Posts Tagged ‘micropayments’

The Platform: Key to Micropayments’ Success

October 12th, 2009

In my last post, I wrote about why consumers may be more willing to pay for some types of news content over other types, and how publishers that are focused on creating original, unique content for their readers will benefit most from the transition to paid (or partially paid) distribution models on the web.

I also mentioned, though, that’s only half the challenge. ¬†As Google pointed out in its recent submission to the Newspaper Association of America:

When it comes to a paid content model, there are two main challenges. First, the content must offer value to users. Only content creators can address this. The second is to create a simple payment model that is painless for users.

That second challenge has been at the front of our minds for the past six months, as we’ve been building the bitcents platform. We started with a simple goal: to make micropayments work for publishers, consumers and the web as a whole … and not just now, or in the next year, but in the long term.

In short, we believe that for news micropayments to flourish, the systems adopted by publishers will need to:

  1. Operate at scale
  2. Be easy to use
  3. Earn and keep user trust
  4. Embrace the web

Future blog posts will go into greater detail, but here’s a rough overview of these four principles, which we’ve built bitcents to address.

1. Operate at scale
A successful micropayments system will need to work as well for a site that receives five million visits a day as it does for a site that gets fifty thousand … or five hundred. But the system must also offer scale to users, by allowing them to access content from a broad range of publishers of all shapes and sizes. A micropayments platform solution like bitcents benefits consumers (who won’t need to deal with different siloed payment systems for each publisher site they visit) and benefits publishers (because all consumers on the platform will be able to easily access and pay for publisher content).

2. Be easy to use
From a consumer side, that means integration with participating publisher websites needs to be smooth and intuitive, the sign up process needs to be fast and straightforward, and (more than anything else) each individual transaction needs to be completely frictionless. For publishers, it means that the system must be both simple to integrate and offer enough flexibility to keep the publisher in full control of their content.

3. Earn and keep user trust
Competition on the web is only ever a click away, and any successful micropayments system will need to earn the trust of both consumers and publishers. How? By being reliable, secure and privacy-sensitive. The privacy settings we’ve built into bitcents allow a consumer to pay for premium content without having it associated with her account if she prefers greater privacy.

4. Embrace the web
The other three principles could be applied to any web app, which is why we’re particularly excited by the fourth one: embrace the web. We think of it as having two main components:

First, there’s the link-driven nature of the web. Links are, to put it bluntly, what makes it a web, by connecting each page to other pages. Links drive traffic around the web. Whether a publisher’s revenues come from advertising, micropayments, or some combination of the two, they’ll need to start with traffic … and therefore with links. That’s why Rupert Murdoch or Tom Curley’s complaints of exploitation by search engines are red herrings.

By default, bitcents keeps publishers’ content available to search engines. An individual publisher can, of course, decide to override the default, but we strongly believe that for a micropayment system to work, it will have to embrace the web’s linkability.

Secondly, there’s the rapid innovation that happens on the web, driven by constant competition. For micropayments to thrive in the long term, they’ll have to embrace this culture of rapid iteration and change. The problem, of course, is that this need doesn’t naturally fit alongside scale and ease-of-use principles.

That’s why we’ve built bitcents as a platform, on top of which developers can build subscriber networks. Each subscriber network will provide full access to every bitcents publishing partner’s content.

It’s easiest to think of it like using a credit card to pay for something in a store. A publisher’s site is like a store, and subscriber networks are like different types of credit cards (your Visa or US Airways MasterCard). bitcents is the card machine that sits on the counter in the store. Just like different types of credit cards, subscriber networks will be able to offer different benefits, building special tools and services for their users. For example, one subscriber network may offer a recommendation engine based on a user’s social network. Another may manage multi-user corporate acocunts, while a third could allow users to buy and tag stories from a variety of publishers over the course of the week and deliver a personalized newspaper to the user’s door on Saturday morning for leisurely weekend reading.

We think the competition between subscriber networks will drive innovation, which will make micropayments more useful for both publishers and consumers, and the subscriber network will receive a percentage of the revenues it helps publishers to earn.

