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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?

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

Web Content 2.0 – aka a pile of cheap crap

27 Mar

Web Content 2.0 – aka a pile of cheap crap

I’ve not posted for a while. I got a really nice tweet from @DavidRobertHogg this week saying he wanted to read more from me. (Thank you).

The reason (apart from being busy) is frankly I’m depressed about the way things are going online. It feels like I might rant about how 'real people matter' and 'quality content counts', but the macro data suggests that actually the billions of schmucks who use the net couldn’t give a toss. For them the price-quality ratio has become totally decoupled. They expect to get stuff for free or at nominal cost and don’t think for a moment about what that means about what they are getting. It’s depressing.

The most recent example is one I came across mourning the fact that my Seville guidebook will probably never be published in print again. (Thanks Google). I was looking at Amazon and came across a Kindle-only competitor. It costs £1.02 compared with my guidebook which costs £6.74. (Admittedly my guidebook isn’t available as a Kindle book so it’s not a completely fair comparison). Guide to Seville by EUprintpresspublishing is a piece of crap – probably copied and pasted from Wikipedia and I think put through a piece of translation software. A couple of sentences from the first paragraph:

“Seville (Seville Seville in English or in Spanish) is the artistic, cultural and financial capital of Andalusia and Seville province. It is situated in a plane passing through the Guadalquivir river – sailing from Seville to the site of injection in the bay of Cadiz in the Atlantic ocean.”

What a piece of unmitigated shite.

I tweeted about it and got some amused tweets of horror back from other travel writers like @Mike_Gerrard, @mary_novakovich and @itsjamesstewart as they looked at other examples from the series and came up with:

“house-boats in Amsterdam are 'complete homes with electricity, water, gas and sewage'”

“inside the Cuba guide it refers to that well-known cook 'Chef Guevara'

Should Amazon (and others who are tech companies but pretend they are publishers like Google and Apple) engage in at least some quality control and not let people publish crap like this?

Mike suggested that ‘people would decide if these books are any good’. The Seville guide does have two 1* reviews which are pretty explicit about how bad the guides are. Like this one:

“A few pages of badly translated, half baked information. I was shocked to find that such an item was available.”

But Mike also discovered that EVERY guide has a glowing 5-star review by someone called Deni who didn't buy the book.

This then is ‘content’ online these days. The idiots who use the internet are so dumb, they buy it. And the people who publish it engage in fraudulent activity to promote it.

Is there anything we can do? Will the market ensure crap like this sinks to the bottom of the pile or will we all drown in piles of it and find it increasingly hard to discover the good stuff?


Are algorithms better than editors?

14 Nov

Are algorithms better than editors?

'Big data’ is a phrase that’s getting a lot of airplay at the moment. The basic premise is that nowadays we have the computing power at our fingertips to be able to crunch massive quantities of disparate information and use it to unearth previously unappreciated things - about people.

The US election came down ultimately to just few counties in a few swing states according to various media reports. And that’s because both parties had huge databases of information that they had gathered about voters that allowed them to predict very accurately how states and even counties would vote long before polling day. This allowed them to micromanage the campaign. Spending their resources only on the people that ‘mattered’.

On the one hand this seems really smart. It’s a bit of a holy grail for marketers this kind of stuff. To roll out the oft quoted phrase attributed to John Wanamaker. "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.” Increasingly with the web and big data to help them, marketers DO know which half is wasted. (Or they think they do.)

Take this thinking to its conclusion and you can see that in politics this approach could be massively undemocratic. People who live in states which are bound to vote a particular way regardless (according to the data wonks) aren’t worth talking to at all. Leave them alone – don’t even bother to tell them anything much at all. Conversely, imagine if you just happen to live in one of the key swing state counties that the data wonks have worked out really matter – your vote is suddenly worth exponentially more than the votes of millions of people elsewhere. It would be worth moving to one of these counties just to have that kind of influence.

