Category Archives: Online

Want a Paywall Around Your Site? First Get Your Content House in Order

Last week Jason Abbruzzese wrote on Mashable about how he believes the “free” phase of the internet is coming to a close and it’s time for people to start opening their wallets. As an inciting incident for this new wave he cites the recent news Entertainment Weekly is introducing a metered paywall which will allow people to access only so many articles (the number changes depending on where they’re coming from) each month. As with all such hybrid models, the idea is that if you offer readers a taste they’ll come to see your outlet as important and be more than happy to shell out for even more.

While he doesn’t mention it, the same argument is happening in the music world, where some record labels are pressuring Spotify to either do away with or more strictly curtail free (albeit ad-supported) access levels in favor of one that does more to encourage – nay force – people into a “Premium” membership that is more lucrative for the labels. Spotify’s rebuttal is that the free, ad-supported level (something that won’t be part of Apple’s rumored streaming service) may generate just 10% of revenue but it’s how people come to the service and accounts for the vast majority of its user base.

The idea that media should erect paywalls around their content, as opposed to letting the freeloading masses get away with not giving them money, is as old as the internet itself, or close enough at least. But it’s not the hippie audience that’s to blame, it’s a combination of online advertising models and media that has been in a race to the bottom for the last 15 years on multiple fronts.


First, online advertising: Back in the early days online ads were sold by media companies as add-ons to print buys, not given a value in their own right. And the realization that an ads effectiveness could be finitely quantified based on audience interaction meant advertisers weren’t willing to pay for “awareness,” just for actual click-throughs or other actions. Finally, publishers added as many pages to their sites as possible in an effort to increase available inventory, further driving down the value of each individual ad. So, in short, if publishers aren’t getting the revenue from advertising they used to they largely themselves to blame for, at every available opportunity, making the choice that would hurt them the most in the long term. Advertising has always been the core revenue source, not subscription or individual issue sales, so to now think that equation will flip is to ignore a hundred years of media history.

Second – and here’s the real kicker and why a paywall isn’t a solution in and of itself – every publisher is now writing about the same 12 things each day, leading to a monoculture where nothing unique has the chance to thrive. Everyone’s writing about “the dress,” the latest quote from The Rock’s press junket or so on. But the crux of the paywall argument is that there’s something unique behind the wall. People aren’t going to pay for access to someone reporting on who Katy Perry is feuding with on Twitter because there are 327 sites doing the same thing. But they will – or at least there’s a better chance they will – pay for something no one else is doing.

But at the same time they want to erect a paywall, sites and publications are ditching seasoned, talented writers, reporters and producers in favor of cheaper “content producers” who can churn out posts quickly in order to, again, create more ad inventory.

Let’s think about this from a retail standpoint: I know I can get toothpaste from any of a two dozen stores within a few mile radius of my driveway. So when I’m looking for toothpaste, something about which I have no particular brand loyalty, it comes down to some combination of price and convenience. The closest to free and the closest to where I am when I need toothpaste will usually win. But I know there are just a couple – maybe even just one –  places that sell high end comic book statues and collectibles. So I’m willing to pay a premium for those items because it’s unique, in limited supply and from a store that I’m loyal to for a handful of reasons. They stock something no one else does.

So here’s the question that every publication considering erecting a paywall should ask: What are you stocking that no one else does? And what are you doing to make sure to retain that value?

Here’s the catch, though: If you think the answer is “Our brand is the premium” you’re doing this wrong. At this point few media brands have that sort of value attached to their name of masthead. People get their news from Facebook or Twitter, where they may follow any number of publications or sites, not from a brand specifically. We’re living in a post-media brand world, some just haven’t realized it yet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of publications of any stripe assigning value to their content and asking people to pay for access to it. But without being able to clearly articulate and then deliver on a value proposition all that will result is them learning the same lesson Variety did three years ago, when they saw overall readership decline to the point where they tore down the wall. That’s hardly the only example, as recent history is replete with cases where sites have flip-flopped repeatedly on the paywall decision. And it’s because either they didn’t make the value proposition effectively or, in some cases like Variety, the audience willing to pay for that value wasn’t large enough to sustain the model.

A paywall, is a tricky thing. But it begins, as most things do, with good content. Once that’s solved you can move on to all the other issues.

Facebook Extends GIF Support

(This post was published on the PNConnect blog)


What Is It? Facebook has announced that it’s expanding support for GIFs. Previously available only by using links to Giphy-hosted images, now you can link to any page with a GIF and have it displayed on your Facebook profile. But there are two important caveats: 1) This does not mean you can upload GIFs and have then play, you have to link to them and 2) This feature has not been added to Pages yet, just personal profiles.

What Does It Mean? Big picture it means that Facebook finally realized this is an ongoing trend they’re increasingly being left out of, and that if they want to keep competing with Tumblr and other networks they better figure out how to make GIFs work, despite reported reservations that Facebook thinks they will make the Newsfeed messy. For brand publishers it doesn’t mean a lot right now other than that they should plan for this to be rolled out at some point, likely within the next year. But if you haven’t already gotten on the GIF bandwagon – there are plenty of platforms that support them today – then you may already be three steps behind.

