Will Google micropayments rescue publishers?

As you know, advertising is in a slump, and it’s hurting many publishers.

While print should be doing just fine, because readers continue to like print, print advertising is not doing very well, except in some small niches.

Most of the ad money is going to digital, so some people want to abandon print and follow the money into digital. But … that’s not necessarily a good idea.

Digital ads have also fallen on hard times. The combination of programmatic ads (with lower CPMs) and ad blockers has been a drag on publisher revenue, but the trajectory of ad spending has been a problem as well. The vast majority of new ad revenue is going to Google and Facebook. Advertisers are often choosing not to advertise direct with the publishers.

Publishers are trying to cling to some of the remaining scraps with ad blockers and — sometimes — with paywalls. So far it’s not been a grand success.

If you listen carefully, you can sometimes hear the collective groan from the publishers. “Who will invent some magic technology and rescue me?”

Enter Google and micropayments.

The headline in a recent Financial Times article is very telling. Google to allow publishers to charge users who utilise ad-blockers. (Link is to search results for the article.)

Isn’t that so very nice of Google, to “allow” publishers to do that?

Okay, I admit it. I’m being deliberately unfair about the headline. They’re using “allow” in the sense of “enable,” not “give permission.” But I find the double meaning amusing.

From the article …

Google will enable publishers to ask readers who use ad-blockers for micropayments….

That’s what we want, right? If we can’t get 10 cents from ads, let’s charge the reader 10 cents for the article. Brilliant, huh?

No, it’s not. Let’s break it down.

Publishers can already do that. Technology to detect ad blockers already exists, so it’s not terribly difficult for a publisher to set up a paywall for people who choose to use ad blockers.

So … what’s unique in Google’s offer?

First, they’re doing the technology lift, and publishers are usually not also technology companies and don’t want to be in that business. Second, people may be more likely to want to create an account with Google than with some small publisher. After all, from the user’s perspective, the prospect of creating an account to pay $0.25 on 17 different web sites is not that attractive. Centralizing it makes sense.

Then what’s the problem?

Since Google will be taking the payment, Google will be getting the customer information, not the publisher. Or, in other words, publishers — who have been repeatedly suckered by the big platforms — are about to be suckered again.

Let me rewrite the headline for this grand new development.

Desperate publishers can now earn pennies on their expensive content while helping Google build its empire.

Or how about this?

Publishers sell the chance to collect their readers’ names — for a pot of lentils.

It’s the same old story. This is yet another sucker play, which means publishers will probably fall for it.

We are way past the time for publishers to abandon this idea of making money off “free” content. At least as a primary revenue stream.

It was a mistake from the start, and it’s not going to get better. Publishers need to use free content to create relationships that lead to a recurring relationship with recurring payment.

But this is the important part. The big platforms do not want to help with that. They want the names, and the credit card numbers. They want the recurring payments. And they want to sucker content providers into doing the hard work for them — i.e., making valuable stuff for people to read. The platforms don’t really even want publishers to exist. They just want “content providers” to keep feeding their model.

What publishers really need is a solution where they get the customer names. If Google wanted to help (hint: they don’t), that’s what they would be offering.

(As a side note, the link above is to the Google search results and not directly to the article because FT has a paywall. If I were to link straight to the article, all you’d get is an invitation to subscribe. But since the FT has implemented Google’s “first click free” policy, you can get the article if you google the headline and click to it from the search results.)

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