Turning a Paywall into a Bridge: Is It the Right Time to Sell Content Online?

A post today on eMarkerter.com entitled Paywall Resistance Softens When Content Is Right shared findings from an April 2012 DigiCareers study that suggest that more than we’ve observed before, casual online readers are open to becoming paying customers for the right content. 42% of US digital media professionals polled took time to research pricing and make a purchase decision when encountering a paywall.

Of course, it’s important not to read too much into this. The study focused on digital professionals, many of whom likely sell content online themselves, making them more receptive to paying for content, or at least paying it lip service. And even among these, a whole 52% of respondents indicated that when they hit a paywall, they bounce without a second thought. Still there’s no question that attitudes toward buying digital media are changing.

Maybe this is the result of being a part of the not-eating-out-of-cans-over-the-sink-anymore near-thirty crowd, but anecdotally I’ve observed a clear upward creep of my and my friends’ willingness to open our hearts and our wallets for content online. We skip cable, but we skip BitTorrent too—and shell out a few bucks for the latest Mad Men episode on iTunes without a blink; we compare hot fishing spots in the shallow pool that is Canadian NetFlix; we happily maintain our Lynda.com subscriptions with the same I’ll-do-that-tomorrow optimism with which we pay our gym membership fees; and some of us will admit to shelling out a couple of bucks for new colours on Draw Something in the 48 feverish hours before the bloom went off that rose.

The book industry’s digital toolbox is still relatively underused, and there are some truly powerful gizmos in there. At Tech Forum 2012 we heard how eager readers tweeted favourite chapters of PressBooksBook: A Futurist’s Manifesto. At the most recent CMPTO we learned how Small Demons is changing browsing forever by hooking books into the web of things. And that’s just to name two. With more and more readers carrying tablets and smartphones around with ever-improving data plans, maybe the time is ripe to look at new models for selling books in browsers.

The question for booksellers and publishers, is what can we learn from successful merchants of content? What do they have in common?

The Freemium model is a model of success.

The vast majority of respondents (90%) expected some free access to content prior to meeting a paywall—most likely because respondents expected to see a critical sampling of a site’s material before deciding if entering the paywall was worth the cost.

Content must be unique.

In fact, 47% of respondents paid for movies, 36% for digital magazine access and 35% for music. In contrast, just 13% paid for news and newspapers, a likely byproduct of widespread access to free news and information across a plethora of portals, hyperlocal sites, blogs, social networks and other webpages.

Content must be high quality.

Findings from a March 2012 study conducted by global management consultant company Accenture offered insight into what online video viewers worldwide were willing to open their wallets for: 35% were willing to pay more for higher quality video content and the same percentage said they would pay more for reduced advertising. Access to premium content—such as new or popular movie releases—was also a draw for 32% of respondents.

Are you a bookseller or publisher thinking about selling books online? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.