Charging at the top - An alternative model for monetizing digital content

Media publishers still struggle finding a viable economical model for survival and continuous production. My suggestion is a model based on popularity of the content.

Jesper Vestergaard
Nov 2, 2017 · 4 min read

25 years after the birth of the Internet, now the main platform and technology for media consumption, media publishers like newspapers, music services and cinema are still struggling to find viable economical models for survival and continuous production. Many things have been tried, and many models have failed. Bridging the gap to the future still seems like a huge challenge.

As I see it, part of the challenge lies in the binary way of thinking content as either free or paid. In a perfect scenario for each side, publishers want to get paid for all content, and consumers want all content to be free.

But what if we stop thinking in this strictly binary way, and look at another factor. Something that both sides can agree on is a fair way of deciding the value of a piece of digital content. Such a thing actually comes build-in with the internet: Popularity.

This will also allow publishers to harvest the benefits of the ability of the internet to distribute content socially and virally, when consumers find a piece of content particularly interesting and valuable.

Charging on top of the value cycle

This is an example of a value cycle of a piece of digital content:

The curve shows how a piece of digital content that is accessible on the internet has a dynamic value over time. This value is measurable by the number or view or plays pr. hour. If something is a hit, it will be shared and spread virally with a high frequency in short time. And often the interest will fade out over time. In other cases value could grow slower over longer time.

My point with this is that media publishers can use this model to get a real indication of the value of a piece content. And this knowledge can be used as base for a monetisation model that consumer might perceive as fair. This way publishers don’t have to consider either giving the content away for free or to charge for it. They can simply settle for charging when something has already proved it’s value.

This is what I’m proposing:

Publishers can then reap the benefits of social distribution of the content, in the time when it’s free: The critical hours of the content having breaking news value and spreading virally, and the long time value of being searchable with search engine and gathering long term long tail traffic.

The monetisation could be one-offs, piece by piece payments, or subscriptions, that allow the user to bypass an eventual paywall for a period of time or consume more content from the publisher. Regardless of how, it can be set up by the publisher as something fully automatised, with each publisher setting the limits based on their definition of popularity.

Other existing models

This model has been on my mind in various versions for quite some time. These years monthly subscription models seems to be the common solution for most publishers that don’t charge for content on demand. I’m pretty sure that subscription is not the final solution of a sustainable and viable model. Even thought it gives businesses a comfortable economic predictability, in most cases it leaves consumers paying for something they dont need or want, in order to get access to what they actually find valuable.

Another quite widely spread model is a maximum cap for pieces of content that a user can read at a service within a timespan, eg. 5 articles a month. When you want to read article number 6, you’ll meet a paywall requesting you to pay either a one-off fee or to join a subscription scheme for the service. I believe this model is flawed, or at least unsustainable: A user that would potentially pay for reading an article s/he finds valuable might never reach article number 5 in a month, so the service looses out on potential revenue. The problem is, that the service assigns value to a piece of content in a way that’s completely arbitrary to the user, and disconnected with the users own assignement of value. Applying the proposed ‘charging at the top’ model would accommodate that.

I do understand that the ‘5 pr. month’ approach could move semi-loyal users into loyal, paying users, so it might still work as an add-on. But if it’s applied as the only model, a service will have a hard time growing beyond this immediate potential.

At least I think it’s interesting to look at other models as well.

Jesper Vestergaard

Written by

Curious explorer of digital design, media and content. Consultant and digital product designer.

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