Monday, August 31, 2015

Patron-izing Journalism -- Beyond Paywalls, Meters, and Membership


[Update 8/16/17: A newer post, The Missing Piece of the Membership Puzzle -- Agreeing on Value for Each Member, updates some aspects of this, but this post remains highly relevant.]

Who will pay for journalism? The turbulent first decades of our new digital era suggest no one -- or at least too few. Commodity news is free and advertising values are collapsing. Those who seek to preserve serious journalism, who believe we need more than clickbait and the uncritical crowdsourcing of news, have been scrambling -- and they are actually finding many ways to get revenue (as summarized below). Nevertheless, it is hard to have conviction that even the best of them can be sufficient.
These are very turbulent times for journalism. But as Peter Drucker said, "The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, it is to act with yesterday's logic." What we need is a new logic. What I suggest is a new logic that draws synergy from all relevant revenue streams, in a way that leverages digital, to radically transform the relationship of journalists with their audiences.

Customer or patron? 

Why be a customer? Why pay? The only way for journalism to survive in this new century is to refocus on a new logic for patronship -- getting readers to patronize content providers in the fullest sense: "to give money or support to." To find sustainable business models for journalism in a digital world, me must figure out how to find patrons (in this broad sense), and how to work with them so they are happy to contribute at sustainable levels.

Newspapers, magazines, and news video services are struggling to find a logic that works. Paywalls, "soft" "metered" paywalls (a form of freemium), have been adopted by many publishers as a primary model (but avoided by many others). They seem to be just marginally working, even in the best of cases. But we have been looking at the trees, not seeing that there can be a new kind of forest.
  • Paywalls (soft or not) treat customers as faceless, undifferentiated cattle to be herded and milked. There is no invitation to be a patron, no personalization of the value proposition, even though individuals vary immensely in how they value and consume journalism. How can a single price possibly be right for all subscribers? 
  • Premium level subscriptions (such as Times Premier) have emerged as a supplementary strategy to try to get the most loyal patrons to pay more, based on the realization that some of them can be enticed to pay more. But here too, value propositions are not customized
  • Patronship at the high-end has always been a key support for journalism, from the rich owners of times past, to Bezos, Henry, and Omidyar today.  That is a nice contribution but it seems a shaky foundation for something so important to the public -- something that should be answerable only to its public. 
  • Crowdfunding seeks to move patronship to a wider base, but that seems fragmented and very limited as well.
  • Membership has become the latest hot topic (subject of a CUNY / Tow-Knight conference led by Jeff Jarvis on August 26 that I attended). This gets much closer to the core ideas of patronship. These efforts are a big step toward recognizing the need for more flexible targeting of value propositions, and addressing the many different kinds of value can be exchanged. This can include a very wide spectrum of offers to the audience(s) -- from added features, access to journalists, events, and bling, to pure contribution (drawing on the model of public radio and TV memberships). It also begins to recognize that value also flows from consumers to providers of journalism, the "reverse meter" suggested by Jeff Jarvis in 2011. It was evident at the conference that membership is a rich and promising area, already generating some success, but how to manage this almost too-rich variety of value propositions is a challenge.
    • This is not to forget that advertising remains an important source of revenue, even if increasingly limited. Many of the audience would pay to reduce that burden -- and some might accept more (to get more value, another reverse meter) -- but, again, there is little customization of such value propositions.
    The bigger picture

    We have a growing variety of revenue sources, but none a silver bullet. Where is the overarching synergy? What is tomorrow's logic?  

    I suggest the answer is to link this rich constellation of value propositions into a coherent, adaptive process -- one that seeks to find the right combination of value propositions for each individual, match them to their willingness to pay, and serve them in a customized bundle -- in a cooperative way that makes every regular customer into a true patron. If journalism has value, shouldn't those who are served by it recognize that value, and pay to sustain it? (As has been observed, "if you are not the customer, you are the product.")

    That can be done in many ways, and many are being tried and improved on, but I suggest the most effective way to apply the best methods in concert will be by drawing them into the FairPay architecture. This is touched on on the HBR Blog, and in more detail in this blog's Overview page. This architecture shapes a platform for applying all of the best methods in unison, to cooperatively find the right value proposition (and the right price) for each patron.

