As we move into fall, the year-long revival of the paid content argument shows no sign of easing. I have attended and hosted panel after panel and webinar after webinar on this relentless topic. In recent months, CourtTV founder Steve Brill and his partners have started shopping around their Journalism Online project, which offers a standardized content payment system and bundled content model for publishers. I have heard a growing conviction that "emerging platforms" and "devices" will help alter the relationship between digital content providers and their users. These ever-hopeful publishers point to the fees Kindle users pay for their digital newspaper and blog content and the success of paid content on the iPhone App Store. We will pay for the convenience of portability, they argue.
The problem with much of the thinking in the paid content discussion is that the core question comes at the issue from the wrong angle: How do we make them pay? Much of the effort is aimed at limiting access to material in the hope that users will pay for the best stuff, guilting them into subscribing with PBS-style appeals, or pushing them onto platforms where payment is de rigueur or required. There is so much discussion around the improbability of changing user habits to accommodate publisher needs that too little attention is paid to users who are already paying for digital goods.
Conventional wisdom has it that users will pay for content that makes or saves them money or is directly relevant to their health. In this equation, the value of content is proportionate to core aspects of our lives: health and security. But there is at least one other variable at work here that can make otherwise commoditized content worth paying for: timing. For example, the Better Homes & Gardens family of sites is awash in free, ad-supported content on home decorating. The BH&G brand also offers a $19.95, 3-month access package to a site it calls Decorating Inspirations, which contains 20,000 images aimed at inspiring a DIY decorator during a remodel. No doubt an enterprising DIY-er could comb the web for decorating ideas and even get many free ones from BH&G's other sites. But this package is targeted not only to a specific user and topic, but to a period of time, a moment of need.
Timing is everything, even to the godfather of online paid content, ConsumerReports.org. With more than 3 million paid monthly subscribers, ConsumerReports.org is often singled out as a special case in the paid model. Its content is unique, proprietary, and highly valued. This is true to a degree. However, in areas such as auto, where the company competes with the highly respected free sites Edmunds.com and KBB.com, even ConsumerReports.org has to try a little harder. In this more competitive environment, ConsumerReports.org offers 3-month specially priced access to the auto content as well as model-specific Auto Price Reports that drill into the prices your own local dealers paid for a vehicle. The data is unique, but the timing of the data is just as important.
When a user is in the market for a given task, the value of even commoditized content rises. We shouldn't be asking what makes readers pay. We should be exploring the points at which paying for content is trivial. If I am about to make a $25,000 auto purchase, and ConsumerReports.org can convince me it has vital information about that purchase, then $14.95 for a pricing report is a no-brainer. If I am decorating my house and BH&G can bring even familiar web content together in a focused, usable way during that 3-month redesign window, then it is of special worth. The relevance and value of the content is directly related to my situation, not to some philosophy I may have about paying for digital content.
Of course, finding opportunities for selling content into moments of user need is a difficult task, and it works at a different scale from the all-you-can-eat subscription models many publishers would like to see online. The good news is that people are paying for content online when it meets an immediate need. The bad news is that the revenue these programs produce will likely be incremental.
Nevertheless, mapping user need is going to be critical to understanding audiences better. In the old days, publishers pointed to demographics as the way they located the value of their audience. Now publishers have to start looking at other cycles in users' lives and craft packages that find and intercept moments of need.