Monetizing the Web Beyond Ads

Reading articles on the web nowadays is an absolute fucking mess. When I try to read news articles on the web without an ad blocker, I’m honestly not sure whether that publisher even wants me to be able to read anything. Heaven help you if you’re on your mobile phone; your entire screen is just going to be covered with things that aren’t the article you’re trying to read.

News orgs and blogs don’t seem all that fond of the situation either. Ad networks aren’t paying worth a crap, so they pack more ads on each page, which probably devalues the page even more. Publishers are looking past advertising to monetize, and more sites than ever are offering subscriptions and putting their content behind paywalls, which pretty much cuts off news sites from casual readers who are reading more than a couple articles a month, but aren’t quite invested enough to pay a sizable monthly payment.

That’s great, except that on a given day, I’ll encounter links to dozens of different sources, and it just isn’t tenable for me to have a $50–100/year subscription to all of them. And even when I do pay, a lot of news sites will still give me ads because they just can’t resist the extra handful of pennies. Even if publishers started offering price points for those casual readers (maybe a sub-$5 subscription that allows for 10–20 articles a month, or a pay-per-article model), it’s still a ton of friction for a reader to sign up for all these subscriptions and manage them and remember to log in every site they have a subscription to, or even just keep mental tabs on which sites they’re subscribed to.

For awhile I used an app called Scroll, which let me pay a monthly fee in exchange for hiding the ads on dozens of web sites. I got to feel good that I could hide ads and support publishers, the publishers could earn more from my clicks compared to when ads were funding them, and Scroll had a nice little business with recurring revenue.

Apparently not enough revenue though, because Scroll sold to Twitter, who kept the service running for a few months, then shut it down and replaced it with a worse version of itself.

I like to think Scroll was showing some traction, though, based on the number of sites they had that worked with Scroll.

Because I’m too lazy to start this company myself, I’d like to lay out the Icanthascheezburger vision for monetizing the web.

For the sake of example, we’ll call it CutTheCrap. I don’t really have any intent of building this product but it’s easier to talk about it like it’s a product that exists.

Introducing (but not really): CutTheCrap

CutTheCrap’s goal is to make it possible to be an independent publisher on the web. In other words, as a reader, I should be able to kick a few bucks to CutTheCrap, and in exchange be able to view just about any article on the web without ads or other bullshit, knowing that every time I view something, the publisher is getting fairly compensated.

Let’s start with price: Scroll’s $5/month isn’t enough; CutTheCrap’s price will be $15 a month.

CutTheCrap’s goal here is to just be a platform; its cut of the revenue will be 20%. CutTheCrap gets $3 of your money every month, and publishers split the other $12.

The way we split this will be unique, though. Streaming platforms like Spotify will divvy up the money in aggregate, meaning that if you’re an indie band and some fans stream your music 80% of the time, overall your streams were only a tiny, tiny percentage of the total, so you get a tiny, tiny percentage of the pie.

CutTheCrap works differently. If half of a user’s visits are to your sites, you get half of that user’s money that month. If a user looks at 100 articles and one is yours, you get 1% of what they spent. If they look at 1000 articles that month and one is yours, you get 0.1% of their money that month. This model is probably subject to getting tweaked as time goes on to allow for more equitable distribution of revenue (more on that below).

And every month, subscribers will get a full and transparent report from CutTheCrap detailing where their money went.

Dividing up $12 between a ton of publishers still looks like a small amount of money to each publisher, but if you look at this in terms of annual revenue and when you add up enough users, it starts to be significant money, and it’s a hell of a lot better than the scraps a publisher makes off your eyeballs in the ad-based economy.

The basic version of CutTheCrap does just that; it cuts the crap out of the web for you. You use it by installing a lightweight extension in your browsers which identifies you anonymously to web sites, and when those web sites see you’re a CutTheCrap user, they give you the first class experience: articles with no ads or trackers and a clean layout. I love this approach because it doesn’t force you to use a new app; it’s just using the open web. And it also means that if you click a link from someone and are taken to a site, CutTheCrap just works like it should; you get the crap-free version of the article you wanted to read.

