The Admiral’s Club & The Junkyard: What Would We Pay For In Today’s Web?

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

http://www.blogcdn.com/green.autoblog.com/media/2008/04/junkyard.jpgWith 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?

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.

http://www.omniplan.com/assets/galleries/aa/5.jpgThe 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.

6 Comments The Admiral’s Club & The Junkyard: What Would We Pay For In Today’s Web?

  1. bfl

    You’re right on with this post.
    Another analogy I use for this at the lower end of the spectrum is oil changes. Just about anybody could easily change their own oil, but the convenience of having somebody else do it makes it worth paying for the service.
    Quality of experience/service are the key and while they are not flashy and do not make make millionaires into billionaires, etc, they are the difference between the race to the bottom where behemoths duke it out for lower and lower margins, and real people do doing their best work for livable wages.
    I think the media companies should just go for it. As iTunes has shown, people will pay a reasonable price for freely available content. Their alternative is a feckless forced march towards obsolescence. The sad fact is the paper edition of the NY Times is already such a bad user experience that is closer to the free web edition than it is to the Admiral club.
    Thanks to marco.org for putting me onto this article. Keep up the great work.
    -bfl

    Reply
  2. Matt Rix

    I think you’re completely right… but the problem is that the average user can’t perceive the value of a good experience. If you show them one thing that’s nice and clean but costs money, and another thing that’s free but covered in ads, they’ll almost always take the free thing. It’s only when you make it actually easier to get the content(like in the iTunes vs Napster scenario) that they’ll consider paying money. I think it’s really about immediacy more than anything else.

    Reply
  3. Adam Williams

    This is a great post.
    @ bfl – In response to “The sad fact is the paper edition of the NY Times is already such a bad user experience that is closer to the free web edition than it is to the Admiral club”. You’re right. Can you imagine a website charging visitors access to the content, then showing them advertising as well? That’s exactly what the paper edition does.
    @Matt Rix and @Diego Petrucci – I think Apple combines a great user experience, which in turn makes it more pleasurable to get content from them.

    Reply
  4. Matt Rix

    Ah, but Diego, I wouldn’t call Apple users the “average user”, at least not when it comes to computers.
    As far as Apple with iPods and all that, it’s more about the brand than the actual experience. No doubt the user experience makes them like it ONCE they’ve bought it, and that’s what makes them keep buying them, but it’s not why they buy one in the first place.

    Reply
  5. eroswebmosnter

    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

    Reply

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