Paywalls are spreading, but that doesn’t mean that they’re popular: many readers feel put off when confronted with a subscribtion charge, as the title of a recent paidContent article “Does the LA Times paywall smack readers in the face?” suggests.
But as print declines, newspapers still need to make money online, so if they don’t go down the paywall route, what can they do? Google has suggested an alternative: microsurveys. Described by paidContent as a paywall “substitute”, Google Consumer Surveys ask users to answer a market research question before they are allowed to view certain types of content on a site. According to Mashable, Google charges businesses $0.10 for every response from a general US audience or $0.50 for every answer from a targeted demographic. $0.05 of that revenue then goes to the publisher.
On its blog, Google bills the surveys as "a model that benefits everyone”: publishers get extra revenue, and businesses get to know more about their potential customers. Last but not least, Google makes some more money. Google specifies that if users don’t want to answer a question, they should be given the option of performing an alternate action instead, such as handing over their email address to the publisher. This means that even if participating publishers don’t earn revenue through the surveys, they benefit from deeper engagement with their audience. According to Mashable, so far around 20 digital publishers are taking part.
In fact, although Google has announced the surveys as a “new way to access quality content online” on its blog, the idea is not entirely new. As Journalism.co.uk explained on its podcast about the initiative, the Texas Tribune has been using the Google surveys since August last year. The idea is older than that: as David Cohn, founder of Spot.Us explains, the community-funded reporting site introduced a very similar initiative in 2010, which allowed sponsors to pay Spot.Us for user engagement (answering a survey question, for example) and then earned the user “credits” to fund reporting.
The Journalism.co.uk’s podcast suggests that some of the publishers who have already adopted Google’s surveys are enthusiastic. April Hinkle, chief revenue officer at the Texas Tribune, tells Journalism.co.uk “we’ve been really, really pleased by the results”. According to Hinkle, “we’re earning on average about 5,000 dollars every 30 days from people just answering that one simple question.” This isn’t big money, but Hinkle describes the surveys as “another area of diversifying the revenue” of the Texas Tribune, rather than a way to finance the whole paper. And she notes that while the surveys are not the biggest source of cash, they aren’t the smallest either, and the money they bring in is consistent. What’s more, she suggests, there haven’t been any complaints about the survey acting as too much of a barrier to content: “it really hasn’t been a deterrent at all,” she states.
Adweek has also recently introduced the surveys, and Doug Ferguson, general manager of digital for the publication tells Journalism.co.uk that he has low expectations of the new model in terms of “betting the farm on it,” but that Adweek was keen to adopt the new scheme because “it seemed like a very low, low-risk test and an interesting business model.” Adweek experimented with a paywall before, he says, and did not make much money from it and while digital ad revenue has increased, there is still some way to go, so the survey is a possible attractive supplement to their income.
Ferguson emphasises that the survey model is flexible – publishers have the option to “lock” different types and different amounts of content behind survey articles, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach. In Adweek’s case, Ferguson states, users are only asked to answer a question on their second pageview, and will only be hit with the survey once within 24 hours, making the experiment as unobtrusive as possible. If the scheme is a success, he suggests, and doesn't bring down traffic to the site, Adweek might choose to dial it up later.
In fact, as the system is introduced, the questions only seem to affect users reading experience at a low level. Hinkle says the Texas Tribune only directs survey questions at users accessing the publication’s data pages and only those who come from outside the site. Neither Adweek nor Texas Tribune’s survey questions affect users outside the US. And Laura Hazard Owen at paidContent points out that the questions don’t work if users have an AdBlock app switched on.
At this stage, the surveys may be an interesting experiment to watch, but to find out whether they can become a significant revenue stream we have to wait for publishers to turn up the dials.