The changing face of online media is leaving traditional news outlets behind. Newspapers are struggling to fund their print editions. The Independent recently stopped printing and the Guardian is expected to make a £53 million loss by the end of March. News media must find a way to make money from their online sites if they want to survive in the new landscape.
This is no longer a simple matter of selling advertising space. People are no longer willing to sit through advertising videos or have adverts pop-up on their screens. Ad-blockers are widely used and are dissuading advertisers from investing in spaces. Some outlets, such as Channel 4, have chosen to prevent the use of ad-blockers on their site, forcing people to sit through advertising as they once did with analogue TV. This is a risky approach. Consumers have an infinite amount of choice in what they watch and read. For them to put up with advertising you have to have something worth putting up with it for. It has to be easier to use, and more entertaining, than ad-free options.
Content-based marketing is the solution for many companies. The social media management system Buffer uses their blog to attract people to use their services, and their free services to entice people to use their pay-for services. This is a strong system of a sort of meta-marketing. Buffer writes blog posts about their business strategies, which form the backbone of their business strategy. Could this work for companies without a marketing focus?
“Content-based marketing is the solution for many companies.”
Youtube has recently launched Youtube Red in the US. This is its homegrown optional subscription service. Following the success of optional paid subscriptions by Hank Green of Vlogbrothers fame on the channels he produces, including The Brain Scoop and Crash Course, Youtube Red allows users to choose to pay a monthly fee to support videos they see for free without advertising. Currently, Youtube allows ad-blockers to work with their site, but video makers don’t receive any money from vues with ad-blockers on. This service is a way to support the content producers you like, without annoying adverts.
Youtube Red, and Hank Green, do, like Buffer, offer special, subscription only content to entice people to use their pay-for services, but this is not the primary appeal of the services. They work most powerfully on people’s consciences. Consumers are not lured only by extra pay-for content, they are primarily motivated by a desire to support content they enjoy. This crowd-sourced approach to funding has allowed many small ideas to take off. Its archetype, Kickstarter has been hugely effective at supporting small entrepreneurs to gain much needed capital. Those who consider themselves ethical consumers will be particularly attracted to this system which allows them to support the content they want, rather than have their valuable time stolen by advertisers.
Similar approaches are being used by Wikipedia and recently by the Guardian. The sites feature pleas to donate and help them continue their work. Consumers are now making a charitable decision when they pay for content. There is a greater element of choice. The free-market of the internet allows for consumers to feel they have a democratic stake in what they consume. Good content will win, bad content, and unpopular opinions, will lose.
“Consumers are now making a charitable decision when they pay for content.”
However beautiful and ethical this sounds, there are some potential problems. The pressure of content-based marketing could create a culture where all articles must tempt someone towards a product. The trend of “clickbait”, articles with exciting titles designed to lure you into reading disappointing content covered in adverts, is one such example. Websites lure you in with the promise of sexy pictures only to lead you to a boring page, splattered with adverts, that wastes your valuable time. Might all online media move this way, focused entirely on what sells, with little energy leftover to create the kind of content that informs, educates, and entertains?
“Clickbait” articles might still catch a few of us out when we’re bored and looking for something to help us procrastinate, but in reality they’re a dying breed. Modern consumers learn fast, the techniques that worked 5 years ago, or even last year, will not work today, hopeful as the Guardian’s nice little integrated adverts disguised as articles are. Buzzfeed has cornered this market, providing not only exciting titles, but content that does actually live up to them!
There is a more worrying fear than the annoyance of a disappointing clickbait article. This new, “democratic”, charity-like, way of supporting media could lead to a very real tyranny of the majority. Those who can afford to donate will dictate what we all consume. They don’t just have a vote for what they get to see, as with purchasing traditional media, but a vote in what we all get to see.
“This new, “democratic”, charity-like, way of supporting media could lead to a very real tyranny of the majority.”
This is the target of ethical consumerism as a whole. Boycotting unethical products reduces demand, forcing companies to consider their ethical policies in order to sell as much as before. This system, though, requires massive numbers of people, and huge shifts of public opinion to be effective. Primark claim to have changed their slavery-ways, but the public’s desire for cheap, throw-away clothing remains. With this charity-based media funding, however, it would take far fewer people to influence decisions. It takes just a couple of wealthy people to donate large sums for media outlets to be protected. Those who can afford to donate would control what we all consume.
This is no different than the current system. Some print newspapers are able to give away millions of copies for free while others must close altogether. Yes, a few wealthy elites may help grow the power of an otherwise unpopular site but this power is no greater than with print media. It might even be smaller, a small donation fee is achievable by many, even those who could not afford to buy a regular print edition. The most popular sites will attract enough small donations to survive. Modern marketing is no more a threat than marketing has ever been. Money and power are still in play as ever before.
The next generation of journalists are going to have to work hard to claim and maintain their share of our viewing time. Media outlets must have accessible, entertaining, quality content in order to attract consumers. Journalists must focus on writing engagingly, with content that can be understood by the majority of readers, without compromising their ethical and informative stance. Is this really a bad thing? Is it really that big a threat to free and quality media? I don’t think so.