We're almost four months into PayBITS, our experiment with attempting to let readers acknowledge the actual value to them of specific TidBITS articles. Although none of our authors have retired on their proceeds from PayBITS, we've had only one article whose PayBITS performance would have been ignored had the money been lying on the sidewalk. More important, we've learned some lessons about how people value the content they read. Let's look at the PayBITS responses to recent articles (in rough chronological order) and see what each one tells us.
iPhoto Power Techniques and Upgrading the TiVo -- My article about techniques for using Apple's iPhoto appeared in the same issue as the PayBITS introduction, and, thanks to its practical content, did quite well, garnering 31 payments for $136.50. In the subsequent issue, TidBITS-644, I wrote an overview of the options available for increasing the disk space in the popular TiVo digital video recorder, focusing on the specific solution I chose, an upgrade kit from Weaknees.com. The PayBITS block asked if readers found the article useful and made a suggestion of a $1 amount. The combination of the low amount and freshness of the PayBITS idea resulted in the most payments any article has seen so far, 52 for a gross of $95.60. However, since most payments were for the suggested $1, and PayPal's transaction fees subtracted $0.31 cents from that $1, the net amount wasn't stunning.
The Branding of Apple -- Simon Spence's three-part article explaining and discussing Apple's efforts to create and maintain a strong brand finished up in TidBITS-645, the week after the TiVo upgrade article (we put PayBITS blocks only at the end of multi-part articles). Although Simon's article didn't offer tips or how-to information, it was lengthy, which probably increased the perceived value, and it did a good job of explaining a topic that most of us generally don't consider. It also benefited from being near the beginning of the experiment, and Simon received 25 payments totalling about $70.
Interesting Bits of Jaguar -- In the same issue as Simon's final article was my look at some of the smaller improvements in Mac OS X 10.2. Its timeliness and practical nature made it a good candidate for PayBITS. In an effort to decrease the percentage of the fees that went to PayPal, I worded the PayBITS block to suggest "a few bucks," which increased the payment amounts to the $2 to $5 range. Even though the article brought in only 43 payments, the gross amount was $196.50, helped out by a couple of larger payments between $10 and $25. Clearly this article hit the sweet spot.
A Slew of Reviews -- The next few weeks brought a number of reviews from Contributing Editor Matt Neuburg and Managing Editor Jeff Carlson. Initially, we were disappointed in their performance from the PayBITS perspective, since we'd thought readers might find reviews quite valuable. As you can see by the numbers below, however, only about four or five people found these reviews worth compensating the author, and the amounts generally ranged between $10 and $20.
Matt's review of Sciral's innovative task list manager Consistency attracted five payments for $12.
Jeff's look at a number of iPod cases brought him six payments for a total of $23.
Matt's review of Chaos Software's WorkStrip utility pulled in four payments for $14.
Jeff's review of the Handspring Treo 180 communicator garnered four payments for $8.
Finally, Matt's review and explanation of Eastgate Systems's text snippet keeper Tinderbox did the best, bringing him seven payments for $40 (although several of those explicitly commented that the payment was in part for all the other articles Matt has written over the years).
So why did reviews do so poorly? One possible problem is that no one can realize the value of a review until well after reading the article - the reader must read the review, decide the product is ideal for some situation, purchase it, and use it at least briefly. Only then can the user determine the value of the review, and that's too long for most people to remember. Plus, in some of these articles, the products in question were inexpensive, so it's likely that most people subconsciously weighed the value of the review against the low cost of making a mistake. Confusing that theory was the fact that the two products that were the most expensive, Tinderbox and the Treo, sat on either end of the spectrum, earning $40 and $8 respectively.
Marketing Software -- TidBITS-647 brought the conclusion of Mike Diegel's two-part article on marketing software, which I was confident would do fairly well because it was practical and could help a reader's business. Unfortunately, it attracted only three payments for $7, causing us to ponder what might have gone wrong. In retrospect, although I'm sure many people who didn't have software (or anything else) to market found the article interesting, the audience that would conceivably find actual monetary value in it - small software developers - is tiny. Apply the already extremely low PayBITS percentages to that reduced audience, and the poor results make sense.
Mailsmith Filtering and QuarkXPress Tips -- PayBITS didn't work well for the next two external authors in TidBITS-649 either. William Porter's two-part article on Mailsmith's distributed filtering brought in only four payments totalling $17. And David Blatner's collection of QuarkXPress 5 tips struck out, attracting no payments at all. William's article undoubtedly suffered from the limited audience problem - there simply aren't that many Mailsmith users compared to users of the bundled or free email programs, and cool though distributed filtering is, it's a bit geeky. Although David is the world's best-known QuarkXPress expert, he may have run into a similar problem, not because there aren't many QuarkXPress users, but because TidBITS doesn't focus on desktop publishing. Also problematic was the fact that the article failed to note that the tips applied equally well to the older but more-popular QuarkXPress 4. Plus, saying the tips were taken from David's QuarkXPress book may have encouraged people to reward David not directly, but by buying a copy of his book.
O'Reilly Conference Report and Troubleshooting Primer -- At this point, we were mulling the possibility that name recognition was important, since the articles I'd written had done the best, with Simon Spence's three-part branding article coming in second. That theory was dashed over the next few weeks, when my conference report from the O'Reilly Mac OS X Conference drew only a few payments (four payments for $16), and my troubleshooting primer brought in even fewer (two payments for $3).
