Why NPR-esque User Donations Aren’t Likely To Pay The Bills For Digital Publishers

A few times every year, I’ll meet someone who decries all forms of advertising, especially the digital variety. These objectors tend to concentrate their ire on the data gathering and targeting behind digital ads, but that’s not their only concern. They also find ads on their favorite apps and websites a burdensome distraction.

Since I work for a company that helps its customers run largely mobile ads on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, I appreciate the opportunity to defend advertising. I doubt I’ve changed many minds, but I have started to notice one area of common ground emerge.

We agree that the Internet shouldn’t come for free.

Those who dedicate their time and talent to making digital content that we consume should be compensated for their effort. If this request to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is any indication, some would rather pay a fee than see any advertising.

This got me thinking: might the next innovation in the way we pay for digital content look like something as familiar as a PBS pledge drive? With Google Contributor, we may soon find out.

That’s because this service, which like so many others Google first offers is currently open by invitation only, allows users to make monthly donations to certain websites in return for consuming web pages bereft of advertising. Here’s Google’s depiction of what that might look like. As you can see, paying to remove ads leaves empty panes, so the user experience isn’t ideal.

Google Contributor website mockupTo estimate how many people might use Contributor, I examined the share of other ad-free, subscription-based content services. For example, HBO serves nearly 36 million households. That’s about 27 percent of the country, according to 2013 Census data.

Back in 2005, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting reported it had raised about $634 million in subscriber donations. If only half of HBO’s household share of 27 percent subscribe to PBS, and based on the network’s 100 million weekly viewers, that would yield about $50 per annual subscriber, which feels to me like a solid estimate.

Let’s say that Google Contributor split the difference between HBO and my PBS estimate and could convince 20 percent of all American households to pay websites $5 per month/$60 per year for content in lieu of ads. The result isn’t much: this would generate only about $1.6 billion to be divvied up among the sites that enable Contributor. With the likes of Facebook and Google each making tens of billions of dollars annually, most content creators would need to convince more users to pay more money for the privilege of accessing their content in order to make this revenue stream pay for their operations, much less make it material to the bottom line.

Running these numbers exposes the weakness in arguments the anti-ad crowd make. Even though we increasingly agree that content creators should be rewarded for their efforts, it’s awfully hard to replace the advertising engines that have paid the way for so many users to create and consume digital content. While it’s true that some users would use Google Contributor to make meaningful donations so they could avoid ads, it’s hard to imagine enough of them signing up to fundamentally change the web’s economics.

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