Imagine this: I plunk down two versions of essentially the same thing on a table in front of you and ask you to pick between the two. One is free, and limitless. The other is better than the first one, but it costs money. Not that much money to be fair, but still, money.
Additionally you can pick the free one up right now and walk away with it. If you pick the one that costs money, you’ve got to fill out a form with 12 boxes of information before you can walk away.
Which one do you pick?
To their credit, a decent number of people pick the better one. But a much, much larger group of people – myself included – tend to pick the free one and walk away.
The thinking is something like this: sure better is always nice, but good enough is good enough, and free good enough… well that beats better. And that form and all of the friction that introduces – forget it! I just want to have my thing and walk away. I don’t want to fill out a form. Just give me the thing and let me get on with it. So keep your better thing, I’ll just make do over here with my free, frictionless, maybe-not-as-good but also totally limitless thing, thank you.
That is the scenario for digital news these days. And if you’re in the business of trying to sell a better version of the digital news, you very often find yourself on the wrong end of that buyer’s decision.
The thing is that for a huge chunk of readers (and my guess is that this gets more true as the readers in question get younger), ‘good enough, free and frictionless’ beats ‘better but costs money and has friction’. Even if the cost is nearly nothing.
Even if the cost is nearly nothing, in a world where there are free alternatives, the choice becomes binary: costs nothing versus costs something.
And the friction introduced by the cost – the friction of the transaction, of inputting your information into a form, of keeping track of the fact that you’re spending money – might even be a bigger deterrent than the actual cost itself.
So what to make of that? Should all news be free and advertising-supported? I don’t think so. As I said before, a fully advertising-supported news model tends to optimize over time toward worse news – news that is created primarily to get eyeballs, not to be a great news experience. That’s not really the news people want (though it IS often the news they choose).
I think what news organizations that want to charge for their digital news need to be doing is creating offerings that are different altogether than the free versions out there. Not simply better, but different. Create news products and offerings that have no free equivalent. And then don’t give those things away with ten free clicks before you have to sign up or whatever your paywall rule is.
That breaks this binary choice problem that paid digital news finds itself in. The choice is no longer between two things that are essentially the same, with one free and the other not, but between two things that are solidly different.
Netflix was worried about their sustainability when they were only offering licensed content – how long could they hold up against competitors who would undercut them continually, as streaming movies became more and more a commodity? Their answer was to create House of Cards, Orange Is The New Black, etc – experiences you can’t get anywhere else, great experiences, experiences you want, and that you have to pay Netflix for. Problem solved.
Of course you have to create something that is not only different, but something people want or need and will pay money for. That’s the hard part, right? Different is easy. Different that I want is hard.
Luckily that’s what people in product and media live for. So it is a hard problem, but one that people in the digital news industry should be throwing themselves into right now if they want to create products that people will pay for.