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May 23, 2013, 12:33 p.m.
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The newsonomics of value exchange and Google Surveys

It’s an add-on to paywalls: If you’re not willing to buy a digital subscription, perhaps you’ll be willing to just answer a question or two?

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What happens when a reader hits the paywall?

Only a small percentage slap their foreheads, say “Why didn’t I subscribe earlier?” and pay up. Most go away; some will come back next month when the meter resets. A few will then subscribe; others just go elsewhere.

So what if there were a way to capture some value from those non-subscribing paywall hitters — people who plainly have some affinity for a certain news site but aren’t willing to pay?

Welcome to the emerging world of value exchange. It’s not a new idea; value exchange has been used in the gaming world for a long time. As the Zyngas have figured out, only a small percentage of people will pay to play games. So they’ve long used interactive ads, quizzes, surveys, and more as ways to wring some revenue out of those non-payers.

It’s a variation on the an old saw that says much of life boils down to two things: money and time. It also brings to mind the classic Jack Benny radio routine, “Your Money or Your Life.” If people won’t pay for media with currency, many are willing to trade their time.

Now the idea is arriving at publishers’ doorsteps. It is being tested mainly, but not exclusively, as a paywall alternative. Yet, as we’ll see it, there may be many other innovative uses of time-based payment.

In part, this is part of the digital generational shift we might call “beyond the banner.” Static, smaller-display advertising is increasingly out of favor, with both prices and clickthrough rates moving deeper into the bargain basement. But marketers want to market, readers want to read, and viewers want to watch, so new methods that combine the marketing of brands and offers and the go-button on media consumption are au courant.

That’s where value exchange fits. Publishers are seeing double-digit, $10-$19 CPM rates from value exchange, and that’s more than many average for their online advertising. Annual revenues in the significant six figures are now flowing in to the companies that have gotten in early on the business.

The big player in publisher-oriented value exchange is Google Consumer Surveys (GCS), a year-old brainchild born out of the Google’s 20-percent-free-time-for-employees program (and first written about here at Nieman Lab). GCS now claims more than 200 publisher partners, including the L.A. Times, Bloomberg, and McClatchy properties. It says it has so far exposed some 500 million survey “prompts” to readers.

GCS will soon have more company in the value exchange game. Companies like Berlin-based SponsorPay, which offers interactive ad experiences in exchange for access mainly to games, is beginning to pursue publisher possibilities, both in Europe and the U.S, where half of its current clients are based. SponsorPay emphasizes mobile and social in its business.

L.A.-based SocialVibe, newly headed by hard-charging CEO Joe Marchese, is an ad tech company. It’s mainly oriented to non-newspaper media, especially TV companies.

How does this value exchange exactly work? Typical is the implementation at one smaller paper, the Whittier Daily News in the L.A. area., one of some 35 Digital First Media papers (both MediaNews and Journal Register brands) that have deployed GCS almost since its inception. Upon reading their 10th, and last, free metered article of the month, readers get a choice: buy a sub for 99 cents for the first month — or take a survey. “Do you own a cat?” for instance.

Publishers get a nickel for each completed response. Response rates tend to fall between 10 and 20 percent. “Completion rates” improve by targeting specific questions to specific audiences. The nickels add up.

For publishers, then, we have a new acronym: PAM, Paywall Alternative Monetization.

Consider the innovation a by-product of the paywall revolution. If you haven’t created a barrier to free access, you have less leverage to force wannabe readers to choose the lesser of two choices to proceed with their reading. Now, publishers can say, pay me for access with money — or with time. The time is short — measured in seconds or maybe minutes, depending on a video’s length or a survey’s questions.

What does the consumer get for answering a question? It varies. Respondents can get as little as a single “free” article, or an hour, or a day of access.

These programs can offer side-by-side offers. For instance, someone like a Press+ (which now powers some 380 newspaper sites) may power a subscription offer in one box, and Google Surveys or a SocialVibe can offer up an alternative in a neighboring one.

Digital First Media, long a public skeptic of paywalls, is using value exchange as an adjunct to its paywalls, many of which were deployed before DFM took over management of the MediaNews papers. While it is using it successfully as a paywall alternative, says Digital First Ventures managing director Arturo Duran, it’s also finding a couple of other ways to wring money out of surveys.

