Sunday, 25 July 2010

Paywalls, producers and cultural brands

Sometimes the expectation is better than the real thing. Like the World Cup if you're English (but not if you're Scottish!). Similarly the Times' paywall has descended into some rather petty pointscoring in the Guardian and a few half-baked stats on whether it will break even or not. So although I was excited about how wrong an idea it was and whether Murdoch could make something so illogical work, I still can't be bothered to get interested by it at the moment (to give the Guardian their due they did also publish a much smarter explanation of why it was at least a year too early to call it a success or a failure yet).

One thing that does really interest me at the moment though is how the Times' paywall is in part a reaction to the rise of the cultural brand, and the increasing independence of the cultural producer. These are interlinked trends, which basically break down like this:

Cultural brands
The structural change in marketing expenditure away from buying media predicted by Fred Wilson a couple of years ago is taking very visible shape at the upper end of companies like Pepsi and Unilever. Traditional brands are thinking about earning attention through a long term commitment to owning space that provide content people want,. They are also curating interesting content that isn't all about the brand, nurturing communities around the brand's interests, and supporting other communities who share those interests. In many cases the content that inspires those communities is currently being created by the same producers that brands had previously worked with - either media owners or ad producers. But it doesn't need to be - it just needs to be stuff that people want.

Independent cultural producers
As Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis have explained far better than I could, the established publishing industry solves problems that no longer exist. There is no requirement for an intermediary to employ journalists - two of my favourite newspaper columnists, Charlie Brooker and Stephen Fry, both have personal readerships far larger than the papers they write/wrote for. Ad agencies maintain expensive office space to house their stables of cultural producers, when many of the producers are voting with their feet and becoming freelance. Which isn't a risk when the internet guarantees them interesting briefs from around the world.

The two trends are intrinsically linked, as when brands had to pay to get their messages seen, they needed content to place them alongside. And when content producers wanted to make a living from producing content they had to find someone who could sell ads around that content
to employ them. Now of course neither of them is limited in those ways. That's one of the reasons why the Times weren't making much money on their websites.

So brands are increasingly looking for content that feeds their own ecosystem - their sites, communities, networks and search results pages. And content producers are increasingly able to build a personal reputation without the need for an intermediary ('publisher' 'broadcaster' 'ad agency'). Naturally they are talking directly to each other. The paywall has two impacts on this system. Firstly, it cuts Times journalists ability to build their reputation away from Times properties - they become more reliant on their employer for distribution. Secondly, and more importantly, it allows the Times to build itself into a cultural brand in the same way that Nike, Red Bull, Mountain Dew, etc do. This sounds counter-intuitive, as newspapers have historically defined culture, but it allows the editors to step outside the historic definition of the category (to report news as accurately and speedily as possible). Although there are now an infinite number of competitors in that category, it is still where their historic competitive set focus their energies. In the same way that Red Bull creates extreme sports content not energy drink content, the Times can start to move away from a single focus. Ok, content-wise it has always done that, but it can move away from the unstated single focus of a commercial website of '[reporting news and] making sure that it generates as many page impressions as possible'. It starts to become more like the brands that it used to sell ads to.

But there is no inherent business model in content for its own sake in an economy where content is abundant and attention is scarce (that's the bit about this scheme that is illogical, as it is contrary to basica economics). Ok News Int are attempting to create scarcity, but powerful though they are, they are not as powerful as the internet. So the path that I'd expect them to take is to complete the circle back to those cultural brands who no longer need their ad space. They need to use content to sell things. In the same way as brands who sell things needed to find content producers, the content producers will need to find physical products. Like Sunday Times Wine Clubs for holidays, finance, car insurance, and all the other things that in a few years from now will used to be advertised with them.

To be fair, I'm sure they are thinking about this - it is far too early to gauge any level of success in the paywall experiment for precisely that reason: it isn't about making a profit from subscriptions, it is about creating a market.


Sam said...

Really interesting post. I work at Nokia and have been following a guy in Australia's blog recently which explores similar issues to you — he's really insightful — find him at

Cheers sam @

Graeme Wood said...

Hey, thanks Sam - I hadn't come across Excapite before

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