    Since I am co-organizer of an event on The Future of Journalism: “Why Should I Pay for Quality Content?” for MIT Enterprise Forum of NYC (October 27), this seems a good time to revisit my perspective on these issues, and to summarize how FairPay points the way to win-win solutions.

    Re-engineering the value proposition of journalism for the digital era

    The big picture idea is that FairPay refocuses journalism businesses on their relationship with their individual audience members -- with all the tools of the digital era -- to center on personalized, win-win value propositions. It builds this relationship on a cooperative understanding of individualized value that integrates all of the relevant elements on both sides of the value exchange. It seeks to enable a holistic view of value (and revenue) related to all aspects of the service that journalism provides -- basic subscriptions, premiums, membership options, perks, and any other kinds of offers, over all aspects of the value exchange.

    From the provider to the consumer, FairPay focuses on the total value of all kinds, as actually delivered to each particular consumer -- the value-in-use for exactly what is consumed and how (what items, how many, how intensely), including content, membership perks, etc. -- the value of that experience and potentially even the outcomes that result (enjoyment, appreciation, and even the results enabled -- did our advice improve your health or you stock market returns?). This can also include "soft" values, such as
    • service and support
    • participation, listening, and responsiveness (comments, access to the journalists) 
    • events and merchandise
    • the social value of investigative journalism, community services, and good corporate citizenship.
    From the consumer to the provider, FairPay considers not just monetary payments (subscription or membership fees, or pay-per-use), but other currencies. Thus it factors in credits (the "reverse meter") for
    • attention to advertising (including the possibility of customized levels of ad loads) and 
    • personal data that can be used or sold (again with possible customization)
    • the value of user-generated content
    • the value of viral promotion and leads
    • up-sell/cross-sell revenue potential
    • volunteer-provided services to the provider
    An ideal economic exchange would fully consider all of these aspects of value, and determine how to balance the exchange in a way that shared fairly the "economic surplus" (of value over cost) between the provider and the consumer -- as described in Harnessing the Demons of The Digital Economy. That post explains how this is not only an economic ideal, but how FairPay provides a practical process for getting consumers and providers to cooperate in approximating that ideal -- an adaptive engine for jointly evaluating the value actually received, and sharing fairly in the surplus.

    FairPay re-engineers how the providers of journalism interact with their audience members to deal with value, compensation, and sustainability, and creates a new balance of power. It recognizes that journalism co-creates value with its audience(s), and applies an adaptive method of co-pricing that (1) gives audience members the power to pay commensurate the value they perceive and can afford, while (2) retaining the power for providers to demand that be done fairly and sustainably.

    This approach draws support from
    • The latest thinking in marketing theory, in which journalism is recognized as being not a product but a service -- and in which services involve not a unidirectional transfer of value from a producer to a consumer, but a joint co-creation of value. 
    • Recent behavioral economics findings on how people will pay voluntarily for services, if asked in the right way.
    • The success of "value-based" pricing (or "performance-based" or "outcomes-based" models) for pricing industrial equipment used by companies like GE -- where a cooperative team of both producer and customer negotiate not a specific price, but a method for analyzing value as actually achieved by the customer in use, and then basing the price on that after the data is known. Just as the Internet of Things is making that more widely applicable, FairPay points to how a lightweight, heuristic variation on that theme can work for computer-mediated mass consumer markets.
    Making it work -- How to serve patrons and how to price for that

    This may seem very abstract and impractical, but the Overview page and the How FairPay Works box in the sidebar (at FairPayZone.com) explain more of how this can actually work, building on a simple balance of powers. Other posts on this blog explain the mechanics in detail, and how it can apply to journalism and similar content businesses.

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    A guide to  further details is in the companion post just below.
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    Why take the risk?

