Could voluntary contributions be a viable publishing business model?

Digital publishers who started out with a free content, advertising supported model are feeling the pinch as online ad rates slip and users get accustomed to unrestricted access to content.  But slapping up a paywall seems a draconian approach and could risk a dramatic slide in traffic.  Could there be a third way for those sites that have an engaged audience and a close-knit community?  Is it even remotely viable to consider asking for voluntary contributions?  Here’s a few examples of online publishers who are doing just that…

Cellar Tracker is a site that allows wine collectors to catalogue their collection.  They can use the site for free, or make a voluntary annual payment.  This does unlock some extra features such as automatic cellar valuation.  Owner Eric LeVine suggests how much they should pay based on the size of their collection – say $40 for up to 500 bottles, but it’s completely voluntary.  The site does take ads, but the voluntary payments make up 80% of the revenue.   More info here

Slate is a free online web magazine, also US based, which was established over 17 years ago.  Recently they started to write to their most loyal (free) subscribers inviting them to join a special category of supporters and contribute voluntarily to the publication.  They are keen to emphasise that this isn’t a paywall, and they aren’t going to meter access.  Instead, for $50, Slate superfans get extra digital content, pre-show parties at live events and private Q&As with the editorial team.  Plus they can download ad-free editions of podcasts.  But the core of the offer is not that these benefits add up to $50 of value; it’s that some readers just want to identify more closely with the content and are prepared to contribute.  More info here.

So that’s a couple of online publishers trying out the voluntary contribution model.  Interesting that both add some “goodies” into the package for paying subs, but emphasise the payment is optional, positioning it more as a membership or “support” for the site.  It’s early days for the Slate Plus experiment, but Cellar Tracker is clearly working as a revenue source.

And outside the news and content publishing world, there’s a precedent in independent games publishing.  The Humble Indie Bundle offers a selection of games from independent games publishers on a “pay what you think it’s worth” basis.  There is a benefit to paying a higher amount, as more gets added to the bundle.  Buyers can choose how much of what they pay goes to the developers, a selection of charities, and the Humble Bundle website.  They offer a similar deal on books, admittedly chosen to appeal to a gaming audience, but worth watching…

If you have any other examples of voluntary contributions as a publishing business model, I’d be delighted to hear about them.

About the author:  Carolyn Morgan has launched, grown, acquired and sold media businesses across print, digital and events.  She has programmed several highly regarded conferences on digital publishing and advises publishers on their digital strategy.

If you’d like a chat about how you can reinvent your publishing or media business for the digital age, please get in touch.

More about Carolyn Morgan

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