pic by Photojohnny

The future for social travel websites? An interview with WAYN CEO Pete Ward

25 Jan

The future for social travel websites? An interview with WAYN CEO Pete Ward

I don’t usually do PR things. But I was offered the chance to talk to Pete Ward the CEO of WAYN (Where Are You Now?) a few weeks back. I vaguely remembered this backpacker social network site from way back – long before Facebook. And, it’s still going strong with some 21 million users. Regular readers will know I am no fan of Facebook. So, how was a social media business like WAYN surviving? I was curious to find out – particularly because they were on the verge of relaunching with a completely new user experience. I found Pete engaging, thoughtful and interesting. Here’s what we talked about:

What’s WAYN’s mission? Has it changed?
Imagine you can see where your mates are on a map. That was how it started. Mainly as a result of my own backpacking experiences. Nowadays it has evolved - to help people make the most out of life. Our vision is to help people discover where to go, what do to and who to meet.

Who are your customers?
It’s a global audience of people who love to travel. But not as big a backpacker market concentration as you’d think. Our biggest demographic is 25 to 35. But our most active demographic is over 50. I think that participating in it made older people feel a bit younger – and even allowed them to be a bit voyeuristic.

What does the new site do compared to the old site?
This has been the biggest shift we’ve ever made. We are only 10% of the way. Even at 10% we’re very excited. Not just the travel website scene but the web more generally has seen the ‘Pinterestisation’ of media, the way we engage with content on line is evolving - fast. Previously we had a quite magazinesque site -  a nice shop front but not much else. But social sites like Facebook reinvented this – things like the newsfeed, the wall for accessing info and ideas are quite different… adding content from people like you – personalization and relevance and timeliness is changing the way we consume and create content. Filtering is a big thing and it's still not done very well.

Why have you made these changes?
I don’t think anyone has cracked social travel including ourselves. Trip Advisor are doing it quite well, Gogobot has nice design features but doesn’t have the scale. We’re been around a while and have an ever growing community. What has been the core ingredient? We are social in our DNA. People come to the site to connect and socialise – that is the glue for our community and that’s what makes it a sticky site.

Our realisation was that if we are going to truly become the leading travel social platform we need to rebuild from the bottom up- but we mustn’t lose the social engagement. So we took the social engagement stuff and fused it with a recommendation engine for where to go and what to do. We recognise that our users will provide some of that info, but there are other things like check ins from other social sites, content like recommendations from Time Out and expert reviews that complement the decision-making process so the wall is a great way to integrate all  those elements and then to personalise it so that it’s really relevant.

What’s your view on making people share more to access more of your services? The premium services look exactly like Badoo - a dating site – is WAYN about dating or about travelling?
Is the impulse the same? Yes from a purely social context. There’s the same human needs that drive engagement – influence – everyone wants to be seen to be influential in something… the more friends you have the better.

People are that shallow…?
[Laughs] Well, they are interested in popularity – it makes them feel good. Everyone. Even the over 50s. Think about the celebrity factor. Much as you’d like to treat these people like anyone else, you can’t help being a bit keen to be their friend. We look up to people who are better than us and want to be like them – it’s in our DNA.

That’s one side of sociability – but there’s a more generous thing. If you can encourage people to share advice and recommendations that makes them feel good about themselves.

Social in the context of travel isn’t ‘I want to meet them because they are fit’ it’s ‘I want to connect with them because I know they are influential on Paris’. So we want to algorithmically bring people who are authorities/experts to the fore – so people can endorse people they see as experts.

Could these experts be professionals rather than members? For example a brand’s social media manager?
Yes. We could say the social media manager for Visit London could be one of these experts. A tourist board can sponsor a page directly. We did a recent promotion where the Air New Zealand marketing manager was promoted as a genuine user and he used it to add content about his travels round the world and we promoted it more. It was hugely successful. Our members really engaged with it.

Do many people use the premium services?
Those who pay are 10 times more active. Less than one percent are subscribers at  the moment. But they represent nearly 10 percent of our traffic.

What’s the core revenue driver? Subscribers or advertising?
The real value is, we think, in monetisation with brands – that is the scalable opportunity. Once you have an active audience, that’s your opportunity - as long as you engage with them in a way that is relevant.

Do you agree that the moment a free service starts to focus more on monetization, the user experience deteriorates?
We’ve come full circle – you used to have to buy premium membership to interact. Then we went free and ad funded and now we are freemium. Money v traffic is the trade-off. We reckoned there is a way to get the best of both. Restrict the things that don’t stifle interaction but that are still regarded as valuable by users.

For example?
Sending messages – now you can send as many as you want. But if you receive a message you have to pay to see it. Another way to offset that is – if you don’t want to pay - do something that we value as a business... do something else to help us and we will give you access. So share WAYN with a bunch more of your friends for example - that gives us new customers.

Do you see a role for professionally written content on WAYN?
I do funnily enough – beforehand it was no. Now we are seeing the value in creating an aspirational platform which inspires people to discover new places and partnering with tourist boards has shown us that. Mostly it’s Tourist Boards that are the people who have the best content on their destination. By doing innovative social engagement campaigns with them we have found that users respond really well. So whether it will be commissioning directly from writers or more likely working with third parties like Tourist Boards I think it’s useful. There’s a place for pro-content on a social platform but it needs to be served up in a really smart way. Like say an awesome photo to get people to engage with something quick and short and then maybe dive deeper.

How is WAYN different to Trip Advisor?
We have a strong advantage over Trip Advisor. You know the 1 to 99% rule? Most people don’t add reviews only a minority do. People go to Trip Advisor much closer to the end of the booking process. What you don’t do is hang out there… it’s not like that. People’s WAYN profiles are much more rich… what people like, where they want to go, what they’d love to do… we have huge numbers of data points about people and social signal data too. You can follow a brand on WAYN as well… just like Facebook. We can break down the 350k friends of South Africa and look at the data and see… what are they looking for? We know for South Africa it’s adventure sports, then wine tasting. We got 160,000 respondents to a survey we did with South Africa. Doing more surveys with consumer brands is something we see as really interesting for our future business – everyone has an opinion and we can aggregate them really fast.

Do you see privacy as a growing issue
I’d say it’s a ‘perceived risk’ with privacy. Despite the naysayers – those same people are adding more content on themselves. Ultimately people don’t feel as protective – they accept it’s part of the process. You have to do it  to make the most of the service. The winning businesses will respect privacy and not abuse that trust. The negative impact is 10-fold… 28-fold. We aggregate data – which allows us to present more tailored offers to you. We’re going to serve you ads anyway – so might as well show you ads that. You might be interested in.


Any questions you think I should have asked and didn't?