ViewPass was one of the proposals put to publishers at the 'secret' meeting organised by the NAA in May which considered different ideas for monetising online content in a media landscape where revenue from traditional advertising methods is not generating enough income to support newspapers and other news outlets. With ViewPass, creators Alan Mutter and Ridgely Evers are essentially aiming to boost the value of page views by making advertising more effective and lucrative. The Editors Weblog spoke to Mutter to find out more about ViewPass and how he thinks it could be the solution the industry has been waiting for.
Target, target, target
Rather than directly charging consumers for online content, Mutter believes that increasing the revenue from advertising would be the best and most efficient way for publishers to up their overall revenue. Currently, most advertising systems are not producing high enough rates to support the production of content, so a significant change must take place.
The idea, he said, is that the consumer will in fact pay for content "but there are different ways you can pay." The most appropriate way to get the consumer to effectively 'pay' would be by providing information that could allow for highly targeted advertising. The consumer would both supply demographic details and allow their reading habits to be tracked throughout websites that support ViewPass so as to offer a rich picture of what they are interested in and which ads they might pay attention to. ViewPass is not aimed solely at newspaper publishers, but at anybody who puts content on the web, including bloggers. This will help the system really learn what people are interested in and develop a complex picture of them.
Mutter pointed out that the US newspapers who sell ads through Yahoo's targeted ad scheme can make far more than on a standard ad. Mutter stressed that he does not in any way oppose Yahoo's ad network, in fact he thinks that it and ViewPass could be compatible. But he maintains that his proposal is "superior" in the sense that it gathers more authenticated information about the consumer that can be used to target more effectively. For example, Yahoo "cannot target to zip code level because it does not have any way to validate post codes that customers volunteer," while ViewPass, as it takes credit card information when a user buys a piece of content, could easily authenticate postal codes.
"If it's embraced," said Mutter, "ViewPass will create deep and accurate pictures of actual individuals." Hence, the system will have "a strategically powerful picture of every consumer who registers."
An obvious concern for the consumer when using this type of system would be privacy. Mutter said that he is very aware of this, and stressed that "the way we've developed this is so that the system will give information about a person and about what that person is reading in a way that the individual still remains anonymous." Advertisers will only be allowed access to that info for that moment, they will not be allowed to record it. If they do, they will be kicked off the system. He acknowledged that "we have a lot of work to do ourselves on the safety of the database."
Industry-owned for greater profits
Mutter would ideally like ViewPass to be an industry-owned initiative and said "we're working really hard to enable that." Evidently, this would be an advantage to the industry as it would then be able to share in profits from the business itself. However, he realises that it would be quite a challenge to persuade the industry to agree as one on such a solution. Currently ViewPass exists as a detailed plan that has been continuously developed and discussed with industry leaders, but it is not yet a concrete product. If publishers do not support it as an industry-owned initiative, Mutter would consider taking it forth as a private company, he said.
How it would work
Publishers would have to insert a piece of Java code into their webpages and then would choose the stories that it wants to protect with ViewPass, and the ones it wants to leave open. The publisher has "complete control over the rules," Mutter emphasised and has several different options to choose from with regards to how they make their content available. ViewPass logos would be placed next to the articles to indicate to the consumer how they can have access. One article could be entirely free, or you might have to simply be a ViewPass member to read another, for one you might be required to pay and for another you could be asked to complete a short survey, for example.
For the consumer, the process "would be extremely low impact and non-intrusive," according to Mutter. Once you had logged into ViewPass at one website it would remember you from then on, and once you had entered your credit card details the system would remember them unless you told it not to. There are a number of sites with whom ViewPass could cooperate in terms of registration, such as Facebook and Microsoft, Mutter suggested. A Facebook user could therefore tie their ViewPass account to this account, which would make it easier to get started.
It would, Mutter admits, be off-putting to the consumer to have to do anything extra to read news, and it would hence be important to market ViewPass in the right way. His idea is that the ViewPass brand would be associated with quality content that is valuable enough to pay for in some way, so that when people see ViewPass content they know they are seeing the best. Thus it would also be a way to brand the content as being quality.
So what are the benefits for the consumer?
The system is "first and foremost a solution designed to replenish the revenues of the publishing business," but there are also advantages for the consumer. Mutter believes that the consumer benefits from the possibility to acquire better calibre content than might otherwise be available if professional media sources continue to diminish due to falling revenue. More concretely, the system would start to recommend articles to users based on their interests, so "you may learn things that you would be delighted to know about if you only knew that they were out there." As Mutter points out, there is so much information on the web that having content pushed to you can be a highly valuable service. Equally, having advertising that is actually relevant could also be extremely useful. It could also be argued that being able to pay for news with time and information is a good alternative to being forced to pay with cash.
Although Mutter is doubtful that charging consumers online could actually increase revenue, ViewPass would enable publishers to charge for online content by the article, or by a subscription to an individual paper. When asked about the possibility of paying a bundled fee for content from multiple publications, Mutter was sceptical. For the consumer, he believes it would be ideal, but there would be too many practical problems for the publisher. Dividing up such a fee so that all publications were content with their share would be an almost insurmountable obstacle, he maintains. He pointed out, correctly, that it could be difficult to equate the value of different types of content: could a 10,000 word article from the New York Times be awarded with the same compensation as a two line item on a sports score? He does not think that those publications who produce the more expensive content would be content with the small amount of revenue they would receive in exchange.
Bundling content is one of the options that another start-up, Journalism Online, is promising. Will the company be able to overcome the obstacles that Mutter highlights? Journalism Online, founded by Steve Brill, Gordon Crovitz and Leo Hindery, aims to facilitate charging online and to help its members work out the best way to charge by gathering data on their efforts.
And these two are not the only projects out there that are promising to enhance monetisation efforts of news content. Circulate from CircLabs is another proposal, focusing on upping the number of page views of newspaper articles and hence increasing advertising revenue. The company also intends to use the knowledge of its members that it gathers to institute targeting advertising on the Circulate bar that would follow users around the web.
Mutter pointed out putting too many hurdles in front of users when they are reading news content would swiftly put them off, meaning that publishers should adopt just one system. So which of these is it going to be? Mutter maintains that ViewPass is the one that can make publishers the most money. Journalism Online seems to have somewhat of a headstart, however, with partner publishers expected to be announced in the next few weeks. But will it satisfy publishers' monetisation needs?