Oh, Knock It Off And Pony Up!
I think there is a place for paid content online, but most publishers need to think harder about adding value in order to get there. On the mobile side, I was a persistent critic of the ridiculous paid content model that dominated the carrier decks for years. Paying $3 and $4 a month for underpowered downloadable apps that quickly disappeared in an impossibly structured deck probably retarded the mobile data eco-system more than it advanced it. Everyone, including most customers, realized that the carrier model depended on people forgetting they even owned the apps so they would continue to pay for stuff they didn't use.
All that being said, I feel compelled to come to the defense of the new PGA Championship app from Turner Sports and the PGA. With previous golf event apps having gone free, some commentators and golf fans are raising eyebrows over the $1.99 price tag on an app that is also sponsored by ING. Some user reviews gripe about the presence of a sponsor in an app they paid for, and most of these fans cite this break with recent models.
I have to disagree both about their assumptions and the observations. It seems to me that Turner is making a good first step here in providing a reasonable hybrid model that consumers have been accustomed to on cable TV, newspapers and magazines for decades. While I don't like the idea of dismissing consumer complaints as short-sighted and "spoiled by the Internet," it seems to me that mobile platforms do give publishers an opportunity to reassert the hybrid model the right way, by demonstrating added value.
First of all, the ING branding on this app is as sedate as one can imagine. I have not seen any interruptive advertising yet in the app. The ING brand sits opposite the PGA insignia on most screens, and I can't even click through on it to a landing page. Of course the full functionality of this app doesn't kick in until the actual game play starts later this week, but so far ING appears to be a purely passive recipient of the halo effect of helping to underwrite the app.
Are baseball game attendees and ticket buyers to these very golf tournaments complaining about the much more assertive sponsorships visible at the events themselves? I know these arguments have been made before and fallen on the deaf ears of consumers and some commentators, but at some point we have to step back and remember that there is nothing new, unfamiliar or offensive about a well-executed hybrid model of advertising and fees. Ironically, the sponsor branding in this app is infinitely less intrusive than any of the advertising viewers will experience at the tournament itself and in its live TV coverage.
More to the point, the app does what I think paid digital content should do to distinguish itself from commoditized information: it provides an identifiable service. Compared to the free Masters Tournament app I tried, the PGA app adds greater personalization features and is more polished overall. Both apps did and will feature live video streaming of the event, but the Turner app has a customizable leaderboard, instructional videos, personal alerts of news for up to five players, and deeper individual profiles of players.
I think most non-proprietary digital content makes the case for a paid model when it provides a clear service to an interested user. At the very least, the PGA app vaults past a nominal $1.99 fee. If I can get alerts throughout the tournament when one of my favorites makes a run for leadership and when I can dip into the app for a live view into the event, that's real value.
At the same time, if we are going to pursue a hybrid model on mobile, then publishers and advertisers owe it to consumers to be restrained and respectful. I think a paying customer should expect sponsorships that don't interrupt the experience. Advertisers and content providers should be thinking about sponsorships that demonstrably add value with real content that is underwritten by a client, or just well-targeted sponsor content people really might want to see.
Publishers themselves will be making a big mistake if they see the mobile platform as an opportunity simply to "make 'em pay." Instead, the mobile platform offers enough personalization, localized information, and unique kinds of interactivity to make a pay model make sense to consumers. This only works if the content providers do something better than spew out mere "content" and expect to be paid. They need to be service providers.
In other words, we have an opportunity to rewrite the digital content contract with consumers, but only if all parties come to the table ready to pony up something.