Tear down this paywall Mr. Zuckerburg!

Bird Scarer

The Internet is built on information, and often the information that is time-sensitive gathers the most traffic, i.e. news. Back in the day, AOL and their keyword ivory tower tried to keep users in their “portal” for as long as possible to keep the targeted advertising in their face while raking in the results. One little glitch though, the Internet grew beyond the walls which AOL had built and they would fall into history remembered for “you’ve got mail,” that annoying AOL Instant Messenger icon with sound and, last but not least, they would be known for littering the planet and landfills with millions of mostly useless CDs.

Fast forward to today and we see Facebook following some of the very same footprints which AOL laid, made some cash and then fell extinct. In March 2011, Allfacebook.com, the unofficial facebook resource, covered a story depicting how the New York Times handles inbound links to their content from social sources versus search engine traffic. The key difference was the inbound traffic from social sources would receive unlimited reading on the NYT site, while search engine driven inbound traffic would receive a cap of five free visits per day. Any Facebook user has probably experienced someone in their network sharing content from a major news outlet, but wouldn’t it improve the user experience if the news source pushed their content directly into a social platform like Facebook?

Why yes, it would, and the Wall Street Journal announced last week the availability of WSJ Social, which lets users share content directly through Facebook. The service is free for now, but with financial partners like Dell and Intel, one can only wait so long for the paywall to be erected around that content.  Yes, paywall in a social network, you are not suffering from double vision. As news media history can reinforce, news organizations have no idea how to properly price their product in a digital market. News companies are used to the model where they controlled the distribution of their content with little outside intervention, except for a few strategic partners. Now, they have to negotiate getting a vehicle in the right market which carries an optimized form of the news content to the receiving device or online platform. Not only has it complicated the distribution channels, but it has also introduced significant technology learning curves which even the largest organizations in both news media and magazines have yet to truly understand. Communication-minded professionals learn technology mostly by experience and not by discipline, where technology-minded professionals are taught from the ground up how to build a platform and market that platform. Both parties need one another as a complement to either side of the brain if nothing else, but failure in the digital market backed by the speed at which content is shared on the social web, can make or break any marketing communication effort.

Facebook and a paywall model for organizations requiring that level of division is a natural step for the mega-social site, but will it improve the social web? A better solution would be to build a split advertising model where both the social platform and the news service get paid for clicks and views to their ad content. Any online effort that puts a barrier of any kind between a user and their desired content will eventually be made extinct by a more creative method to attain that same desired content. The wild west entrepreneurial spirit of the net, made innovations like Netflix, Groupon, and Craigslist. Competition to the social web behemoths like Facebook from the likes of say Google+, will push the platforms to innovate and maybe bring better features to the users. Either way, as communication professional in any field, remember that every barrier erected between you and your desired reader/audience/customer/client make the communication less effective. Share content in the social world to gain visibility and expand your brand presence, but don’t muddy the waters with convoluted revenue mechanisms which separate the haves from the have-nots.

Author: John Carew
Photo Credit: Jonathan Baker-Bates

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