    Journalism is in a downward spiral, with a shrinking market of people willing to pay for it (at least on current terms). FairPay brings a robust and coherent strategy that applies across the spectrum of patronship:
    • For the long tail of pricing, FairPay promises to make it more affordable for the huge population of people who might pay something, but do not pay at all now because they will not pay as much as paywalls demand. FairPay's customized pricing can adapt to the lower, but still profitable, payments of the large population who consume lightly.
    • For the fat head of pricing, FairPay also promises to capture a larger "share of wallet" of those who are already paying. Unlike the complex and confusing value propositions of membership and other set-price premium subscriptions, FairPay can tailor rich value propositions to the desires of each patron, especially those willing to pay to get what they really want, not just some arbitrary, standard bundle.
    The result is a holistic view of value propositions, and how monetary payments fit in with other aspects of value, that enables the engine to individually manage a win-win relationship over time.  It motivates a very wide range of consumers of journalism to act as patrons, who provide an individualized mixture of money and other currencies of value that are a fair and sustainable exchange for what the consumer uses and values. It works as an adaptive, emergent process that identifies desired value propositions, delivers on them, tracks the results, and sets prices that patrons accept as fair and are happy to pay, Subscriptions, premiums, membership, and patronship fit together into an integrated engine of value creation and exchange, one that patrons can understand and fully buy into. This goes beyond the old invisible hand -- which is no longer operative for digital services -- to the more collaborative balance of an invisible handshake.

    While FairPay is very much aligned with the latest thinking in marketing and e-commerce, applying something so unconventional is not without risk. Established businesses will want to test FairPay first at the margins, in limited, controlled trials. This can be done in many areas, including premium tiers, acquisition offers, and retention offers (see the slide on “'Toe-in-the-water' examples for News Subscriptions" -- currently slide 18). Even if it does not work quite as expected, FairPay points us in the right direction -- that of constantly learning about realized value propositions and adapting to what each individual patron wants and values at any given time

    Trying it will lead to learning how to do it right -- how much power to give to your patrons, in what way. Really listening to our customers is now something that technology not only greatly facilitates, but requires us to do very well. It is not optional, something that can be neglected -- it is now central to the co-creation of journalism --and the business of journalism.

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    [Addendum 9/3/15 -- Aggregation and FairPay]  Until I do a fuller post on this soon [now online here], here are some quick notes about news aggregation and how FairPay enhances that:

    Aggregation is valuable to make it easy for consumers to access journalism from varied sources. Blendle has gotten much recent attention, and the proposal for The Internet Trust Exchange seems very promising. These approaches generally rely on micropayments to address varying levels of usage. Micropayments have had a troubled history (as Clay Shirky summarized long ago), but they do partially address the challenge of linking price to value when usage varies widely.

    FairPay is very applicable to use by aggregators, and it addresses the problems of micropayments directly, so that consumers need not fear the ticking meter, as explained my posts on "post-bundling" (focused on TV but also applies to journalism) and on “all you can eat” subscriptions. Post-bundling builds in volume discounts after the fact. With full FairPay, these volume discounts are soft and forgiving suggestions that are not binding, so consumers need have little anxiety about usage.

    Even without the more radical aspects of FairPay, if we do nothing more than apply pre-set discount rates from a provider-specified discount schedule, there is still a significant benefit. Why should my incremental cost for one more article be very low (actually zero) if I am an average subscriber on an unlimited usage subscription plan, but high if I have the same activity level using a micropayment system? The incremental charge for an added article should be very small (once beyond some minimal level of volume). The reason consumers hate micropayments is this constantly ticking meter – if we cannot make the meter go away, we must at least make it tick very softly.

    (Blendle does take one smart step in the direction of the participative nature of FairPay, by making it easy to demand an instant refund if not satisfied with an article.)

    -----------------------

    Additional posts relevant to journalism include:
    ...and others listed on the  More Details page.

    Guide to More about the FairPay Strategy -- For Journalism

    This is a supplement to the post just above, Patron-izing Journalism -- Beyond Paywalls, Meters, and Membership (and others, to be updated as needed).

    The Overview page (and the How FairPay works box in the sidebar) explain more of how FairPay works, building on a simple balance of powers. Other posts on this blog explain the mechanics in detail, and how it can apply to journalism and similar content businesses. Here is a guide to the posts most relevant to journalism (but for fuller background, see the More Details page).

