Paywalls and Windowing

NYT is opening its documentary Caliphate up to subscribers first. As Nick Quah points out in his latest newsletter, was is interesting here is that NYT already has a large subscriber base and isn’t necessarily pushing this as a customer acquisition strategy:

I like this move, by the way, and here’s why I think it’s different from other windowing campaigns we’ve seen so far: the Times already has a strong subscriber base that’s scattered across a range of media and platforms. As such, “Caliphate” isn’t made to bear the burden of needing to drive new conversions and spark new lines of businesses to justify its investment. Furthermore, the fact that the Times’ subscriber base is already significant means the project doesn’t run the risk of artificially capping any potential momentum it might generate off the bat. This raises a broader question: are audio windowing strategies only unambiguously strong when its attached to a mature and developed subscriber base?

There are a few companies trying out this windowing idea. TuneIn has an early access tier, Earwolf is putting its back catalog behind a paywall and most notably Wolverine: The Long Night is only on Stitcher Premium until later in 2018.

Windowing was used a lot by artists (or their labels) in music streaming a few years ago as an attempt to drive sales of downloads from superfans who wanted new music first and then would make an album available for streaming later. This has gone away as artists (or their labels) seek the largest audience rather than trying to maximize early income. (See: Lucian Grainge of UMG saying exclusives are bad for artists and fans and banning them at UMG and Katy Perry’s poor performance of her single Rise when windowing it on Apple Music). I think this will turn out to be true for podcasters too – reaching a wide audience will be more appealing than maximizing profit.

What about paying for additional content? A few podcasters have made this work with Patreon and ‘secret’ feeds that runs on the honor system that the listener will not share out. Is it possible to put a feed behind a password (the latest version of Overcast now offers this) but what strikes me as backwards about this is that your paying listeners now have a worse experience to get your content. Now they have to create and account/password, then tap around in their podcatcher to find how to authenticate, and then remember or somehow copy their password onto their phone and now finally they can access your content. The reminds me of those terrible, unskippable “You wouldn’t steal a car” anti-piracy ‘ads’ that punished paying viewers who had actually bought the DVD by making them wait through the anti-piracy message before they could watch their movie. And the viewers who pirated the movie for free, which either removed the ‘ad’ or made it skippable, actually got a better experience!

So if windowing and paywalls aren’t great, what is the solution? I think instead of paying for content, people will pay for the experience – that is, a better listening experience. Something akin to Spotify’s free tier vs their paid tier. What if a listener could pay to remove all ads from all podcasts? Sure, this is very difficult with the current podcast infrastructure as there is no universal way to mark where a promo starts and ends and no way to collect and distribute payments back to creators (another argument why centralization might be good) but I would love to see podcasting move away from being so dependent on ads.

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