To their credit, some publishers recognize that users will not simply start paying for access to content that has been free all along, so they are trying to package added value. After watching Tiki Bar TV for several years, the series sent me an email the other day asking for me to become a paid member. TBTV is one of the few Web/podcast video series I find bearable to watch for more than an episode. This indie project was among the "Video Podcast" demos Apple used to promote its video iPod several years ago. The show poses as instructional segments about mixed drinks, but it is driven by three characters in a makeshift bar and their surreal misadventures with strange guests. Outtakes, blown lines and a lot of fourth-wall-busting punctuate the five-minute segments. The unique and fitting charm of the show is that it all feels mildly drunk. But TBTV is apparently sober enough to want some cash now.
The Tiki Bar crew is smart enough not to drop a sub wall around the show. But it is piling on the added value. Paid members will get the show in HD with 5.1 Dolby Digital, outtakes and deleted footage, and even entrée to personal happy-hour meetups when the cast take road trips to major cities.
For loyal but not passionate viewers like me, being part of this "club" is not worth the $49 annual bar tab, but it seems to me the drunken crew has their hearts in the right place. They have located a core of viewers with a passionate attachment to the show and offer them more for a fee. An allied but more promising model is cropping up as virtual good ecosystems in gaming communities both online and on mobile. IPhone/iPod Touch users may notice new apps that are described as "points" they can buy to enhance the play of several massively multiplayer games like iMob and Kingdom Live. Players of these games purchase the points to upgrade characters, buy goods and guns or open access to new gaming areas. It is a more targeted version of what Tiki Bar TV is trying to do with me: locate the users' passion with free material and then sell into it. Other mobile media companies, like social gaming provider Cellufun, are about to roll out virtual goods systems that let community members upgrade their avatars or send gifts to other members.
Apple itself is about to legitimize this model by integrating it more fully with the App Store. Part of the summer iPhone 3.0 operating system refresh is an incremental payment system within applications. This model lets users buy upgrades, additional content, virtual items, etc. from inside a single app and via the usual App Store billing system. This should open up a ton of paid model experimentation.
The virtual goods model fascinates me because it reverses the polarity of the old "make 'em pay" argument into "let 'em pay." The Internet economy has already told us what digital content people will pay for: experiences and entertainment they are passionate about. Fantasy league sports and "World of Warcraft" have no trouble drumming up paying customers, because people look past the ticket price to the experience it gets them. They are eager to pay up. You aren't pushing a subscription wall at people so much as pulling them over a low-lying "fee bump" on their way to a deeper engagement with what they already love. Interestingly as well, in most of these cases the virtual goods are not in and of themselves providing the value. The real value is being provided by other users, which the virtual good allows the user to access.
I don't know whether and how these models can move to non-gaming mobile content, but it seems to me the early success of the virtual goods models suggests some paths to follow. First, people who won't pay for your content may very well pay for access to other people and their content. I wonder if the virtual goods model in games has a corresponding one in mobile community and even media. Will people pay to enhance their standing/identity? Will they pay the publisher not for content but for the service of facilitating relationships?
For marketers, a virtual goods economy of incremental upgrades is a golden opportunity at long last for the true sponsorship model to flourish. Again, the game world offers the precedent. A number of brands have understood that the way to get into the gaming platform is not necessarily via the usual routes, in-game advertising or advergaming. Instead, they are sponsoring free extra levels, special equipment, and power-ups that players can use within the games they already love. These marketers are learning that you don't try to interrupt people in the pursuit of what they love to do; instead, you facilitate and underwrite it.
For mobile marketers, think of the possibilities. Sponsors can underwrite the cost of incremental upgrades in mobile communities, mobile games, perhaps even news and lifestyle content apps? Mobile content doesn't even need to be a pay system, per se, so much as a system where content has an ascribed or tangible value. The user gets something tangible that can be identified specifically with a brand's sponsorship. The brand gets not only the halo effect, but likely also an email or an opportunity to offer more through an SMS opt-in. In other words, the consumer mobile world could get what the b2b trade publishing world has thrived upon for years: genuine lead generation.