We've done the "paywall' debate over and over again, and it's hardly worth rehashing. However, the latest discussion among those who focus on such things is the fascinating experiment by uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan, who has spent the past few years tethering his blog to big media properties who pay him for the privilege, but who has decided to go completely independent, with no ads
and fully supported (he hopes!) by loyal fans of the site paying at least $19.95. As he makes clear, this is not
a paywall. At best, you could consider it a very weak "nagwall." All of the content will remain free and available. The full text RSS feeds will remain free from "the meter" (as he calls it). The only people who will be impacted are those who read the site directly and click "read more" on longer posts that have to be expanded to read the whole thing. Those who don't pay and visit the site directly and click read more on those articles will see a few for free and then be asked to pay -- though, they could just revisit the page by finding a link. That's because any visit from a link won't count towards the meter. He's right that this isn't a paywall, and in many ways it's similar to the NY Times' setup
, which isn't really a paywall either.
And, the initial results are fantastic. They brought in $333k in the first day
, which is pretty amazing. The site has a staff of seven, and it sounds like they're hoping to get over a million to cover salaries and expenses. Also interesting is that the $19.95 payment is a minimum option: there's a pay-what-you-want option above that, and "on average, readers paid almost $8 more" than that minimum. Of course, that data might be skewed by the fact at least one person ponied up $10,000
First off, I'll say that I think this is a cool experiment and hope that Sullivan succeeds (as it appears he's likely to do). Considering that we're a site with somewhat similar traffic numbers (from what's been reported) and staff, it's encouraging to think that readers would step up and support it to that level. I'm happy that he's not going with a "paywall," but a solution that recognizes the value of having his readers be able to share and link to the blog without fear of bumping into a wall. Also, I agree wholeheartedly with Jay Rosen who highlights that what makes this work is the incredibly strong relationship Sullivan has built
with his community. What's that saying? Oh yeah, connect with fans, give them a reason to buy
. I've heard that one before. Also, something about being open, human and awesome
. Sullivan hits on all those points. So it's very cool to see in action.
As excited as I am to see cool business model experimentation, and to see it in a manner that really is built on not locking up content, there are a few things that strike me as odd about this. These aren't criticisms
, per se, because as I've said, I think that the idea is wonderful for a site like Sullivan's Daily Dish, and I think it's quite likely to succeed. But some of the statements that Sullivan made in announcing this, and some of the explanation, just doesn't ring true to me. First up, he tosses out that old chestnut about how "if you're not paying for the product, you are the product." And this is just days after we had a good explanation for why that saying is mostly bullshit
. He follows that line with this one:
We want to treat our readers better than that, because you deserve better than that.
That strikes me as equally inaccurate. Treating your readers "better" means making them pay? Really? Yes, it's working
in that they're willing to pay (which is great), but it seems ridiculous to argue that your readers are so valuable... that they should pay you. Getting people to pay is a perfectly fine business model if you can pull it off, but it's no more noble
than other business models. The readers in that situation may not be "the product," but now they're "the money," and that has its own issues.
Now, of course, we have plenty of experience with this ourselves. We've set up ways that readers can pay us directly as well
(and we appreciate each and every one who has supported us in that way!). But we don't claim that one way is somehow more pure than the other -- and we try to focus on providing additional benefits
for those who do decide to support us: whether it's neat features
, opportunities to hang out
or cool merchandise
. But there's nothing more "pure" about one model than another.
My second issue is really the flipside of the first. Along with highlighting the "purity" of getting his audience to pay, he denigrates the entire concept of advertising:
The decision on advertising was the hardest, because obviously it provides a vital revenue stream for almost all media products. But we know from your emails how distracting and intrusive it can be; and how it often slows down the page painfully. And we're increasingly struck how advertising is dominated online by huge entities, and how compromising and time-consuming it could be for so few of us to try and lure big corporations to support us. We're also mindful how online ads have created incentives for pageviews over quality content.
Now, it's absolutely true that an awful lot of advertising sucks
in exactly the manner described above. But that doesn't mean it needs
to be that way. There's a growing recognition in the industry that intrusive and annoying advertising is not the way to go for exactly the reasons that Sullivan explains above. But as we've discussed, when you do advertising right
, it's simply good content
itself that people want. That's why a month from now, the most popular thing on Superbowl Sunday won't be the football game, but the commercials. There are times that people seek out
advertising and are happy
to see it. And compelling ad/sponsorship campaigns need to be about that.
Now, it's reasonable to admit that many marketers haven't full grasped this concept, and dragging them, kicking and screaming, into this new era is not something that Sullivan and his team wants to take on. And that's a reasonable argument (and, as someone who's spent way too much time trying to convince marketers of this thing, only to see them default back to silly, pointless, misleading ad metrics, I can completely respect such a decision). But, it seems wrong to slam "all advertising" into a single bucket, just because some
(or even a lot
of) advertising is done really poorly.
Again, I think this is a great move for Sullivan and his blog, and wish him tremendous success. We're certainly watching closely from over here. But, it still makes me cringe a little to see those two claims being made in his announcement. Yes, perhaps it helps in the positioning -- and framing the whole thing as some grand social experiment in purity over crass commercialism. In other words, it's a form of marketing all on its own. But, I still think it's a bit unfair and exploitative, without being particularly accurate.