Forget the Paywall, Consider the Surveywall

About 150 US news sites have some sort of paywall (give or take 150 or so). Some are hard, some are soft and some are in between.

All have been written about extensively.

But what if we looked at walls from an entirely different direction? Google’s done this with their Consumer Surveys. Instead of asking readers to pull out their wallets to access content, they’re asked to answer a single question. Think of it as a Surveywall.

Frédéric Filloux describes it like so:

Eighteen months ago — under non disclosure — Google showed publishers a new transaction system for inexpensive products such as newspaper articles. It worked like this: to gain access to a web site, the user is asked to participate to a short consumer research session. A single question, a set of images leading to a quick choice.

The solution is one that’s beautiful in its simplicity. Market research is an almost $30 billion industry. And while a lot of it is much more than having people answer surveys, a lot of it is people answering surveys.

So what if you target surveys to, say, readers of certain sections of The Miami Herald, or Wired, or Car and Driver. The researcher wins because it’s a lower cost solution than traditional outreach. The publisher wins because they’ve gained a revenue stream by running the surveys. The reader wins because her wallet stays in her pocket.

There are caveats, of course, which Frédéric outlines:

In theory, the mechanism finally solves the old quest for tiny, friction-free transactions: replace the paid-for zone with a survey-zone through which access is granted after answering a quick question. Needless to say, it can’t be recommended for all sites. We can’t reasonably expect a general news site, not to mention a business news one, to adopt such a scheme. It would immediately irritate the users and somehow taint the content.

I’m not so sure it’s unreasonable. Different, yes, but the entire digital enterprise and the economics behind it is different.

The solution though reminds me of reCAPTCHA, an initiative started at Carnegie Mellon and now run by Google to crowdsource book digitization by harnessing a few seconds of millions of users’ time by having them enter the text they see in a traditional CAPTCHA box (the first word is machine readable, the second isn’t and that’s the one that Google hopes you can decipher).

As Google explains:

About 200 million CAPTCHAs are solved by humans around the world every day. In each case, roughly ten seconds of human time are being spent. Individually, that’s not a lot of time, but in aggregate these little puzzles consume more than 150,000 hours of work each day. What if we could make positive use of this human effort? reCAPTCHA does exactly that by channeling the effort spent solving CAPTCHAs online into “reading” books.

In theory, the micro-surveys of a Surveywall would work similarly. With enough scale to conduct a full survey one question at a time, market researchers gain the insights they’re looking for. The publisher earns more for running the survey than it would get with traditional display advertising.

The question, as it always does, comes back to the reader.

Will she take a few seconds to answer a question, or think it intrusive, close the page and move on?

And that, most likely, comes back to the king of it all: just how valuable is the content that the publisher is providing? — Michael

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