I’ve recently read The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You by Eli Pariser and it’s just brilliant. Its basic premise is quite similar. As algorithms get better and better at knowing what you want (or what they think you want), they’ll just keep dishing that up and you’ll never see anything else. So, click on the same friend a few more times on Facebook and their updates get pushed up in your newsfeed – do that enough and it’s possible that you’ll increasingly see only the updates of same few friends that Facebook thinks ‘really’ matter to you at the expense of all the others. Likewise for Google. Keep searching for say information that suggests you have a bias towards voting Republican (stuff that’s pro gun ownership maybe?) and slowly the search engine will start serving up more of the same and you’ll see less and less stuff that’s more Democrat leaning (stuff that’s pro gay marriage for example). You’ll begin to be locked inside a bubble of stuff that is highly 'relevant' to you to the extent that it will shut out all conflicting points of view.

Both of these concepts are fundamentally about the ability of technology to know us better than we know ourselves or to be better at deducing subtle connections than we can ever hope to be. And maybe (maybe) it is. But is that a good thing?

You know all that stuff you stick on your Facebook page? It’s not just Facebook using it. It gets sold on to huge third party companies that use it to model and predict behaviour. They are getting better and better at it. Soon they will know that because you like Homeland you are more likely to buy one brand of soft drink over another or one car over another. Did you know that when you read a book on Kindle, Amazon is watching what you read? So you spent the afternoon reading a book of fiction which has a chapter in it featuring a car chase where the hero drives a BMW? It won’t be long before the ad you get served up next time you hit Amazon will be for… a BMW.

So… you might have guessed that I’m not a huge fan of big data. I believe the Net should be about helping us make more interesting and unexpected connections – about serendipity and about humanity ahead of technology and profit.

What has all this got to do with content then? This week a company called Percolate raised 9 million USD in series A funding. Percolate has developed a platform to help brands use social media more effectively. It uses an algorithm to suggest content ideas for social media community managers (ie the people that run a brand’s Facebook page or blog etc). This means they can spend their time producing more content that’s ‘appropriate’ more quickly.

To quote some of the stuff on their website: Percolate’s goal is to make content creation easy by prompting community managers with ideas and inspiration…  Percolate is constantly scanning for interesting areas for the brand to explore for stock content, whether that’s a long-form blog post, an infographic or a video.

Who needs research and consideration to write content? Just get an algorithm to come up with the ideas for you. But how would you feel if you were reading stuff created off the back of prompts from a piece of technology rather than by a real person?

My Content Manifesto – Back to basics at Travelblogcamp

6 Nov

Here's the content of my talk at Travelblogcamp - delivered to a boisterous room of travel writers, bloggers, PRs and tour cos on the evening of Tuesday 6th November.

What does back to basics mean?

I thought long and hard about this. I decided for me it means putting aside the bright glittery things that the internet throws at us and remembering what really matters. Sure technology marches onwards – but you know what? People are still people. They still have similar desires when it comes to choosing a holiday. They still need similar information much of the time.

Apparently there’s some kind of big election going on this evening. Something to do with the next leader of the free world (apparently). And back to basics has a bit of a campaigning edge to it doesn’t it. It could almost be a conservative party slogan.

So, ladies and gents – I give you my Back to Basics content manifesto. Like I say, it’s at heart all about trying to ignore the frilly bullshit of the net and focus on important stuff. Stuff that’s about people, not machines.

Like any good manifesto it has a bunch of bullet points - unlike most manifestos there will probably be a few swear words.

1) Great content isn’t regulated by Google
I hate the way Google has become this all-knowing arbiter of what’s best. We are so lazy – it’s so damn easy to click the first search result Google (or Bing for that matter) comes back with. You know what – I’ll let you into a little secret. Google is still gameable. Big companies spend zillions on SEO because despite all the pandas and penguins you can still game the algorithm. And frankly – it just isn’t that good anyway. So… people… once in a while make yourself go to page 6. Don’t let Google dictate what is or isn’t good. And if you find something that’s good there… on page 6. Promote it… talk about it. Tell your friends and colleagues to read it. Go on - G+ it if you really must.

2) Great content should not be at the behest of advertisers
If your business model relies solely on advertising, then the ad guys will rule the roost and sure as day follows night the content you publish will be compromised. They just want your content to sell stuff for them. People don’t as a rule like being sold to very much. I read a great interview in the Times magazine with Lewis Hamilton a while back. There was sentence in there about how Lewis was wearing a particular brand of watch (Tag if you want to know). It was totally unsubtle. So much so that I’m sure the writer did it on purpose. Lewis Hamilton is of course sponsored by them. I hate that shit. It is so demeaning to the reader. Are we – any of us – that easy to influence? (PR people – next time you insist on some kind of lunatically obvious product placement… ask yourself what the point is. And if it’s just to keep your client happy have the guts to tell then they are wrong.)