We founded bitcents because we want to make micropayments work for publishers, consumers, and the web as a whole. It’s a long term project, which is why we think it’s important to get the fundamentals right from the start.

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An honest discussion about charging for news online

October 7th, 2009

Today we announced the launch of bitcents, a new micropayments platform for news publishers online. We built bitcents because we believe that rigorous, ethical journalism has an economic as well as a societal value, and we hope that it will be a tool that publishers of all shapes and sizes will use to make the most of their content online. We’re excited about the potential for paid content on the web, but while everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Steve Brill is evangelizing its benefits, the data are more ambiguous: recent surveys in the UK have found that somewhere between 5% and 84% of readers would be willing to pay for content online. That’s why we think it’s important to engage in an honest discussion about the opportunities and limits of charging for online news.

The basics (supply, demand, and the long tail)

Before we even start talking about micropayments, we should acknowledge some basic prerequisites of any trade:

  1. People must be willing to buy what you’re offering.
  2. It must be easy for your customer to complete the transaction.

These points may seem obvious, but they are missing from many discussions about the potential for paid news content on the web…especially among those who believe such a model can work. We’ve built bitcents to address the latter requirement, and we’re excited to work with publishers to better understand (and satisfy) the former.

What makes something worth buying? Put simply: supply and demand. As paid news skeptics regularly and rightly point out, the supply of free national and international news is huge, and perhaps inexhaustible. It is therefore unlikely that national or quasi-national newspapers will be able to charge for their online content in the foreseeable future. (As an aside, Britons regularly point to the BBC’s provision of free, high-quality news as a source of particular woe, but the glut of general news available in the US and in other countries around the world suggests that the market is equally prepared to provide similar challenges.)

The skeptics would leave it there, forgetting that while general news, by definition, attracts the largest audiences, it is only a small fraction of the total news produced each day. Most news remains specialized, attracting an audience within a specific locality, discipline, or industry. This is the long tail that the Internet supposedly serves so well. Unfortunately, these are the publishers who have been hit hardest by the changes the web has wrought on the advertising industry; sites with fewer than two million monthly visitors struggle to extract the full benefit from online advertising. On the plus side, these smaller publishers are more likely to produce original, high-value content that is suited to direct payment.

Trusted guidance is more valuable than ever (or: the PageRank fallacy)

Newspapers, of course, have always been more than the sum of their parts: by bundling stories together, a newspaper is a guidepost to what matters, and why. The web has undermined the information scarcity that gave newspapers their primacy in this role. Online, readers skip from site to site for information, consuming content in an atomized way that has no parallel offline.

As more people and more information move online, though, the need for trusted guides will only increase. With billions of pages being added to the web daily, people are finding it more difficult to discern what matters. That’s hardly surprising: On the web today, people discover content primarily through search engines and word of mouth. These are invaluable tools for discovery, but they are better at identifying what is popular than what is important. As an example, we can look to Wikipedia, which (for all its strengths) dedicates nearly four times as many words to Harry Potter as it does to the printing press. The wisdom of crowds (and algorithms that tap into it) are well-suited to the recommendation of general interest material, but more specialized interests remain elusive. The value of editorial judgment, meanwhile, has yet to be established online. bitcents provides both publishers and developers with new incentives to provide just such guidance.

The web is good for content (even when it hurts)

There’s no doubt that web has changed the how people consume information: for the first time in history, the average person has access to information on virtually any topic at a moment’s notice — more information than can be consumed in a lifetime. That’s a good thing for humanity (more information empowers citizens and consumers alike), and it also means that more people are consuming more news than ever. But it creates challenges as well. It has changed the economics of offline media, destroying the scarcity that subsidized their advertising revenues.

We are now in the midst of a great transition, and while change is never easy, newspapers have a long history of adapting to change. One thing is clear, at least: the publishers that embrace the opportunities offered by the web — and recognize its limits — will be the ones the thrive in the years to come. Confronted with a fundamental shift in consumer behavior, adaptation is better than the alternative, as Studebaker would no doubt attest.

And finally…

Micropayments are not a panacea. but they do have an important role to play in the future of news in an online era. There are still many questions, of course, but we’re happy to be working with publishers, developers and consumers to find new answers.

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