The birth, death and resurrection of micropayments

Are micropayments dead? They were never born.- Jeff Jarvis, blogger and CUNY J-school prof

My favorite panel at the paidContent 2011 conference was “Paying it Forward: Paywalls, Meters & Subscriptions,” which consisted of an all-star panel including Journalism Online Co-Founder (and former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz), Financial Times.com Managing Director Rob Grimshaw, Atlantic President Justin Smith and Google’s Director of Strategic Partnerships Jim Gerber.

Toward the end of the 50-minute talk, moderator Robert Andrews, UK editor for paidContent, asked a question about micropayments. Surprisingly, most of the panelists were dismissive of micropayments. Gerber, who has helped lead Google’s OnePass initiative, said they had not heard much interest in micropayments from the public because of the friction involved in transactions.

Despite early press materials indicating the inclusion of micropayments in its PressPlus platform, Journalism Online continues to primarily advocate for a metered freemium model.

“Down with paywall, up with freemium,” was Gordon Crovitz’ final salvo during the session.

Grimshaw told me after the conference that the Financial Times’ experiments with micropayments were unsuccesful, but I suspect that has more to do with the nature of its business content (in other words, people are still likely to seek out business news, rather than have it find them as is the case with other types of news in the social web environment).

If the expert panel is any indication, then mainstream newspapers appear to have given up any hope in trying out micropayments just two years after headlines proclaimed them as the way to “save newspapers.”

This, in my humble opinion, would be a huge mistake.  Just a year ago, my colleague Jameson Hayes and I outlined how micropayments could work for newspapers (opens PDF document) at the International Symposium on Online Journalism (a more advanced and refined version of that paper is in press in the International Journal on Media Management).

The bottom line is that the only way to tell whether micropayments will succeed as a viable model for online (and mobile and tablet) news is to try them.  As CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis tweeted during the conference, “are micropayments dead? They were never born.”

This isn’t entirely true.  As we point out in our paper, micropayments were tried in the late 90s and early 2000s to no avail. A 2000 Boston Globe article, for example, shouted “MICROPAYMENTS COULD BE THE WEB’S NEXT BEST HOPE.”  Flooz, Beenz, CyberCash, Bitpass, Peppercoin and DigiCash are a few examples of failed micropayment companies from what can be considered the Micropayment 1.0 era.

The difference between Micropayment 1.0 and Micropayment 2.0 is the emergence of the Social Web.  Newspapers may be  (wrongly) hesistant to adopt micropayments, but that does not mean they are not alive and well.

Micropayments have thrived for song and video downloads on iTunes, and micropayments are poised to become even more prevalent for digital goods, gaming and virtual currencies with big time players like Facebook (Buy with Friends)and PayPal (Digital Goods) enabling them.

Not all newspapers have given up on micropayments, either.  At 99 cents for a week’s worth of issues, The Daily is basically a subscription micropayment option.  Hong Kong-based CarrotPay also offers microsyndication technology for newspaper companies to enable seamless micropayments.

Mainstream American newspaper companies may be reticent to try micropayments as a new digital pricing strategy, but there are at least two other huge underserved markets that could experiment with the new business model. Non-American media markets are ripe for micropayments (Google’s OnePass is already in play in many European countries), as are community daily newspapers (under 50,000 circulation) and non-dailies.

Don’t write off micropayments for newspapers just yet.  Newspapers are perfectly poised to contribute in a big time way to the resurrection and rebirth of micropayments on the Social Web.  The models and technology are both in place.  All that is missing are willing newspaper partners.

Now is the time for newspapers to act.

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