At many of its digital properties, including The Denver Post, its photo- and video-heavy Media Center hub offers Google surveys as speed bumps for continued access. Readers perceive value; enough of them are willing to pay with a few seconds of time to keep getting access to visuals. Similarly, Boston.com’s The Big Picture “news stories in photographs” uses GCS.

This approach, putting up a speed bump — in the form of a survey — instead of paywall explores the nuances of differing consumer valuation of differing parts of news sites. The Texas Tribune has offered a similar approach, having used Google surveys on its extensive data section. How often a survey is deployed can be adjusted by the publisher, working with Google, to maximize both revenue and reduce traffic lost. The search here is for the magic sweet spots.

The Christian Science Monitor is also an earlier surveys adopter. “We don’t have a paywall,” says online director David Clark Scott. “So we tried an experimental speed bump.” Those bumps were installed first on a single section, and now have grown, popping up on much of the site. One CSM twist: If you come to the site directly, you won’t see the surveys. If you come via some search, social, or other referrals, you will.

Digital First is also testing survey deployment for a group notoriously hard for the news industry to monetize: international readers. “We can’t sell [ads] in Kenya, Japan, and India,” says Duran. Instead of fetching bottom-of-the-ad-network prices, as low as 25 cents, surveys can return money in the whole dollars. One lesson so far: “It’s a much better experience than an ad,” for many readers, says Duran.

Publishers are also finding other ways to get readers to “pay.” At the Newton (Iowa) Daily News, the paywall also provides these two alternatives: answer a survey question or a share an article (via Twitter, Facebook, or Google+) in exchange for continued passage.

“It wasn’t about market research at all — it was about trading time for content,” says Paul McDonald, head of Google Consumer Surveys. McDonald, who developed the product along with engineer Brett Slatkin, says they tested out what people would most likely be willing to do, in exchange for some good. They tested a million impressions at The Huffington Post and found that question-answering was the most likable activity. Hence, Google Consumer Surveys.

“Most research is stuck in old ways — paper, email, and phone. It’s a stagnant industry, ” McDonald says. The industry, of course, has responded, offering its own critique of GCS’ rapid-fire — surveys can be commissioned and deployed within a day, with complete results, broken down by customized demographics (at an extra cost to survey buyers) within 48 hours — disruption of the market survey space. Still, industry reaction is more than mixed, with the positives of Google’s new technique winning adherents among bigger brands and smaller businesses. It’s a self-service buying technique, borrowing from Google’s flagship AdWords model.

Interestingly, Google itself is using Surveys to obtain consumer insight. Yes, the company that derives more data from our clicks than anyone still finds asking a human being a question can yield unexpected learning — which, of course, can be combined with clickstream analytics. YouTube is among the many GCS deployers.

It’s a new frontier, and one that I think offers a number of curious potentials.

  • At scale, if there is scale to the business, it’s about significant new sources of revenue.
  • As a paywall alternative, it may be a detour that leads back to the road to subscription. If a reader is engaged enough with a news brand over time — kept engaged in part through value exchange — maybe he or she will eventually subscribe. Does a value exchange-using customer have a higher likelihood of subscribing in the future? It’s too early to know, but we may have soon have sufficient data to see.
  • Value exchange could expand the ability to gain customer data. Each time someone trades some time for reading, she or he could be asked for an additional piece of profiling information. Essentially “registered,” that new customer becomes more targetable for subscription offers or advertising.
  • We can start to widen the idea of trading time for access. Remember the idea of the “reverse paywall,” espoused by then-Washington Post managing editor Raju Narisetti and Jeff Jarvis? Spend enough time with a news product, and get rewarded, they proposed. Value exchange begins to structure that kind of relationship, providing value both to readers and publishers. Rough equalization of value would be a painful process, but it may be doable through much experimentation.
  • Let’s combine two things: the rise of mobile traffic and value exchange. Mobile may not be ad-friendly, but customers might be far more willing to watch a video or touch through a quick questionnaire on a cell phone — and that can ring a different key on the digital cash register. “Mobile is already more diversified,” says SponsorPay CEO Andreas Bodczek, explaining that it is moving beyond gaming companies for value exchange and will soon include publishers.
  • GCS is an easily deployable tool for small- and medium-sized businesses. As such, it could be an interesting add-on for publishers’ emerging marketing services businesses (“The newsonomics of selling Main Street”). That’s a line Google could allow newspaper companies to resell, just as many resell Google paid search.
POSTED     May 23, 2013, 12:33 p.m.
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