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Pay for content?

Part II: The subscription model starts to look better.

Last time I mentioned that Salon.com will roll out a premium subscription service in April. This is part of a trend in the top tier of content sites. The New York Times is also rolling out a similar service. And The Wall Street Journal, which has always relied solely on subscriptions, is rumored to be rolling out an ad-supported version of its site, featuring a subset of its full content–kind of the reverse of the same trend.

Will users pay for content? Well, most won’t. The culture of the Web being a “free” medium will always hold sway. But more and more, users realize that nothing is really free on the Web. While it may be so cheap that those who provide the content continue to lose money, users also still pay a price. That price is the amount of friction–slower download speeds–that ads bring to the whole user experience. The reality is, ad-driven sites often load twice as slowly as their ad-free versions would. And the percentage of load times due to advertising will only grow as time goes on. Rich media ads and the infrastructure that supports them causes sites to load even more slowly.

And then there’s the issue of what other effects the ads have on the value of the content itself. Let’s face it, Web ads are harder and harder to sell, even for a site like ours that has good traffic and a targeted audience. More and more, agencies are making contextual marketing a requirement for ad buys. No matter how careful we are about making the ad sales department and the editorial department completely distinct, some readers will perceive contextual marketing as a sell-out. And we will lose those readers and their traffic, which will reduce our ability to sell ads. There are no easy decisions here. And it’s tough to quantify this effect.

But we can quantify speed. If you spend an hour a day reading on the Web–perhaps split between four or five primary sites–how much of that time is spent in waiting for the sites to load? Let’s say it’s around 10 minutes, if you have a reasonably fast connection. If the sites you spend most of your time at are ad-driven, we’re talking about 5 minutes every day of extra time waiting for content to load. Now, how valuable is this five minutes? For a consultant who can charge $60 an hour, it’s worth five bucks. Now let’s say those same consultants would pay half of their hourly value on a monthly basis for that time back. You can do the math. It works out to around $30, rounding down. Split that between the five sites, and people would pay six bucks a month for an ad-free version of their favorite sites. Even if 1 percent of our traffic chose this route, subscriptions alone would pay for site costs. The “free” ad-supported version of our site would be our profit margin.

Just like other content sites, we will have to grapple with the issue of whether to develop a subscription-based service. Let’s say we roll out an ad-free premium subscription service, which includes an ability to interact with the daily writers and the other subscribers in a variety of community venues. Would you pay six bucks a month for such a service? If not, what would you pay?

Or how about a portal-based subscription service–My ComputerUser.com–complete with all and only the tech information you’re interested in? How much would this be worth to you? I’m interested to hear from readers on this issue. If we get a lot of positive feedback about it, we might just put that subscription service on the front burner.

James Mathewson is editorial director of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com.

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