Micropayments Can Lead to Some Profitable Outcomes

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The Winnipeg Free Press is about a year into their pay-per-article model and they are selling about 892,000 articles per month. That's significant. Add two other outcomes, lead generation—look at all those new readers who are paying for content—and knowing what topics most interest your readers, and it's a worthwhile initiative.
Micropayments have been on the table for a while now. Walter Isaacson, the much-acclaimed author, wrote this not too long ago: "An easy micropayment system for digital content could help save journalism... In my book, The Innovators, I report on how the creators of the web envisioned protocols that would allow digital payments, and I argue that this would benefit individual artists, writers, bloggers, game-makers, musicians, and entrepreneurs."
Knight Kiplinger spoke about them at the 2010 SIPA Annual conference. "Young people do pay per drink," Kiplinger's editor-in-chief said. "If they pay $1 for a song, they will pay for one article. The challenge for us is to sell small pieces of information that's comparable to this... Publishers missed establishing simple sites selling small information, and I mean a small amount—a dollar."
The International News Media Association (INMA) site held a webinar featuring Christian Panson, vice president/digital and technology at the Winnipeg Free Press, and then wrote an article. Here is a summary of recommendations:
Personalize the offer. After a 60-day trial, if a user has been reading less than 40 articles per month, they are offered a micropayment model of 27 cents per article. If their consumption is higher than 40 articles per month, the subscription offer is recommended.
Ease the commitment. People are notorious non-committers. I know from a Meetup group I run. "The biggest benefit we've really seen from micropay is that it lowers the commitment," Panson said. "What we created was this pattern of behavior—it was a pretty high wall to cross, when the reader just wanted that one next story."
Reinforce the value of content. With micropayments, they can gently slide into the concept of paying for content. "Micropayment allows people to get into the habit of paying for news, and reinforces the value of the content, because we're saying that every piece of content has value," Panson said.
Make it like EZ Pass for tolls. "The reader drops in their payment method, and then we keep track of their balance," Panson said. "You add your payment once and never again, so it is frictionless. They aren't going through the payment process every time." Knight Kiplinger echoed this in 2010: "One-click purchasing opportunity [where] they have my credit card on file, it's secure...Publishers need something like that. An $85 subscription is fine, $2 for 2 paragraphs is great. Electronic delivery [costs] next to zero."
Gamify the process. Panson thinks readers might have fun with the 27 cents. "Originally [after some research] we came up with 31 cents, so we decided to go just a little under. Also, an off, quirky number like 27 (instead of 25 or 30) is interesting and catches attention."
Try a day pass, like a theme park. "For us, I think the next move would be going to day passes and make those seamless transitions to our subscription packages," Panson said. "What I wanted to do with this at the start was make it a really risk-free proposition. I would like to have a system in place where micropay users who exceed payment for articles of a subscription level that would easily upgrade them."
Offer refunds. I know, 27 cents, really? But the Free Press offers them. Refunds ease commitments. "If people complain about price, it's that there is any price at all, that it's not free," Panson said. "People never complain about the actual cost itself." (I bet somebody does.)

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…