    On FairPay as it applies to journalism:
    On comparisons between FairPay and conventional paywalls and freemium more generally:
    On volume discounting for aggregators and micropayments (writing about TV, but applicable to journalism):


    On why this idea is is just crazy enough to work:

    Also see the current slide deck, and the MIT Enterprise Forum presentation video.

    Friday, August 7, 2015

    Post-Bundling -- Packaging Better TV/Video Value Propositions with 20-20 Hindsight


    [SEE UPDATES AT END 
    WSJ report on cost, viewership,
    Disney's ESPN moving in this direction?
    ]


    The increasing shift from bundles of TV channels to Over the Top (OTT) and "a la carte" -- or at least "skinny bundles" or re-configurable bundles -- has raised cheers and fears -- and now a broad stock market decline -- but I suggest we should be thinking about a different kind of "post-bundling" future.

    The answer is for bundles to become dynamic, and on-demand -- not post-bundling as in after bundles go away, but post-bundling as in defining bundles after the viewing. Alfalfa, one of "Our Gang" comedies' "Little Rascals" had the answer in 1936: "Pay As You Exit."

    This may seem strange, but think about it. What sense does it make for me to choose ahead of time what channels I want to be able to watch in a given month? Does Spotify ask me to choose what record labels I will want to listen to? How would I know?

    This also bears on the broader migration from pay TV networks on cable and satellite, to OTT services like Netflix, as given new immediacy by this week's market sell-off of traditional TV companies. Still more broadly, this idea of post-pricing and post-bundling can be beneficial for almost any kind of content aggregation, as expanded on below.

    What I propose is that TV/video distributors let viewers select a special post-bundled plan that offers "run of house" access to all available programming, and then applies bundled package rate discounts to that month's viewing -- after the viewer household has made its choices, program by program. Note that this differs from simple "a la carte" which charges a non-discounted rate for a given channel or program. (It has been suggested that a la carte will actually raise costs to consumers, but that does not reflect the idea that a sensible a la carte plan should include package discounts.*) It also differs from skinny or changeable bundles, which still must be pre-set in advance, even if easily changed from month to month. The idea is to apply quantity discounts, much like in current bundling, but do it in a way that lets viewers choose what to watch with a minimum of constraints.

    Such a scheme can give viewers full choice, match that with appropriate levels of billing, and open up a whole world of programming that has been walled off. It may hurt some programmers who have gotten a monopoly benefit by locking in a channel slot, but will help programmers who are able to find a public, without being arbitrarily gated by the distribution system.

    This can be done with conventional pricing methods, but can be far more effective with the more flexible, value-based FairPay model described in this blog, as explained further below.

    Busting the dam of bundling

    Channel bundling is a historical accident, based on the fact the cable and satellite TV distribution systems could only carry a limited number of channels, and had no on-demand capability. The distributor had to allocate those channels well in advance to match demand. Furthermore, it was impractical to charge consumers based on programs watched, so prices were for unlimited viewing of a bundle of channels.  Since different households had different viewing habits and budgets, a range of bundles were offered at different price levels, and with some flexibility as to which channels were in the bundle.

    None of that makes sense in our new world of Internet-based TV, where any program can be provided on demand. It remains a knotty problem for the economics of distributors and TV programming networks, but that too shall pass. They have resisted fiercely, but the dam seems to be breaking as a growing list of incumbent players test the waters or consider it.

    Similar issues apply in a somewhat different form to OTT SVOD "channels" like Netflix and Hulu -- see my post "Beyond the Deadweight Loss of 'All You Can Eat' Subscriptions." Hints at the turbulence resulting from the busting of the dam, even for these OTT services, is provided in a VideoNuze article, "Why SVOD Services Are At Risk Of Being Downgraded by Consumers to Transactional VOD," showing how our current business models just do not make sense, and concluding:
    All of this underscores how uncertain things are for everyone in the TV and video ecosystem. In our Uber-crazed world, consumers are being trained to expect services on-demand and pay only for what is valued and used. Continuously fine-tuning their video services for those actually being watched will become the norm, a huge departure from the traditionally inert world of pay-TV subscriptions. [emphasis added]
    Simple Post-bundling

    The idea is simple. Let viewers pay for what they use, and do it in a sensible way that corresponds to the value they get. Current bundles (regular or skinny) do not do that, a la carte does not do that (not without discounts), and flat-rate SVOD does not do that. Viewing is irregular and unpredictable -- the only way to determine its value is after it is logged.

