The big media news this past week was, of course, the launch of the New York Times’ new paywall system. A key component of this system is that access remains free up to 20 articles per month, at which point the user is required to pay in order to gain further access. And, as with so many media industry developments these days, the concept of audience engagement and how it might be monetized has factored into the discussion.
As one recent analysis has noted, the emerging elements of engagment, such as “time spent, sharing, and recent frequent visits” are the kinds of things that are likely to be higher amongst subscribers than non-subscribers. And so, as this assessment concludes, “Some even see a scenario where the NYT will be able to charge higher rates—if the newspaper hits the expected number of ‘heavy users’ which may offer proof of ‘more engaged’ readers.”
The only problem I have with this logic is that it seems grounded in the traditional print media notion that paying for access is a potentially useful proxy for audience engagement. Under this logic, paying readers have always been worth more in the print media realm than those who receive publications for free or at a deep discount. This is why the Audit Bureau of Circulations separates out readers according to these categorizations.
But today, especially in the online space, there is no need for proxies. It seems unlikely that participants in the audience marketplace will need to look to consumer payment as “proof” of audience engagement. All of these elements of engagement that consumer payment can serve as a proxy for can now be measured (and monetized) directly (I discuss many of these online metrics and measurement services in Audience Evolution). Whether we’re talking about sharing activities, or “liking” of articles, or time spent on the site, or even the quantity of reader comments, all of these direct indicators of engagement can now be measured directly.
Certainly, paying customers can access more content and thereby engage in more of the activties that contribute to measures of engagement, which could enhance their value. But to talk about payment as a proxy for engagement seems to neglect the fact that, today, the best proxy for engagement is engagement. To talk about payment as a proxy for engagement is a bit of a throwback to a much less interactive period in the evolution of the media audience.