New On PNConnect: Viral Sameness

If you follow many news sites on social media, you may have noticed a numbing trend over the past few years. Every site shares the same stories, often with identical angles. Time will cover the same story as Mashable, which is the same story Vox shared earlier, which originated on a Reddit thread. It’s been called “viral sameness,” and it has the effect of taking a piece of web ephemera and mainstreaming it.

It happens for a simple reason: When a story is spreading, readers are going to click somewhere to see what it’s about, and no one wants to leave those page views on the table. Growing social usage means the overall pie is bigger, but everyone’s getting a smaller chunk of that pie. With so much advertising revenue at stake — and with so few alternative business models — there’s a continual race to grab as many readers as possible.

via In a World of Viral Sameness, Strike Out on Your Own Path « PNConnect | Digital Marketing Services from Porter Novelli.

Gawker doubles down on emulating the newspaper model

In his internal/external note to staff/readers, editor Max Read (an amazing name for an editor, btw) says the following:

Instead of publishing the majority of our stories directly to the front page, we’ll be publishing them on to a set of subject-focused sub-blogs (a.k.a. “verticals,” or, cutely, “diagonals”—I personally prefer to just borrow newspaper terminology wholesale and call them “sections”). Some of them—Valleywag, Defamer, Morning After—already exist. Others—focused on media, news, and politics—we’ve created.

In other words Gawker is abandoning the vestiges of being a “blog,” where everything goes onto the reverse-chronology front page, seemingly because the front page can’t handle the volume any longer and good stories were getting buried. So they need to curate that front page a little more closely and push some stuff to other sections.


If this sounds familiar it’s because that’s what newspapers do every day. The best/most important news makes it to the front page and above the fold (an old-school term we also still use for web content) while the most important sports stories appear on the front of the Sports section, the most important Arts stories on the front page of Arts and so on.

This, as Joshua Benton points out, is the second story in the past few days that has sounded very much Gawker is adopting more of an old-media model. The first was Nick Denton’s statement about how a “layer of subjective editorial judgement” would now be used to reward writers for a job well done as opposed to measuring their worth simply by actual or expected page view numbers.

That Gawker is moving toward a more curated front page says more to me about how online media has scaled/should be scaling than any story about the number of writers, the amount of advertising revenue or anything else. You know you’re achieved a certain scale when you start having to pick your shots more carefully, not when you just add as many hands to take as many shots as possible.

Denton in his note says that Gawker simply can’t – or won’t – play the page views game against something like Buzzfeed, which he concedes has won that particular match. But Buzzfeed, for all its success – and I’m not a naysayer here – has a “just throw it all against the wall and see what sticks” model. I don’t even know how many hundreds of pieces it publishes each day but it’s hard to see editorial judgement being exercised there. The answer to “should we publish this?” is simply always going to be “Yes” because for all their predictive systems it still comes down to the big hits helping to finance the pieces that don’t take off.

So while Gawker may still publish whatever it darn well pleases at whatever volume it sees fit, the folks there at least acknowledge that a bit of curation and organization makes for a much better user experience.

It should also be noted that this is the first story I’ve read in a while that places some sort of value on the home page. For the last five years or more there’s been a steady stream of “the home page is dead” op-eds as people talk about how people aren’t typing and clicking around anymore but are coming in via links to specific stories the site or their friends have shared on social networks. But here you have the Gawker editor talking about making the home page a better, less cluttered experience for visitors. That alone speaks volumes about the mindset in place at the site.

What’s Left of Facebook’s Organic Reach Is About to Disappear

facebook_logo.pngFacebook dropped a bomb on the marketing industry last Friday when it published this post saying it would be reducing the number of “overly promotional” posts from brand pages that appear in people’s News Feed. According to Facebook these are the traits that people surveyed weren’t fond of:

Posts that solely push people to buy a product or install an app

Posts that push people to enter promotions and sweepstakes with no real context

Posts that reuse the exact same content from ads

That’s an incredibly broad definition that essentially eliminates everything but “News” as a possible topic for Facebook posts. Anything that sounds like a call to action to buy, watch, download or anything else would fall under the “overly promotional” definition and therefore sound too much like an ad, to use Facebook’s terms, to make it into the News Feed of the people who have Liked the page.

As many have pointed out, this threatens to drop organic reach on Facebook from the ~2% is currently hovers at (meaning if you have 2 million Facebook fans you’ll actually reach 20,000 of them with any given post) to effectively 0% (meaning if you have 2 million Facebook fans you’ll actually reach around five of them with any given post).

Facebook VP Brian Boland is quoted in the New York Times as saying this is not a move made out of the desire to increase ad revenue but considering the above three categories are all ones where Facebook has increasingly made serious ad dollars that claim is dubious at best.

So the question becomes, what can brand publishers do about it?

The answer, unfortunately, is not much. At least when it comes to Facebook itself. This is a stark reminder that not only are brands only renting space on Facebook in a relationship that is dramatically one-sided. There’s little to no recourse available than to agree to the new cruelty and either accept what’s given to them or pay for the privilege of getting more.

