This week I was sent two -- count 'em, 2 -- decks proposing more equitable compensation models for both publishers and their audiences. One was called Fairpay, one called Fairpress. Each aimed to allow the publisher and user to settle on the best method and proper levels of quid pro quo.
Both are ingenious and well-intentioned. Neither has a prayer. Because: humans.
The other day, I was on Google News and clicked on a story from the Christian Science Monitor. I read the first paragraph, but when I clicked for more I ran into a pay curb. Not a pay wall, exactly, just a little low curb to step up on. It was a series of simple questions I was asked to answer -- or actually, only one of them -- before continuing.
I’m not sure what they were seeking. My data, I suppose, but apart from a cookie, it was hard for me to imagine what of value this exercise would generate. Anyway, I really wished to finish the article, but the Monitor first wanted to know if I enjoyed working on do-it-yourself projects.
Here was my response: “Fuck it.”
There was no box to check for “Fuck it.” That’s just what I said to myself, or probably blurted aloud. Not because my DIY passions or indifference are too intimate to share, but because I at that moment was unwilling to move my mouse two inches to check a box in order to load some content I was fascinated with.
That, friends, is what is called “friction.” Because it is human nature not to be bothered if bother can be avoided, It takes very little friction to stop a transaction, or any action, in its online tracks.
This bit of primal path-of-least-resistance following is probably the second-most important fact in determining the future of media in the Milky Way galaxy. The first fact is that advertising will never, ever, ever be what it once was -- namely the perfectly symbiotic and unbelievably lucrative yin to the content yang. That has to do with supply and demand, ad avoidance, fraud -- all of which I’ve been yammering about for more than a decade.
Notwithstanding the zillions that VCs are pouring into various ad-tech solutions, drilling for advertising -- barring five or six gushers from social distribution -- will yield mostly dry wells. What remains potentially feasible is the infrastructure for the broader attention economy. Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and -- hell -- cable have proven that people will pay cash on the barrelhead for content they value.
Many an online publication has tried to tap into the same willingness for a quid pro quo, from subscription-only to metered paywalls to freemium models, to free-with-registration data exchanges to you name it. Third parties -- among them Google Contributor, Kachingle, MediaPass and Blendle -- have tried to engineer other kinds of value-exchange platforms to replace the elusive, and decreasingly valuable, page “view.”
And every one of them has created friction. Questions to answer. Forms to fill out. Passwords to create (Must include at least one capital, one number, one non alpha-numeric symbol, one hieroglyph and one carbon hexagram with a covalent hydrogen bond) And because there is no standardized template, it must be done constantly -- distracting users from the very thing they’re trying to access.
This must be dealt with. It’s not just that we’ve been trained to believe content is free. It’s that it takes less effort and expense to locate comparable free content than to sort out the means of compensation. Maybe it was just a low curb, but if it’s easier not to be given the third degree by Mary Baker Eddy over my home-improvement attitudes, away I go.
Publishers must recognize this. It is not enough to offer a solid value proposition. You have to make it light-switch easy to turn on. And so to survive, they must:
1) develop (or simply select) a secure app -- a software WD-40 -- to lubricate the process of procuring content a la carte or by subscription, whether for money, data, attention, preferences or any other commodity. It must be something the user can complete once and not have to bother with again.
2) distribute it universally. The world must know it’s there and always be reminded it’s there. Like the stop sign, or the Underwriters Lab symbol on an electrical product, or Arianna Huffington.
Yes, you may take some comfort in Netflix, iTunes and The New York Times. You may even say to yourself: “They seem to have overcome the friction.” Yep. They have. But I subscribe to Netflix. I use iTunes. I subscribe to The New York Times, and you, Senator Quayle, are no New York Times.
These are exceptions, based on their surpassing greatness. The rest of you have to accept reality, physics paradox though it may be: For publishing ever to regain its traction, the friction has to go.