Is the time ripe for micropayments for news?
Dominic Young held commercial, strategic and operational roles at News Corp before founding Axate, which allows readers to access articles beyond a paywall for pence.. He was brought up by journalists and briefly worked as a photographer.
Why exploring new business models for news matters
- Almost half of news leaders (47%) surveyed for Journalism, media and technology trends and predictions 2022 worry that subscription models may be pushing journalism towards super-serving richer and more educated audiences and leaving others behind.
- Most people, including in wealthy countries, still do not pay for news. According to the Digital News Report 2021, only 11% of people paid for any online news in France, 9% in Germany, and 8% in the United Kingdom.
- The COVID-19 pandemic led to a considerable fall in advertising revenues, with developing countries losing up to 85% of their ad revenue, according to this 2020 piece in Press Gazette.
Watch the video of Dominic’s talk
Five questions raised by Dominic’s talk
1. Are there limits to subscription? "There's nothing wrong with subscriptions. Subscribers are a small proportion of your total audience and I think the rest of the audience is an opportunity," Dominic said. He sees his model of casual payments as something that can complement subscription rather than replace it.
“Most news organisations hit a plateau with their subscriptions and it's hard to grow from there, and it's hard to grow by putting a price up. So most people are attempting to read and being locked out," he said. However, others like media analyst Thomas Baekdal, have expressed a worry that micropayments may actually lead to people who would have bought a subscription to limit themselves to just one or two casually paid-for articles, generating less revenue for the publisher.
2. An alternative way for news organisations to expand their paying audience? "There's a need for the next layer in the market to reach people who want your product but are just not quite ready to take a big step. Casual payments push them into the funnel," Dominic said. He views his service as an uncomplicated way for people to pay for articles without being put off by the multiple steps and greater commitment of subscriptions.
"Axate has a smooth system. So if a user registers, they just enter their email, at which point they have a wallet. So you get someone from unknown to known and ready to pay in a simple step," he said. The majority of people who land on a paywall page will not subscribe. Axate is suggesting a way for publishers to monetise these people. However, the issue of keeping readers when they encounter a paywall may not favour casual payments. Tech and media journalist Simon Owens makes the point that publishers want to use the few seconds most users spend on that page to sell them a higher-value subscription, and thus are unlikely to want to use that space to advertise casual payment options as well.
3. Can experimentation (and segmentation) lead to growth? "You can introduce Axate in a way that makes sense for your audience. We've had publishers introducing it initially, just for churning users [those who stop using the service] or just for international users as this grows," Dominic said. He recommends news publishers to experiment with pricing as well, given the range that is possible.
There has been concern that very low payments may not be worth it for publishers who cannot rely on large audiences. Dominic prefers to use the phrase ‘casual payments’ rather than ‘micropayments,’ as some of the one-off payments publishers require may not be so small. "You'll start off with your best guess and over time you'll go through a much more rapid series of evolutionary steps that will reinforce each other," he said.
4. Does the media industry lack ambition? "Given the reach of news media, big numbers are almost certainly available to us as an industry. But we have to stop satisfying ourselves with a tiny, little proportion that we own," Dominic said. He wants to see ‘a higher degree of entrepreneurialism’ in the industry, with players trying new things and not just sticking with the same methods they have used for decades.
Of course, Axate’s causal payment model is not the only option for innovation beyond subscriptions. The Guardian is successfully using audience donations, Tortoise, elDiario.es, Il Post and others are using memberships, and Gazeta Wyborcza has set up a club through which subscribers have access to the editorial team.
5. Is there a way for news orgs to cooperate and build a network? "Axate is meant to make every user available to every publisher, if they can attract them with their product. The more participation there is, the bigger the opportunity for everybody," Dominic said. He envisions possibilities for publishers to collaborate when using Axate and suggests that extending the network might create a network effect.
"We are now focused on Europe and the US. But what I would love is that as Axate grows, it does become this network of publishers who are stakeholders in some way and we tackle these things together," he said. This, of course, depends on more and more publishers buying into the premise of micropayments as an audience revenue model.
The bottom line
There has yet to be a widespread micropayment success story in the media industry. With the impact of Covid-19 speeding up the fall in advertising revenue and the continued growth of digital media, now might be the time to explore casual payments as a new revenue stream. Axate is trying to make this work. Critics argue it’s possible that this model will never work.
If you want to know more…
- Read Dominic’s article for the British Journalism Review on how the news industry can save itself from digital revenue decline
- Follow Dominic on Twitter
- Read Simon Owen’s Q&A piece about micropayments
- Read Thomas Baekdal’s article discussing paywall models
- Read our 2020 report on how local media can ‘pivot to paid’
Read our 2020 report on how and why people are paying for online news