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Journalism Mobile Payments

Penny for your thoughts: Could micropayments save the media industry?

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By Dom Burch, managing director

November 25, 2015 | 5 min read

A few years ago my brother shared an idea with me about a micropayments system he and his friend, Matt, had developed to help small cooperatives earn money.

Could micropayments be the way forward for journalism?

Penny for your thoughts?

It prompted me at the time (August 2013) to consider whether the media industry could apply the same model. Rather than newspapers expecting me to subscribe to a whole week of content, why not let me pay a small amount to read the article of my choice, a simple pay as you go model that could just as easily be applied to interesting blogs, or content rich websites.

I shared my idea with a colleague explaining how it would work, as a consumer you'd basically sign up to an account. Then each time you wanted to read an article in full you'd be deducted 1p from your account. It would happen seamlessly. It is such a small amount you wouldn't begrudge paying it.

Unlike a newspaper subscription where you pay 50p for the entire paper most of which you don't read. This way you'd pay forensically for what you actually want. The content owner would then be paid a proportion of the penny in due course.

I had no idea how to progress it at the time, so it joined my ever expanding list of Mediocre Ideas (I even own the website mediocreideas.com).

Anyway, fast forward two and a bit years and a Dutch company called Blendle has embarked on a radical experiment with micropayments in journalism. 365 days later they took to Medium to tell their story.

They describe the goal they set themselves was to put all newspapers and magazines in the country behind one (quite sexy) paywall, and make it so easy to use that young people start paying for journalism again.

What if:

  • You could read all the journalism you care for in one place
  • You would only need to register once to read it all
  • You would only pay for the articles you actually read
  • You’d get your money back if you didn’t like the story
  • No subscriptions
  • No ads

The brilliantly simple part here for me is the money back option if you felt cheated by the headline or took the click bait too readily. If you did why should you be penalised? How many tweets have you followed of late that end in disappointment?

And therein lies the problem.

In media owners' desperation to plug a funding shortfall, The Economist reported last week American dailies lost around $30 billion in ad spending between 2005 and 2014, or 60 per cent of the total, click bait is rife (ironically the link to The Economist is behind a paywall but you can access it if you register first).

Someone reminded me yesterday of a great phrase coined at a conference about the value of content marketing. What is content? Stuff.

And that's the point. While it may be true that news is a commodity, and people have grown to expect it for free, surely most of us would still be prepared to pay for good stuff, deeper analysis and in-depth reports. Micropayments therefore are a smart way of breaking down the paywall and removing the barrier.

A more radical option would be to borrow from the world of arts, and also a community charitable café near where I live, pay what you think its worth.

Hope and Social, a band from Leeds have championed this approach and found that their fans on average pay more per track for a digital download than they do for a ten track hard copy CD. But they do pay, even though they can have all their music for free if they choose.

Maybe journalists, bloggers, and media owners need to have the courage to follow Blendle's lead. In the meantime I'm off to develop a few more of my mediocre ideas I've had in the last year or so before someone else does.

Dom Burch, senior director of marketing innovation and new revenues at Walmart (Asda), explores the ever changing world of social media marketing in his 'Thought of the Day' blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @domburch

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