With the conference report, I wasn't too surprised, because it would likely have been found valuable only by the small number of people for whom it confirmed their decision to attend next year's conference (assuming there is one) or not to spend what could have been several thousand dollars to attend this year.
The weak performance of the troubleshooting primer did surprise me, though, since it seemed like a helpful article, judging from the complimentary email feedback I received and the number of reprint requests. My guess is that it fared poorly because I said that the information came from the book Glenn Fleishman and I are sending to the printer this week, The Wireless Networking Starter Kit. It's likely many people figured they'd just buy the book when it comes out (something I certainly wouldn't argue with). The moral of the story may be that book authors writing for TidBITS can pick only one of two benefits - PayBITS payments or possible book sales.
Jaguar's Tabbed Windows and Mac OS X Report Card -- These two articles, which I wrote in TidBITS-649 and TidBITS-650, changed direction, asking people to contribute to TidBITS instead of compensating me directly. In both cases, I chose to direct payments to TidBITS in general because of the assistance of TidBITS Talk participants. It's difficult to map contributions in a given week directly to PayBITS, but the tabbed windows article seemingly attracted seven new contributors for a total of $215. The Mac OS X Report Card article performed similarly, attracting eight new contributors for a total of $150.
The number of payments was pretty much in line with other articles, but, the value was much higher. Even after sharing the proceeds with the other staff members, I earned more than I had from many other articles, and more important, a number of these people indicated a willingness to contribute every year. I do think the amounts are slightly inflated over the perceived value of the articles, since a number of people noted they paid more as a way of thanking us for years of publication.
iMac Blacked-Out Screens -- For his important article about how certain iMacs could be rendered unusable by installing Jaguar, Geoff also chose to direct payments to TidBITS as a whole. Although the potential audience was probably relatively small (only people who have those iMacs or help others who do), the extreme utility of the article resulted in it garnering 16 contributions for a total of $360.
Doing the Work of Three --We hadn't planned on including a PayBITS block after Derek Miller's tale of how he single-handedly published a daily conference newsletter with the aid of a Titanium PowerBook G4. Although it was a good story, little of it was likely to be useful, and we didn't see the potential value to readers. But after talking with Derek, we decided to test how PayBITS would perform on such an article. We specifically worded the PayBITS message to make the point of the article clear and joked about how he could buy his own PowerBook with the payments. Amazingly, Derek received 11 payments for $53, though at least one person commented that he was paying in part for Derek's earlier article about editing video on the cheap. Perhaps the point here is that the value of an article doesn't always have to be practical.
Overall Lessons -- Although we plan to continue the PayBITS experiment to see how response changes over time, we have come to a few interim conclusions.
As we expected, no one will get rich from PayBITS. Although the overall TidBITS audience is large, the number of people who find an article sufficiently useful or interesting to compensate the author directly is still very low. Even so, even earning an unexpected $10 or $15 can provide a warm, fuzzy feeling of being appreciated, not to mention a nice lunch.
That said, using PayBITS to encourage contributions to TidBITS as a whole has been successful, in part because the suggested contribution amounts are higher than the direct PayBITS amounts, and also because many people choose to contribute to TidBITS regularly. I suspect people don't mind the higher amount because they feel as though they're paying for years of TidBITS.
Unfortunately, small suggested amounts work poorly because PayPal's transaction fees eat at least $0.31. For those folks who paid a quarter for an article, we appreciate the thought, but it all went to PayPal. Plus, even if a low amount encourages more payments, the total amount is likely still lower than it would be with a higher amount. So far, our feeling is that non-specific amounts like "a few bucks" work better than picking a number. Although we're open to authors using payment services other than PayPal, no one has chosen to do so yet, and the research we've done indicates that PayPal offers the best combination of widespread support, a simple payment interface, and low transaction fees. Most other services fall down badly in one of those areas.
The number of payments received has dropped off somewhat over time, likely because new ideas such as valuing content directly need reinforcement, but we have to balance that with making sure people don't feel guilty about not paying. TidBITS is free; the point of PayBITS is to create a channel by which readers can compensate authors directly for particularly useful, relevant, or interesting articles. I'll be curious if this evaluation of PayBITS so far will increase interest again for a while.
The question of what types of articles perform the best remains open. Though some highly practical articles have done well, others haven't. Reviews as a whole haven't done all that well. We haven't had a serious tutorial article since starting PayBITS, though it would be interesting to see how one would fare. No matter what, it's clear that our content hasn't changed in any significant way because of PayBITS, as some had feared might happen. We have pulled back from including PayBITS blocks with articles that don't feel appropriate, such as news reports, simply because it's not worth causing any unintended guilt for an article that's unlikely to attract compensation.
At this point, I remain positive about PayBITS, not because I believe it's the solution to the problem of how those of us who create content of all types can earn a living, but because I fear we're headed for a dark time in which monied corporate interests will attempt to exercise ever more control over how we are allowed to consume content in general, and that in turn will dictate what and how we're able to create and publish. To avoid a future where all our content comes from huge media conglomerates, we need new approaches like PayBITS to show content creators that there are viable alternative business models.
The Internet is a strong counter to A.J. Liebling's famous quote, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." But even though the Internet provides the necessary distribution medium, we still lack the structure and customs to ensure that those who have something valuable to say can afford to say it. Freedom of the press is not just political, and not just practical: it's also economic.
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