As the media world continues to evolve with new communication platforms, traditional outlets are increasingly making the transition to digital resulting in a shift in user consumption behavior. While the significance of print media is diminishing, the robust environment of digital content creation and sharing has driven search to become a major player in terms of media power.

Social media now plays a huge role in how we search for content, with the unveiling of Google’s Search Plus Your World proving that web search engine is not just serving index search results but increasingly based on personal preference and social history. Content that sits behind a paywall and thus cannot be shared out is missing a chance to strength SEO as it is lowering the opportunity for discovery as it inhibits the ease of social sharing.

But You Didn’t Charge Me Before?!

As consumers, for years we grown accustomed to the fact that many online information points do not normally charge us for their service. Instead of buying a magazine for a product review many consumers will turn to trusted blog source for advice or opinion pieces. This said, there is still a line between ‘freebie’ content and the value of something you should pay for. In recent Forbes article: ‘No you can’t pick my brain, it costs too much’, a blogger spells out why it is not fair that “people automatically assume that you have to provide information for free”.

This raises the question, should we be paying for information we once paid for when offline? And if so, what must these companies do to convince us that the content is worth paying for? We have seen an increasing amount of content move online: novels going straight to e-books, national newspapers increasing their digital presence, most magazine articles ending with an obligatory ‘read more online’ and other media channels such as TV and radio moving continuously towards onto online streaming and downloading.

We cannot deny that the digital world is currently our oyster in terms of internet browsing, but if so much content is moving online, how long can we expect it to be given away for free? If more sites do start charging for their content, what does this mean in terms of user engagement and consumption?

Thoughts from the Crowd

To get a sense of what people thought about the implications of paywalls I asked the people of Twitter what they thought and the response was a rather mixed one: Edelman colleague @LukeMackay said “paywalls aren’t the problem. Users need to be convinced of the value of the content then the experience has to be easy (e.g. iTunes).” Another example of a successful pay-for-content method is Spotify, whereby users are offered content tiers and can pick which specifically suits them.

Fellow digital friend @marcelloalessi said he’d happily pay but not, say, for a whole issue when I’m interested in one particular article. Micro-payments would help.” It appears that many don’t mind paying for content if it is exclusive, easy to access and they are given a level of choice to how much or little content they sign up for.

On the other hand, social media marketer @ChelseyJo made the point that “If people have to pay, they will look elsewhere to get it for free. Might as well keep them on your page.” This raises the point that user engagement should be valued as much as the hard cash.

Exclusive Content

The only way in which paying for content makes sense is if the content is exclusive or you are paying for something that you can’t easily get anyway else. For example, a customer would not buy a book and if they had already read parts of it elsewhere for free. Paywalls work for people who have a particular individual they follow (such as Caitlin Moran’s articles for The Times) which asks the question whether users are following sites based on the overall content, or individual contributors. Due to individuals really making their mark online by freely publishing their content in other places as well as the traditional media houses, the ‘value’ or exclusivity of content on a specific websites may be down to the byline of the author, not the website itself.

Edelman colleague Marshall Manson made a similar point on the Edelman podcast ‘SOPA & content rights’ that discusses how the information marketplace is changing. He gave the example that if business editor Robert Peston was to move elsewhere from the BBC, he would probably continue following his posts, as it is Peston’s own POV that brings the value. This suggests that individuals can now publish their own content and amass their own followings independent of the organization that used to pull in the audiences.

We Create Content Too!

An issue that comes hand in hand with paywalling content is the fact that as individuals we co-create, share and are often the inspiration behind content. Take Huffington Post bloggers for example; these bloggers go unpaid, however are a main source of content providers. Clay Shirky’s TED Talk on ‘why SOPA is a bad idea’ brings up the issue that comes with bills such as PIPA: ‘we don’t like only to consume…. We like to produce and we like to share’. Paywalls inhibit the consumers’ right to share and produce. This puts a barrier up between ‘site’ and ‘user’ and does not allow for any sort of collaboration or sharing. These media sites are therefore missing out of opportunities for users to be carriers of the content and to share with their wider networks.

It’s All About Engagement

The key issue with paywalls is that it inhibits the natural instinct for users to share what they have read. Reading something and then wanting to pass it on is a key part of how people behave online, not to mention increasing engagement levels via organic user activity. Clicking on links on social networks that have paywalls may end up deterring users from clicking on that particular site again. ‘Sharing’ is a metric that is being monitored with greater frequency, the ‘share’ button on Facebook has just as much, if not more kudos on Facebook as the ‘like’ button on wall posts. ‘Sharing’ means getting further into the users newsfeeds. In terms of Twitter, millions of links are shared daily and studies show that links are shortlived showing that links in fact have a “half life of 2.8 hours.”

The social media editors of paywalled sites are also changing their online engagement strategy. Instead of being able to share best content with all readers, Chris Snider makes the point that they have to start acting ‘more like marketers than journalists’ as they try to convince the community to pay for the content instead of just sharing engaging tweets.

Image credit: Allanran 917

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