    Instead of selecting a bundle from a menu beforehand, we need to be able to consume dim sum-syle, and then see what we used, and then price that with an aggressive discount schedule (unlike simple dim sum). A simplistic un-discounted dim sum at a la carte prices would be overpriced, and consumers will fear running up unexpectedly high charges. But it is easy to do better, with discount tiers for various levels of viewing, and for various mixes of premium content.
    • Pricing should factor in not only which channels were viewed, but how many shows (and maybe even which ones). 
    • Tiered plans could give prices similar to current bundles, but with the flexibility to dynamically alter the bundle. 
    • Usage factors could reasonably be set so a bundle of many lightly viewed channels might cost no more than a bundle of a few heavily viewed channels. 
    • A degree of usage related pricing would better track to value.  That could limit the cord-cutting of light viewers, and obtain fair increases in revenue from heavy viewers (with price caps to maintain affordability). 
    • Consumers could be alerted when they approach various budget thresholds, so they need not fear nasty surprises. 
    FairPay post-bundling

    Even greater tracking to value -- and consumer friendliness -- can be obtained with the FairPay cooperative pricing process (see overview). This provides greater flexibility in matching the value proposition to the consumer, and in protecting the consumer from pricing shocks to their budget.
    • With FairPay, the distributor can propose prices for the past month based on a post-bundling discount schedule, but the consumer has leeway to soften the effect of spikes due to high usage (in terms of number or type of programs viewed). 
    • The distributor balances this consumer power by determining whether the consumer is being fair over the life of the relationship, and the ability to revoke the FairPay privilege of those who are consistently not fair enough, sending them back to conventional set-pricing plans for their future viewing. 
    • Since there is little actual cost to short periods of unfairly low pricing, this serves to grow a larger and more loyal customer base, while weeding out those found not to pay fairly for the value they receive.
    Why subscribe to channels?

    As the VideoNuze article points out, subscribing to channels makes no sense in an on-demand world. This actually applies to both cable channels and OTT services, since either way, a la carte pricing threatens their survival.
    • Traditionally, channels got viewer revenue by being packaged in cable/satellite systems. Post-bundling can readily apply there, administered by the distributor. Some long tail channels that enjoyed subsidies in excess of their value will have to retarget their production models, but those that had no channel slots could find new life in a more open post-bundling world.
    • For OTT, free-standing long tail services will find it hard to justify $5-10 per month from more than a small cadre of dedicated viewers. But aggregators like Netflix and Hulu can make them accessible to an entire world of viewers. 
    • Even high-end channels will find the going tough. Is CBS really worth $5.99/month? To some maybe, but to most people, probably not -- not once every other channel tries to get a fixed slice of our wallet.
    • And even Netflix should move on from its one-size-fits-all model. Holding its fees to a set $8.99/month means it cannot offer much premium content (nor can it appeal to those on very low budgets) -- sooner or later that inflexibility will become a real problem -- and the spotty availability of prime movies already is a problem. With flexible post-bundling, Netflix could afford to offer all of CBS, HBO, ESPN, etc., and a full catalog of movies. Netflix should be the Spotify of video!  

    The very idea of a long tail channel becomes questionable -- their curation model must shift from a channel (24 hours of content) to a brand (a continuing supply of desirable content, maybe less continuous, but well curated).

    Content wants to be free  ...as in free speech, not free beer

    This is the whole new value proposition of the Internet age -- its an "inter-network," remember! Content providers keep trying to wall-off their content (in "walled gardens"), but the manifest destiny of the Internet keeps breaking those walls down. Post-bundling is the pricing model for the Internet age, the age of the Celestial Jukebox. Why can't we access anything we think we will value, and then pay a fair price for whatever that turned out to be? This obviously applies to music (Spotify) and why not news, magazines, books, etc. An earlier post explained how a similar form of post-bundling could expand the market for travel guides, such as when taking a multi-country cruise to one city (=program) in each of several countries that were each covered in different guidebooks (=channels).

