When new concepts or constructs are introduced to us, we tend to quickly cement our perceptions about them into stereotypes. Over time, these stereotypes firm up and solidify. They become quite difficult to undo.
The Web today is understood to be "free" in the broadest sense. Here’s the general stereotype around the Web today:
Don’t put toll booths all over the Web. Let me go where I please and don’t charge me money to see anything I want. It’s ok to advertise because I understand you need to make money somehow, but don’t charge me for content.
By "Web" I mean it in the narrower sense: browsing Web pages in your Web browser.
The above is buttressed by the loftier, more romantic notions around freedom (of both choice and information) and the general notion that the Web is the great democratizer of today. Anyone can publish, distribute and consume content on the Web today with very little cost or effort.
Welcome to the Junkyard
With such preconceived notions firmly in place, the people that create and deliver quality content on the Web (and by "quality" I don’t mean your sister-in-law’s blog) have created what amounts to an experience akin to wading through a junkyard. Ads on top, on the side, sliding down, peeling off, exploding. It’s an awful experience.
It’s so awful, in fact, that I believe that people will pay good money to experience a different kind of Web. This isn’t just about delivering an "ad free" version of the New York Times. It’s about creating an experience that is engaging, elegant and worthy of distinction.
We make this distinction all the time in the real world. VIP areas in clubs. First class and business class in airlines. Higher-end versions of all sorts of products from cars to coats to dog food. People have shown they’re willing to pay for a better experience. In fact, a better experience is the primary differentiator. The extra $2.50 you pay into your Starbucks coffee isn’t about the coffee. It’s about the place, the quality of the cup and lid and yes – it’s a bit about the coffee too.
Shun the Web at Your Own Peril
A few months ago, the New York Times released a product called the NY Times Reader. It’s a desktop application that presents a cleaner, less-cluttered experience around reading the Times. They charge money for it (it’s free to the paper’s subscribes). It’s a nice little app but my guess is the Times isn’t seeing much traction on the Reader (I don’t know this for certain, but my guess it’s a niche market for such a tool).
So if people are willing to pay for that elevated experience, why didn’t the Times Reader take off? It didn’t take off is that it isn’t the Web. It’s this whole other thing that the world didn’t really need. The Times feared the stereotype of the Web described above. They could’ve created a first class experience right in your Web browser, but they feared repercussions of putting a wall up on the Web.
Why not keep on delivering the same’ol NY Times with flying Apple ads to the masses for free and also deliver a World Class version of the Times that really takes it to another level in my browser? Would people pay for it? I think they would. As Readability has shown, people are crying out for a better reading experience inside their Web browser. While all the love for Readability has done wonders for Arc90’s collective self-esteem, let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not that people love Readability, it’s that they hate what the Web has become.
The thought shift that needs to occur isn’t around charging money to see content. It’s about charging money for a better experience. I want the equivalent of an Admiral’s Club at the airport. I want to sip my wine and read the Wall Street Journal while the masses stumble over their bags trying to get through security.
The hurdle the NY Times and others need to get past is the overwhelming fear around messing with our view of what the "free Web" is today. App stores charge money for mobile "apps" and nobody flinches because they’re not viewed as part of the Web. Desktop software enjoys the same general perception.
Eventually, someone’s going to plant a stake in the ground and have a go at it. And eventually, something is going to stick. Content on the Web today reminds me of how music was littered all over Napster’s scrap yard years ago. Yes, it was free, but it was one big stinkin’ mess. "Yes, it was messy, but would people every pay for music?" I think that question’s already been answered.
We need the iTunes experience for today’s Web content.