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March 7, 2013
Salmon's Payment Economics
A few days ago I noted Felix Salmon's blog entry in which he laid out his case for the freemium marketplace
(although he doesn't call it that). Part 2 went up this week and to my surprise it's also in large part about Amanda Palmer's TED talk
, which I (and pretty much every blogger on the planet) had noted as being pretty amazing and definitely worthwhile.
Salmon comes in for a mention in the talk, but his reason for posting it is because he wants to talk about the same things that Palmer talked about: how do you convince (not force!) people to pay for what you can offer? This is the flip side of his first column about how to package your product so that it diffuses out to the appropriate audiences. The payment side requires that people - as Palmer describes - overcome a certain shame in asking, and develop a level of trust in themselves, in their audiences (fans, readers) and in the relationships that can be built. Salmon points out that the publishing business has been frankly awful at this, though he shares Palmer's sense that Twitter may create a fundamental change there.
Salmon talks at length about the various models most in use today and argues that there are no sharp necessary distinctions between such things as paywalls and tip jars. In particular, as an economist or a businessperson you might want to try to compute the relative merits or likely payoffs of different models but that's likely an impossible task. What you need to do (like every business) is try to match up your supply and demand curves and make them meet at a point you can live with.
How long you live with it, though, is another problem entirely. Salmon points out that high (or pricey) paywalls may generate more short-term revenue and look better to the current bottom line, which is great if you're trying to pump up your stock price or make yourself look like an attractive buyout target. But they may be killing you long-term as your current readers die off or move on and your paywall not only shields you from those who want to rip off your content, it also makes you invisible to new people who are searching.
This matters because you're probably not talking about reaching audiences of millions or even hundreds of thousands. Palmer's fan base is probably in the tens of thousands and that's probably about the right size, for her. Salmon notes that the Internet "...enabled smallish numbers of people to pay modest amounts of money..." and that can add up to a sustainable model. This is, I think, the answer to the question I started gnawing on in January: how many people can be counted on to sustain a writer?
The answer is "probably not a lot, but that's OK" because if a few tens of thousands of people can be enough then there's a lot more subscriber base to go around. I'm trying my own little personal experiment in this area, seeing how many Kickstarters I feel comfortable backing. Right now I think my appetite is something like 1 or 2 a month at probably $20 or $25 each. We'll see how it goes.
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