    The Celestial TV Jukebox

    It is time for TV/video providers to embrace the new consumer-driven on-demand world. I don't care if I watch my programs from CBS or HBO or Showtime or Netflix -- I care about watching specific programs. Channels are no longer "channels." They are simply content brands that I may come to have some interest and trust in. Why should I buy a "channel" and pay for programs I don't watch?

    It is time to think about the answer Alfalfa found: "Pay As You Exit" -- bundle in arrears -- post-bundle. Finding the right way to do that will take some experimentation, and be disruptive to the incumbent networks and distributors, but the sooner we get started, the sooner we will find our way out of the wilderness to reach the land of milk and honey. It seems clear that some of the incumbents have begun to take this sea change seriously, and this week's wake-up call in the stock market adds evidence that we are approaching an inflection point.


    [More on post-pricing and value-based strategies in this newer post: Finding Value in The Subscription Economy]


    ====================================
    *The analysis of a la carte pricing in the Barro NYTimes article, Irwin's follow-up, and in Wikipedia, seems flawed not only by ignoring the role of volume discounting, but also by assuming that the technology of pay TV distribution will continue unchanged. Barro says that channelized distribution argues for bundles:
    Think of it this way: If I put my bag in an overhead luggage bin, you can’t put your bag in the same spot, so it makes sense to charge me personally for my use. But if I watch Bravo, that doesn’t stop anyone else from watching the same show. When a good is “nonrivalrous” like a cable signal, giving it to me doesn’t stop anyone else from using it or add production costs at the margin. In those cases, it can make sense to throw lots of stuff into one package, whether or not I’ll actually use it.
    But that is obsolete technology. It may take time to change over, but cable operators already send a mix of TV channels along with a separate Internet stream down the same pipe to our cable modems -- that can carry any channels desired, as it now does for OTT services like Netflix. (Even the "cable TV" channels now use Internet Protocol in their dedicated channel slots.) As I pointed out in a 2006 post, cable operators can shift capacity between these pipes, and they continue to gradually increase the capacity of the Internet pipe. With some simple equipment changes their plant can shift to all IPTV, with no fixed channels. (Doing that system-wide will take some time and money, but not that much.) So the technical reason that made bundling economical is now disappearing.

    The skeptics also point to the psychic cost of being nickel-and-dimed, but there are ways to counter that as well. I suggest that post bundling goes a long way toward softening that, and the even softer post-bundling of FairPay makes that even more comfortable.

    As to the more fundamental economics, a recent WSJ article puts it plainly: "Selling packets of channels to subscribers once made sense, but not so much anymore." It makes even less sense once you think about post-bundled packaging discounts.

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    [UPDATE 3/22/17:  WSJ report on cost, viewership]

    This perverse economics of TV channel-based models for costing and pricing continues to grow as a problem for both legacy cable businesses and upstart OTT providers -- and the content providers who supply them. Today's WSJ article title and subtitle drive this home: "Small Cable Channels You Pay for—but Don’t Watch—Are Dying. But don’t expect your bill to decrease as networks go away."

    This report points out how dramatically the cost per viewer varies. with rarely-watched channels like Fox Sports 2 and MTV Classic costing many thousands of dollars per year per viewing household, compared to a median of $699 (and of course the more highly viewed cost outlier, ESPN at $3,885, for its barely over 2 million viewers). Some of the channels are nothing but reruns! What a waste! Some channels have made a killing on this, but it is time the industry got its house in order, and moved on to provide real value at a fair price.

    There is a constant drumbeat of news reports on the decline of pay-TV bundles, and of the difficulties faced by the growing number of skinny bundles.

    When will the industry move beyond all of these silly bundles? We don't need no stinking bundles! What we need is value-based pricing for what customers actually watch.

    [Related Post 9/25/17:  Is Disney's Robert Iger hinting at moves in this direction for ESPN?]