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  • Writer's pictureBart Melton

Updating the online narrative

The online world and the offline world have very different narratives when it comes to purchases, tips, and donations. This is particularly true of publishers and content creators, but to some degree even charities and non-profits.

I have no subscriptions to any magazines or newspapers. Zero. The only times in the last decade or two that I have purchased a magazine was when I was at the airport. When faced with a 2 or 10 hour flight, a magazine is a good way to pass the time. Before in-flight wi-fi was available, it was one of the better ways to pass the time. I wasn't buying a magazine because I supported that particular company. I was buying whichever one looked to have the most interesting articles at that moment . In the offline world, you can buy a single issue of a magazine without needing a subscription! If you listen to a street performer and like their music, you have the option to give them any amount of money you choose. Maybe they are on the corner from your office twice a week, so you give them $5. Maybe you listen to half a song when you are waiting for a subway train and you give them $0.25. Your level of support can be catered to the level of entertainment that you get from them. How often have you dropped your change in a tip jar at a gas station without even reading what the charity is? Maybe you felt like giving or maybe you just didn't want to carry the change around. Maybe it is a cause that you support, so you add several dollars. Maybe it is to help pay the medical bills for some person you don't know, but you put $0.07 in just because it was there. In the offline world, you can do all of those things. You don't have to "support" a publisher, artist, or charity in order to give them money. You can cater how much you give to how much value you receive or just because it is there and convenient. While an artist or charity would prefer that $5 bill, they aren't going to say no to that penny or nickel. Online, the narrative is different. Whether you are talking about a subscription, tip, or donation, the narrative is that you either support the entity that you are giving the money to or, in the case of publishers, that you receive high value from them. It is a transaction based on the whole of the entity. It is "I support this creator" instead of "that video entertained me for 10 minutes". It is "I value all of the stories from this publisher" not "that article was fantastic". You can't give money to a charity simply "because it was there". It takes active effort to give money online. Filling out forms. Finding your wallet to get your credit card number. Clicking checkboxes to opt-in/opt-out of having your information sold to the world or receiving 5 emails a day. Then of course, there is a minimum amount that you can spend, tip, or donate. Donate $5 or more. Subscribe for a month or a year. Part of that is due to the infrastructure. Credit card processing fees set an unofficial floor of $1 for online transactions. Could you imagine if a street musician said that they weren't accepting tips of less than $5? A gas station tip jar that didn't accept spare change? An airport magazine kiosk that required a one year subscription? That is the narrative that we are given when it comes to online content. That needs to change. It is not that we need to do away with subscription or $5 donations. We need to add to it the ability to throw spare change in a tip jar or a musicians hat or to only buy a few articles from a publisher instead of an entire year's worth. The internet is fundamentally different from the offline world in how people and businesses interact. Most people don't sit down and read the entire newspaper online like they would with a physical newspaper. There are people who binge a creator's entire video library, just as there are people who will listen to a street musician for 30 minutes, but there are more who watch one or two videos and move on to something else. The monetization models online are all built to cater to the people who binge. That is a problem because that is not most people. Only 5% of users will subscribe. Creator monetization models are built around 1000 or 100 true fans. Conventional wisdom says that the only way to monetize casual users is with ads. Even just ignoring the credit card processing fees, nobody is going to take several minutes filling out a purchase form to spend or tip $0.10. The level of effort and convenience does not add up. People will blindly drop spare change into a charity tip jar, without even knowing the charity, simply because it is there and just as convenient to drop it in the tip jar as to put it in their pocket. Offline, you can buy, tip, or donate simply because it is there and convenient and at a price that can be catered to the value received. You can support the singular instance of content without really having a real investment in the producer of the content. Online, it requires effort and/or a significant amount of money. Online you have to actively support or value the provider in order to get over the mental hurdle to put forth that effort and/or financial commitment. A singular instance of content is rarely going to be impactful enough for that. Offline, you can support the instance or the whole. Online, you can, generally speaking, only support the whole. Bridging that online-offline gap is an important next step in the evolution of the internet. Online monetization models are built around having 1-5% of users provide 90%+ of the monetary support. The result is a long tail problem for both publishing and creators. A handful doing fabulously well, with the vast majority struggling to survive. Publishing has been in decline for 25 years and the "creator middle class" is more dream than reality. Micropayments offer a solution to fill in that gap between offline and online. With micropayments, people can spend or tip in support of or appreciation of the instance, without knowing or caring about the whole. Solutions, such as CentiPenny's 1-click/no-click transactions, provide the speed and convenience needed to overcome the mental hurdles that prevent users from committing to small scale transactions. Are micropayments a total solution to everything? No. Whether it is significant donations from super-fans or subscriptions, the existing models for monetizing that 1-5% need to continue. Micropayments build upon that existing infrastructure to bring more people into the monetization tent. If you have 1 super-fan paying $1000 a year and add 10,000 casual fans paying $0.10 a year, you just doubled your income. If you have 1 subscriber paying $10 per month and 7 other people buying a single news article each day for $0.05, you just doubled your income. In the offline world, we can support the whole or support the instance. When we update the narrative for the online world to allow for both, we will open the door for more publishers and creators to thrive. We will have something that looks more like a bell curve than a long tail. Publishers hiring reporters instead of firing them. A creator middle class. A newspaper company would not refuse to sell individual newspapers. A street musician would not refuse to take people's spare change. There is no reason why digital publishers or creators should turn away small transactions either. It is time to update the online narrative. The tools are available if publishers and creators are willing to use them.

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