The web, by its very name, should be a rich, interconnected, ecosystem. You click one link, it takes you somewhere else, and from there, you can discover more content and new things.
Unfortunately, the internet today looks very different from that.
For many, content discovery comes from a few select social media feeds, which in turn link to a few selective publishing sites. Don’t get me wrong, social media and publishing platforms offer a lot of value, but that has come at the cost of an organic and spontaneous web experience.
On top of this centralization, comes the problem of paywalls. Not only is it not enough for these platforms to aggregate all our content and control when and how it gets presented with secret algorithms, but they also want to lock it down and make it only accessible through payment.
This completely breaks the web experience. It seems like everyday I find myself on a more obscure news site that presumes to exclude people without a subscription, or demands you turn off your ad-blocker. Ads are an entirely separate issue, but suffice it to say they aren’t relevant or wanted, and usually not very effective.
So what’s the solution? I’m not saying that all content should be free, though I think that is a good choice for most content. I am all for sharing things freely and without exclusion. In general, how we charge and pay for things, or how we conduct accounting, is a challenging issue. Transactions are a simple solution, in that they are self contained, have a clear value proposition, and don’t require many external considerations beyond the scope of the transaction.
In the hopes of improving the web experience, I’m going to discuss a few important ideas, for how to better manage open and restricted content on the web.
1. A Good Baseline Experience
When users land on your site, it’s like being teleported through a wormhole into the middle of your store, with minimal warning as to what they are going to find on the other side. Think of the floo network from Harry Potter. The last thing that user wants is to find themselves in a restricted space with a salesman in their face, or an enforcer questioning whether they are allowed to be there.
Those things have their place, but not on a landing page on your site. And because this is the web, where everything is interconnected, every page is a landing page.
When you land on a page, its purpose should be immediately clear, as well as the general purpose of the site they are visiting, and the role of that page within the site. There’s not really much wiggle room for extras if you want a good experience. Ads, promotions, sponsorships, newsletters, and similar will do more harm than good. You also have to make sure the experience is pleasant no matter how your users are accessing the site or what their background is.
As a rule of thumb, no content that takes less than 5 minutes to consume should require a user to pay, subscribe, or create an account. And that doesn’t mean you only need more than 5 minutes of content, before you do this, but rather that you would expect your target user spends more than 5 minutes interacting with that content. Many videos, articles, etc, will only get a few minutes of attention from a most users, even if there is a lot more there.
For longer content, that does have some kind of barrier, whether that’s making an account, subscribing or paying, the experience the page offers should still be satisfying if a user chooses not to make the effort to overcome the barrier. If you have a longform article, you should write both an abstract and a summary of the main points. If the page is a game that requires an account to play, you could offer videos of gameplay or the chance to spectate live games. Many sites like lichess allow users to play anonymously without an account.
If content is not accessible to the general public, you might consider not having any URLs that link directly to that content. That way people can’t share links that give other users a bad experience.
2. Content should not require a subscription.
Imagine that you went to the grocery store and you wanted to get some apples. Instead, of having apples readily available for purchase, you see a bunch of siloed rooms, with bright flashy advertising, promoting various “fruit subscriptions”. There’s a room for tropical fruit, one for local fruit, and another that has everything. You can’t just get 1 apple. You have to weigh a bunch of different plans and strategies for various available “fruit subscriptions”.
This would make for a terrible experience, but somehow we justify this when it comes to online media. It’s especially bad when it comes to news sites, because most of the time, you’re only interested in a single article.
3. Promote your stuff at the end, if at all.
If there’s any legitimate place for promotion, it should come at the end. This saves everyone a lot of trouble. Only the users that had a good experience will stick around for the bill. The web isn’t like a restaurant, where serving patrons means letting them consume literal food. You are shooting photons over fiber cables. And yet the restaurant will seat and serve you before requiring payment, while a website will not.
A lot of this is cultural. In a physical restaurant, its a lot easier to hold someone accountable to pay their meal, and eating out is usually a social thing, where skipping payment looks bad. But I think a lot of this can be replicated on the web, if we change the culture of the web.
On the other hand, there’s nothing worse than thinking something is free, and then finding out at the last moment that you’re expected to pay. If you want users to pay for the content they consume, you should let them know up front, even if you don’t expect them to pay until the end.
4. The real barrier is not cost
Most users are willing to pay to support stuff they like, but the experience of paying for content online is generally terrible. On top of that, most consumers don’t have a lot of extra wiggle room in their budget, and so will be very conservative with spending money when they don’t have to.
One possible solution, is a ‘tab’, where users can see what they consumed, what the recommended payment for each item is, and what their planned payment is. Then they can settle everything at once so they don’t have to worry about going over budget. Obviously this only works when payment is optional or flexible, but it allows users to consume your stuff freely, stay within their budgets, and follow through more reliably with payment.