Google hones in on the right idea

It’s no secret that many newspapers and magazines are struggling as readers turn to the internet for free content. While some online media have successfully adopted paywall systems, most traditional media are finding that online revenues don’t come close to what traditional print revenues once were, and that customers are reluctant to pay what they perceive as high monthly fees for content they may be able to get for free elsewhere.

I have long advocated a universal micropay strategy for online media: a vendor, such as PayPal, might automatically charge readers a small amount (pocket change) for each article read on a participating website. No muss, no fuss, no $9.95 monthly subscription fee, just access to the content the reader wants and nothing more.

Google is finally coming around to my approach. In an article in the January 2013 issue of PCWorld, Sarah Jacobson Purewall describes Google Wallet for Web content. Says Purewall,

“Google says the service is an ‘experiment’ to see whether people are willing to pay for individual articles and webpages ‘if the buying process is sufficiently easy.’ In other words, Google suspects that the reason people are wary of paying for online content is because it’s not very easy—after all, nobody wants to sign up for a new service and hand over their credit card number for a $1 (or less) article.”

How will this process work? Purewall writes,

Users will see a long preview of the article, usually the first several paragraphs (although it sounds like businesses will be allowed to determine how much of the content they want to display). The rest of the text in the article/webpage will be grayed out, so people will still be able to see, roughly, how much content they’re paying for.

I’ve long said this is the only way to make online media profitable: make it painless for consumers to pay for media. Consumers find large subscription fees inconvenient, especially when there is so much free content on the web. However, as iTunes has shown, they will drop $0.99 or $1.29 for a song. A buck is painless; 10 bucks is lunch.

Purewall is doubtful, saying,

I’m not going to lie; I don’t really see this new Google Wallet endeavor working out in any real way. Certainly there will be people who desperately want to read one or two articles—enough to pay for them—but for the most part I think people will fall into one of two categories: people who want to read multiple articles from one source, and who will ultimately end up purchasing a subscription; and people who sort of wanted to read an article, but who are perfectly willing to go elsewhere in search of free content.

However, I think consumers of online media fall into three, not two categories:

    1. Hardcore readers: Those who want multiple articles from one source and will buy a subscription. Example: Wall Street Journal readers.
    2. Cheapskates: Those who will go elsewhere for free content. These people are more likely to get their news and entertainment from the front page of Yahoo!.
    3. Casual shoppers: Not hardcore enough to buy a subscription, but willing to pay for occasional articles from quality sources that catch their eye.

These folks don’t mind paying a small fee to read something interesting that is dangled in front of them. I think iTunes is proof of concept.

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