And the power users among us can pay more each month to get extra features, such as an auto-archival feature that will store a pristine archived copy of every article you’ve read, making it available to search through, clip excerpts from, or export to your own apps like Evernote, Notes or DEVONthink. ANd the most hardcore of users will enjoy full-text RSS feeds.

CutTheCrap at Scale

Initially, CutTheCrap’s goal is to reach a critical mass of users so that they have wide influence. And I’m sure if I were pitching this to a VC, I’d have to frame it like this because nothing gets VCs more aroused than the idea of reaching industry dominance that makes your company a de facto monopoly.

But it’s not cool for a single company to retain that kind of power. Plus, at scale, that would put CutTheCrap in a situation where their 20% cut of revenues is grossing CutTheCrap more money than any individual publisher that uses the platform.

Instead, upon reaching a critical mass of subscribers and publishers, CutTheCrap graduates from being a singleton company to being protocol-based, with CutTheCrap itself sticking around to maintain the protocol itself. That means multiple companies can sprout up to solve this problem. As a user I could subscribe to a different company’s version of CutTheCrap and still get the same ad-free experience on any web site that was built to work with CutTheCrap, and likewise, a publisher wanting to monetize can monetize with any CutTheCrap company. As long as the companies and publishers conform to the protocol, they can monetize.

I’m glazing over a lot of details here, which I feel entitled to do because it’s just a thought exercise, but in reality needs some thought:

  • Is it fair to have a one-size-fits-all approach? What if there’s one site that publishes a couple articles a month, but they’re high production value and expensive to produce, but another site churns out dozens of relatively low-value articles a day? And more urgently, does this model incentivize publishers to do that?
  • I’m taking a very US-centric approach to this, but what happens when we start having countries with a weaker currency participating in this?
  • Not all news orgs are created equal! Different news orgs will have different political biases and editorial standards; CutTheCrap would need to set standards for who can monetize. Once it becomes decentralized and protocol-based, this could become simpler, since each instance of CutTheCrap can set their own standards, and as a subscriber you can pick a CutTheCrap service that best aligns with you.

There are also other places on the web that are becoming very saturated with advertising; in particular, social networks and video streaming services. I’m less worried about these. First off, a lot of these services already offer ways to pay to get rid of ads (Hulu, YouTube and HBO, for instance, all have versions that you can pay to eliminate ads for). Also, because the social networks exert a lot more control over how ads are presented, the ads themselves are a good deal more palatable. There’s still plenty of cause for concern (Facebook is, after all, invasive in how deeply they target people for ads), but it feels like a different category of problem.

This is about more than just some nerd who has a personal vendetta against annoying ads. CutTheCrap is a vision of a possible better future for the web. The stakes are high.

News organizations can’t offer quality journalism to their readers when they are beholden to advertisers or ad networks writing big checks and calling the shots; they need to be beholden to readers who are financially propping them up.

I want this reader support to create newsrooms with deeper pockets so they can go after bigger and more important stories. I want to see new news publishers feel empowered to set up shop and try new things knowing there’s a stream of money that can be tapped into, and I want those new news organizations to push existing news organizations to be better (looking at the New York Times).

People who read the news need and deserve news that they can trust and afford to financially support. Getting someone to spend $10–30 a month on a subscription to a single news site is a tough sell, but I think we could convince a lot of people to kick in $15 a month to know they can lose ads and not feel any guilt about it.

More fundamentally, CutTheCrap expresses a vision of shifting power. Being ad-driven leads directly to being dependent on massive scale, and that leads to consolidation of publishers, and it leads to newsrooms cutting jobs and running too lean to do their jobs right. CutTheCrap creates an environment where publishers are beholden directly to their readers, the only people publishers should be beholden to.

In the absence of that, I run an ad blocker, and I spend a considerable amount of money giving my patronage to a number of different sites. I try to favor giving money to smaller and more niche ones (the New York Times will survive without my money). It’s not perfect; ideally I’d like every article I read to kick money to the publisher if they need the money, but it’s the best balance between protecting myself from a barrage of ads (and often shady tracking code) and ensuring that I’m supporting the open web.


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