Editor's Note: Brother, Can You Spare a Dollar?


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Are you the charitable type? Or have you worn out your moral fiber from years of reading and trading free electronic content on the Web? I'm beginning to see brave comments that venture the idea that surfers are ready and willing to spend money on content—that we've shaken the free content monkey from our backs. Excellent. Bring it on. There's a ton of sites out there that deserve to stay operational because of the quality content they offer. A few mistakes during the hype-filled heyday doesn't mean they should be damned to failure. Remember, offering professional quality content to the public for free was once not only revolutionary, it was pretty generous, too.

Yet, in this mad dash for revenue, we often forget the Web sites that may not have the financial resources to implement an inhouse, or even outsourced, commerce framework. They're cobbled together by various volunteer efforts and the clever ones are truly useful and/or entertaining sites. Labors of love. Yet, inevitably, there are costs associated with even the most lo-fi efforts—hardware, creative, broadband service, and others all sap precious finances. To shore this up, we're seeing a play for ecommerce in the form of tip jars—a small box often appearing in the left or right sidebars of a Web site, sometimes personalized, asking the user for a dollar or two (users are welcome to commit more if they're feeling spendy). I'm not sure if it's exactly "sweeping the Web," but I'm seeing more and more sites tapping into the donation concept. Fundamentally, it's used to facilitate charitable transactions, enabling users to donate to worthy causes. But many sites are adopting the boxes for standard income generation.

Not currently a deluge of revenue, and success certainly depends on both the nature of a site and its regular visitors, Web sites are nevertheless recouping some costs associated with upkeep and maintenance.

It's an interesting concept. Users can assign their own value to the content they regularly access and it's strictly voluntary. Importantly, however, the small boxes that say "Hi Bill Mickey. Spend $2 to support so-and-so's Web site" wake you up and remind you that what you've been reading or watching all this time is actually an expense coming from someone else's pocket. (By the way, I understand what cookies are, but it still freaks me a little when I see a personalized message when I'm not expecting it.)

Amazon and Paypal seem to be the current enablers of the tip jar phenomenon—Amazon calls it the Honor System. For example, Amazon will serve up a small box, a "paybox", on the Web page. The box can be slightly customized, which includes the ability to greet users by name. I suspect the paybox is able to do this if the user registered with Amazon at one time or another. Minimum payments are $1. Amazon takes $0.15 plus 15% of the total as their cut, so that's $.30 on a one-dollar transaction. Amazon transfers earnings directly into the Web site owner's checking account. Earnings are disbursed every two weeks and they're trackable.

It's difficult for the site owner to enforce the income—remember, it's voluntary. Payors can refund themselves if they decide to back out of the deal, even after plunking down a couple bucks in the paybox. So it's not a dependable revenue source. Though I'll bet that if a Web master sets up a schedule structure to support the paybox, users might be convinced to contribute what they can on a monthly basis, which might loosely resemble a subscription model.

So while the tip jar phenomenon might not be a never-ending revenue stream, it does act as another way to engage the users and divorce them from the nice but, in most cases, slightly unrealistic notion of something for nothing.