Is This The Future Of Online Publishing? Leading Chinese Social Networks Add Paid-For Content

from the worth-a-try dept

One of the topics that generates strong feelings in the online world is adblocking. Many users love it, but many publishers hate it. That’s a big problem, because advertising has turned into the main way of funding what appears on the Internet. As adblockers become more common, so the advertising revenue available to pay for creating articles, images, sound and video diminishes. Some want to ban adblockers, but that’s hardly a solution: forcing visitors to your site to view ads they hate is not a good way to foster a long-term business relationship. Improving ads seems a better approach, but that’s easier said than done, and may come too late now that so many people have installed adblockers.

The other obvious solution is to charge people to view online material. There’s been a certain reluctance to try that approach, partly because of the misleading slogan “information wants to be free”, and partly because historically it hasn’t worked in general. But it seems that major online players in China are now starting to roll out the paid-for model, perhaps in part because adblockers are widely used there, as in the West. Here’s what the biggest online service, WeChat, with a billion accounts created, and at least 700 million active users, is trying, as reported by technode:

WeChat, Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s social networking and chat app, will roll out paid services for the content offered by official accounts, an authority at the Chinese internet giant told Yicai Global.

WeChat invited selected official accounts to trial its paid content function, which is not open to general users for the time being.

As their name suggests, WeChat’s “official” accounts are a step up from personal ones. They can be be verified for a fee, and allow services to be offered. A few years ago, there were 8 million such accounts; the number today is likely to be higher. The same technode article reports on research carried out by WeChat’s parent company Tencent:

A survey of more than 1,700 netizens conducted by a Tencent research unit found 55 percent of respondents had paid for professional knowledge or advice, including paid content and documents in the past year. Over 50 percent of Chinese netizens have paid or are willing to pay for contents, compared with only 30 percent two years ago, an iResearch report found.

Another established Chinese company that hopes it can get its users to pay for online material is Douban, an upmarket social network focusing on the arts, with around 200 million users. China Film Insider has news about Douban Time, a new paid-for service:

Douban Time will feature curated texts, images and sound from experts and writers in different fields. Catering to its audience, Douban Time?s first offering is a 102-episode poetry review program which will invite poets and critics to give lessons in poetry appreciation.

Although 102 episodes on poetry appreciation might sound like something of a specialized offering, it is probably well-suited to Douban’s sophisticated user base. And perhaps it will turn out that the solution to finding alternative business models for online publishing is precisely this kind of niche approach, rather than the current advertising system based on volume, that is now struggling badly.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Companies: tencent, wechat

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Comments on “Is This The Future Of Online Publishing? Leading Chinese Social Networks Add Paid-For Content”

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Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Interesting.. but...

I think this kind of thing is super interesting, but I disagree with the “future of online publishing” claim. This is little more than a traditional paywall. It works in this scenario for a few reasons — one being that WeChat is basically where Chinese users spend nearly all of their “online” time and it’s integrated basically everything (payments, services, and more). For folks who think that Facebook is dominant in the US or elsewhere, it’s nothing compared to WeChat’s dominance and deep integrations.

In short, the only way this kind of thing takes over elsewhere is a scenario in which Facebook (or something new beyond that) becomes much more dominant, and has built in an even stronger level of integration, and there’s little else to compete with).

Because otherwise you run into all the usual paywall problems: the mental transaction costs of whether or not the content is worth it, the competition from lots of free content and more…

Anyway, many years ago, I wrote that many of the claims about “paid content” misstate what people are really paying for. They tend to usually actually be paying for something else in the form of content: things like convenience or a service or the ability to make money. I still think that holds. That means some kinds of content can work in a paywall, if it’s really accomplishing those other things. But traditional content doesn’t usually cut it, without special circumstances.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Interesting.. but...

Here’s an idea: add means for people to become benefactors of determined themes or even journalistic works in progress.

For instance: I like journalist X so the outlet he works at allows me to be his benefactor giving him/her some money now or supporting him/her monthly. I like a determined subject, say “Trump’s black past: a Michael Jackson Replay” so I can sponsor it. It’s not mandatory. It’s kind of like flattr but it could be used to pre-fund some stuff.

Max says:

Re: Re: Interesting.. but...

You seem to be talking about Patreon. But it has to be said, it also only works for certain kinds of things and certain people – many don’t get much traction there either. And it certainly doesn’t scale: I feel there are many more people deserving my support than I actually manage to contribute to.

David (profile) says:

Kill Flash!

Depending on the site itself and the type/frequency/brashness of the ads dictate whether I use a blocker. The biggest difference is Flash. If a particular ad provider supports Flash based ads I block the provider itself, not the site. If the site promotes ads that use flash or itself using flash then I simple never go back to the site.

Google bought Originally I had them blocked because, regardless of anything else, many pages wouldn’t load because they were waiting on them. I unblocked it now as while it was better initially, it degraded.

Anonymous Coward says:

Paywalls are almost certainly going to be the main source of revenue in the future, but probably not the way the main content services are pushing right now. It’ll probably be middle-men that bundle certain content under a blanket subscription model or pick and choose with a central payment system so one can pick what they want but only pay a single bill rather than myriad little ones and the additional bank fees that would incur.

Adblocking is not going away no matter how much content providers tantrum and stomp their feet. The web is a safer, saner, and lower resource use, with adblocking extensions. This is especially true on mobile devices where data use is limited, bandwidth is tight, and system resources lighter. I go so far with mobile devices to keep not only an adblocker, but NoScript as well, and block website downloaded fonts. Mobile browsing has become more palatable.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It’s hardly "selling out" to allow your on-site advertising to be handled by a third party. Who would one be "selling out" to, in that situation?

It’s less shady than selling advertising directly. Direct advertising sales let advertisers contact Techdirt directly and (hypothetically) redirect TD’s editorial policy in return for advertising dollars. Third party ads don’t allow that kind of contact and TD can’t sell out to the advertisers.

Admittedly, TD had a bad-faith advertiser for a while, where they’d feed astonishingly loud and shite video ad reels to UK users while TD’s complaint staff were asleep in California, but if you’re going to accuse Techdirt of thereby having "sold out" to the UK government’s modern apprenticeship scheme and a brand of washing powder (two of the more obnoxious, often-repeated videos during that period), I’d like to see some examples of favourable coverage before I’ll be convinced you’re onto something.

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