3) Great content should not be free
I hate the way content online is free. It distorts the market. How can we as consumers tell what’s good and what’s not if there is no price attached to anything? It’s the most basic of mechanisms in consumer society. And the smart arses who came up with the idea of short circuiting it did us all a massive disservice. By ‘good’ I don’t just mean how well written something is, but how trustworthy and believable. Friends – if you are enjoying ‘free’ content or ‘free’ social networks – firstly it might well not be any good. Secondly you are paying for it – far more subtle and dubious ways. YOU are the content. Your every move is being watched so that you can be sold stuff. The sophistication of this technology is getting better and better – but it has hardly started. I don’t like that one little bit. If you want a great book to put on your Christmas present list I cannot recommend The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From Youby Eli Pariser highly enough. If you want to really see where the free model will end up… read it and be as concerned as I am. Don’t worry – there’s a link to the book on my blog – right now.

4) Great content is all about the reader
I work for a search and social media agency iCrossing part time – mainly because I got bored of the lousy money on offer for travel writing. One thing that I have been amazed by is the number of big brand companies that you ask ‘who is your customer’ and they don’t have a clue. The old model of creating search term driven fluff to reel people in and try and sell them stuff has made many larger travel brands totally lazy. They just spent cash gaming Google to get them at the top of search results and sat back. Just pour as many people in the top of the funnel and enough will book to keep you in business. It’s leading to a superabundance of cheap crap on the internet. Great content by contrast is written with a reader in mind. Do you know who yours are? If you take the time to create content that's properly focussed on your reader, they will come back. There's this old marketing maxim called the 80/20 rule. 20 % of your customers account for 80% of your business. Instead of just chucking as many people through the front door of your website as possible - try developing long term relationships with that 20% - they'll keep coming back if you give them reason to.

5) Great content takes time to create
One of the things that defines quality is uniqueness. And writing something unique takes time and research and consideration. It’s a craft. As readers we need to get better at spotting that kind of really great stuff and promoting it. And as content creators we need to stand up to whoever pays the bill and tell them how much it will cost and why they should make the investment. Sure it’s easy to say and hard to do – but the recent changes in the algorithm have produced this sudden obsession with content. In some ways that’s a good thing – at least it has made people think about content seriously. But it’s still all too often all about churning out mediocre content as fast as possible for SEO purposes. Insist on giving them better content and make them pay. It’s about quality not quantity. If you’ve banged something out in half an hour without doing any research first – take it from me – it’s crap.

6) Great content is about detail
Writing really good travel journalism is in my opinion about spotting the little things that people miss and surfacing them in smart and concise ways. Often it’s about taking the time to stop and look and listen and smell and taste. Moments of quiet on busy trips are often hard to come by – but they are gold dust. A vital part of listening is asking the right kinds of questions of the right kinds of people. Really good travel journalism is often about telling stories – other peoples’ stories. Learning to seek out those hidden gems of interest or local wisdom and finding entertaining and engaging ways to communicate them takes time and focus. It’s a craft and it’s something you can get better at even if you’ve done it for a decade or more.

7) Great content is collaborative
Remember editors? The role of the editor has been forgotten in the online world of self-published blogs. Editors can be arrogant people – but they tend to be where they are for a reason. The people in editorial positions at national magazines and newspapers and book publishers have an instinct for their readers that has taken years to develop. Importantly they are people (not an algorithm). They choose what to publish and what not to publish for all sorts of reasons. Some very subtle – often quite human. Content – proper content – is about real communication. And that suggests a relationship. Relationships are quirky, fun, frustrating things – but they are all about being human. I don’t want a machine dictating what I should read. I want a real person. Editors don’t just add coherence and relevance – they also ensure quality control. I’m sorry. Maybe kids in their 20s don’t care about decent sentence construction and grammar. But I do. That’s not about being pedantic. It’s about the craft of writing – things like rhythm, assonance, alliteration, metaphors and similes.

 What do you think?