The language of micropayments

It took a long time for the news industry to really embrace the reality that they need consumer revenues to survive and thrive. Having reached it, though, a new pessimism seems to be growing. The initiatives that have been widely implemented aren’t working well enough.

If we look at the language we’re using to describe those initiatives, it might give some us clues as to why. Publishers often talk about ‘paywalls’ as the solution. But walls are barriers: they keep people out. They protect what’s behind them, yes – and we should be protecting premium content, rather than making it freely available – but at the cost of keeping it hidden. This kind of language suggests a hostility towards the very people it’s meant to be encouraging.

It’s a strange way to think of your business model, and hardly surprising that it’s not working as well as it should.

Publishers also talk about ‘subscription’. A subscription demands a commitment from users, who we know enjoy the casual nature of their relationship with multiple brands online, and who naturally prefer to form habits rather than make formal commitments.

I mention language not to castigate any publishers trying to make an income for themselves, but to highlight how important it is to think about business strategy from the point of view of the consumer and not just the business.

So let’s look at the current situation in more positive terms. What the news media – and all media – needs is payments. What consumers need is the ability to continue to access whatever they want to, at a price they find acceptable, without the need to make commitments they aren’t ready to make.

And what we definitely don’t need is to fall into the same trap of negative language to describe that simple solution. Direct payment systems that allow consumers to pay for only the content they read, on a per-article basis, are often referred to as ‘micropayments’. But micropayments are just payments, dressed up in a daunting buzzword: we didn’t call payments “micro” when they were people handing 25p over in a shop for a printed newspaper. There’s simply no need to use such negative, alienating language to describe a system that people are already familiar with.

The language doesn’t need to change around payment, but attitudes do. Studies have shown that people are becoming increasingly habituated to paying for online content, and will soon be replicating that habit with their news sources. Publishers need to capitalise on that willingness with a simple, easy to use system that works for them and for their readers. That’s why we’ve invented Agate: to meet that need, and to offer a more positive and sustainable future for online media.