Brill: A Meter, Not a Pay Wall

By Steve Smith
01/07/2010

Most magazines and newspapers exploring paid content systems will start with the same form of metered service that FT.com has enforced at its site, says Steve Brill, founder, Journalism Online. “We are refusing to launch pay walls where you say to first-time visitors ‘pay or go away,’” he tells minonline. Journalism Online announced last year that it was designing a standardized e-commerce engine that will let users pay a single source for access to content from multiple publishers.

Brill says that more than 1,300 publishers have partnered with the company, and the first tests of the paid content network will start in coming weeks. In almost all cases, publishers will start by giving visitors access to 10 or 15 articles for free before asking them to pay. The idea is that frequent visitors to a site are demonstrating they value a brand’s content and are the ones most likely to pay a fee for unfettered use of the site.

When Journalism Online first announced its plans to help publishers charge for content many critics thought that sites were simply going to slam down a subscription wall, which would radically reduce traffic and ad revenues. “Everyone thought we were approaching the deep end of the swimming pool and that this guy was asking us to jump in without finding out how deep the water is,” Brill says. “We are convincing people more accurately to think of this as the shallow end of the swimming pool with 32 steps where you walk in very comfortably.”

Publishers were worried that enforcing pay systems would eliminate their ad inventory by redirecting too much traffic to free alternatives. Brill says that his plan allows occasional users and search engine hits on your content to continue to be monetized through advertising. The metered system allows the site to identify the loyal 10% or 15% that Brill estimates are willing to pay for consistent access to the brand. According to this model, visitors will be warned that they can read a certain number of articles before a subscription is required. “If you set the meter at 15 articles, you are affecting only 10% to 15% of people coming to your site,” says Brill. “You aren’t risking ad revenue because you aren’t selling all of your inventory anyway. You can dial the meter up or down to make adjustments.”

Regardless of the free alternatives that still will be available elsewhere, Brill says that the metered model surfaces the visitors who think your content brand is of special value and invites them to pay for it. Journalism Online will not reveal yet the names of the publishers involved in the project, although Brill says to expect the first public deployments by March, with most publishers starting with a metered approach.