In 1984 Stewart Brand famously said to Steve Wozniak that “information wants to be free”. Nearly 30 years later, 2.4 billion people are enjoying a lot of “free” information online. Unfortunately, those who create this valuable content are still searching for ways to be properly paid.
Users of adblock claim that it’s up to publishers to move away from their current advertising-based revenue model; unfortunately adblock’s suggestions for alternatives are conspicuous by their absence. With more visitors than ever blocking ads, what other ways can publishers get paid for the content they produce?
Option #1: Set the information free
Brand’s famous phrase “information wants to be free” has become the de facto slogan of the internet, but it entirely misses his intended point.
“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.” – Stewart Brand
We implicitly pay for content when we view ads, and its impossible for publishers to survive without this revenue. Simply removing ads from content, as adblockers suggest, is not a viable solution.
Option #2: Pay to View
Paywalls are back in fashion as newspapers desperately try to find their feet online. Unfortunately, even the most successful publications (think New York Times) are having difficulty making it work, and many abandon the effort. Conversion rates from visitor-to-subscriber are in the low single-digit range. To make things worse, by turning away the vast majority of your readers, you undermine yourself. These visitors can’t tweet or share your content, search engines can’t crawl it, and other websites are discouraged from linking to it. The first result for a Google search for “NY Times paywall” is “5 Ways You Can Still Get Around The NYT Paywall”, which demonstrates the lengths that users will go to access content for free. For many sites the paywall option means abandoning growth in favor of monetization.
Option #3: The Luxury Lounge
A less dramatic option is voluntary subscription, also known as the “freemium” model. For a small recurring fee you present your visitors with the option to enjoy your site without ads, or receive other minor perks and recognition. Unlike Pay to View, the Luxury Lounge doesn’t exclude thrifty readers. Online games often adopt this model as they can sell game-related virtual items that have no production cost to them. It’s a different story for publishers, where the success of the Luxury Lounge depends on the loyalty of your visitors. Reddit’s Gold membership has been quite successful, but its users are both loyal and numerous. Ultimately publishers can only expect 2-4% of their visitors to pay, and its extremely difficult to operate a business on these terms. Even Reddit is still in the red, despite their 70 million readers.
Option #4: Rattle the Tin Can
Visitors to Wikipedia are now intimately familiar with the face of Jimmy Wales, thanks to their highly successful donation drives. On a smaller scale, the Paypal “Donate” button has been ubiquitous on blogs for years. While publishers would like to believe that their visitors are loyal and their high-quality content warrants donations, our own data about adblock users shows the contrary. Less than 1% of adblock users make a donation to support a site when shown an appeal.
Option #5: Crowdfunding platforms
Most recently, many businesses have used Kickstarter to take the Tin Can strategy to a new level. This approach requires careful planning and you need to make sure you hit your funding goal (or else return all the money). If you have a large and loyal audience you might replicate the success of Penny Arcade, who in in 2012 raised over $500k with a campaign, removed all ads from their site and started a new comic strip. Of course, this campaign had novelty value and probably won’t scale. What would happen if all 2 million publishers in the Adsense network created projects on Kickstarter?
All of these alternatives reduce free access to information. Paywalls block a majority of users from accessing content, freemium introduces a two-tier system with more for those who pay, while donations leave publishers’ existence dependant on charity. Is this what adblockers want?
The creators of adblock understand that diminishing ad revenues are a real threat to the internet. In a recent interview Till Faida, CEO of Adblock Plus, stated that “Ads are important to keep the internet free.” Similarly the creator of Adblock (not associated with Adblock Plus) believes that adblocking will “harm the web if implemented at a large scale”.
The problem here isn’t advertising in general: it’s bad advertising. The trend in adblock adoption demonstrates that users are dissatisfied with current, intrusive attempts to grab their attention. This is the real issue that needs to be addressed if we wish to keep information free.