Nate Elliott at Forrester has a couple of thoughts, including making sure your owned site has a form of community built into it and doubling down on tools like email marketing, where you have more control over the delivery of the message than you do on a platform like Facebook or other social network.

Before any decisions are made, though, it’s important to take a moment and examine what role Facebook currently plays in the marketing ecosystem at your company. How big is it in terms of referring visits to your site? Are those “quality” visitors? Do you know if your Facebook fans also get your email marketing? These are just some of the questions to be asking at this moment.

One thing is clear: Unless they’re willing to pay to achieve any sort of reach, Facebook is no longer the place to sell or promote your brand or products. It would seem that this would even apply to the “sale or coupons” deals that people have stated over and over again that they prefer from the brands they follow and align themselves with on social media.

The timing of this actually works out well. Brands who are in the midst of setting their 2015 strategies and goals now know the roadblocks in front of them on Facebook and can plan and allocate accordingly. That may be small consolation for those who have built their social strategy with Facebook promotion and publishing at the core, but better to know how much trouble you’re in before you have the rug pulled out from under your feet.

Hollywood wants to make movies easier to find online

So Peter Kafka at Re/code may be right: No one who already has a good system of pirating movies is going to be swayed into not breaking the law by Wheretowatch, the new site from the MPAA that is meant to serve as a directory of where to find movies for legal streaming or download. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t serve an important purpose for the rest of us.


Right now the legal viewing ecosystem is incredibly fragmented. Netflix has the rights to movies from these three studios, Amazon has the rights to movies from those two and so on. And things get even more confusing when you go beyond the world of big studios movies and into indies, where the various rights holders placing small bets all over the place. So if someone wants to watch anything from the latest James Bond movie to a buzzed-about documentary may wind up searching any of a number of places and never stumble on the right one. This frustration is just one factor that pushes people into illegal torrenting and such.

But if people had – and knew about – a single search tool they could use to find what they were looking for then it can make for a much more efficient experience. Again, it may not have the power to sway anyone who’s already tied to their torrenting site since they may be using it for ideological reasons as much as for frugality. Someone who hasn’t yet been pushed to the “Oh forget this, I’m torrenting it” line, though, may find this is a good reason to say on the legal side of the equation.

It starts and ends with education, though. The stories I’ve read about this site don’t mention it, but it would make a ton of sense for the MPAA to not only get studios on board but also sites like Netflix, Amazon and others (this newly formed group of streaming companies comes to mind). The former could link to the search database from a movie’s official website and social profiles, something that would be much more efficient than sending out a stream of updates every time the licensing deals change. And the latter could get on board from an education point of view, saying they support legal streaming/downloading and offering this as a place to find the best experience.

In other words, it’s incumbent on the MPAA to get the word out and to use all means at its disposal to do so. Otherwise this is a solution that does almost nothing to solve the problem.

Twitter makes its play for the casual user

twitter-bird-blue-on-white.pngTwitter has laid out what seem to be their plans for the first half of 2015. We can look forward to:

  • The ability to record, edit and share videos natively within the Twitter app. While they seem to say this will coexist alongside Vine it’s easy to take the next step and guess that Vine functionality may one day exist solely within Twitter and Vine cease to exist as a standalone app.
  • Further “experiments” with how “relevant” Tweets are surfaced in someone’s Timeline. The post certainly leaves the door wide open for the much-discussed algorithmic feed that would mimic Facebook’s to an extent but it also hints at giving you a prioritized recap snapshot for the period you were away from Twitter so you can catch up.
  • A way to fill up the Timelines for those people who haven’t put the legwork into following a bunch of people. It’s easy to expect that these “personalized” timelines will be to some degree filled with the accounts Twitter thinks someone will engage with most.
  • A revamped Direct Message experience. The end goal here seems to bring DMs more in line with other messaging apps, though details here are the light.

Put all of that together and you can see the company is focused on two audiences: Light/casual users and big media companies.

The first is absolutely being targeted with the changes that are being made to the timeline. While it’s still unclear as to whether those changes will be opt-in/out or not, the idea of seeing “top stories” immediately upon returning is meant to appeal to those who maybe don’t have Twitter open all day or who don’t have other ways they’re keeping up with the news. In fact, here Twitter may have an advantage over Facebook. If Twitter can indeed figure out how to surface stories that are important and not just highly-engaged with (as Facebook) does then it can retain its standing as the place people go for news while Facebook stays as the place for people who want to watch that Christmas ad with the penguins.

The second is being targeted because they’re the ones behind the accounts (along with celebrities) who are most likely to be used to fill in the Timelines of the people who don’t build their own. And even if a “top news” recap does skew more toward actual news, these are the accounts who are likely to be included in that recap. Finally, they’re going to be huge users of Twitter’s native video capabilities, particularly if (as rumored) it includes auto-play, which brands love and the audience loathes.

It remains to be seen how this will all play out, obviously. But now Twitter is on the record with where they’re heading in 2015. How all this will impact brand publishers can only be guessed at right now. There are certainly potential upsides (more exposure though the display of “important” updates) and downsides (if your posts stink they may not be deemed important *enough*), but the devil will be in the details. More certainly to come.