It's no secret that social media and a subscription business model doesn't exactly go hand and hand. There's a reason that the world's most popular social media websites are free to use.
But just how difficult would it be for a company like Twitter to charge its users? According to the 2010 USC Annenberg Digital Future Study (PDF), zero percent of users polled indicated that they'd be willing to pay for Twitter. That makes finding a way for newspapers to charge for their websites look like a walk in the park.
Of course, the difficulty in getting consumers to open up their wallets for digital subscriptions shouldn't come as a surprise. There's practically no evidence that Twitter and other popular social networking sites, like Facebook, have seriously considered plans to charge their users, and for a good reason: everybody knows it wouldn't work.
But that's not the end of the story. Running a service like Twitter costs money. And by in large, the entities that will be footing the bill are companies looking to reach consumers on Twitter; in other words, advertisers.
But even though users prefer ads to direct payments, advertising isn't exactly popular either. Jeffrey I. Cole, who is the director of the Center for the Digital Future at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, noted:
Users express strong negative views about online advertising, but they still prefer seeing ads as an alternative to paying for content. Consumers really want free content without advertising, but ultimately they understand that content has to be paid for -- one way or another.
Advertisers, of course, are generally not unaware that many consumers don't like advertising. Banner ad blindness, for instance, isn't a new phenomenon. But Cole's comment highlights an inconvenient truth: while consumers prefer to 'pay for' services like Twitter by tolerating advertising in some form or another, in an ideal world they'd prefer no advertising whatsoever. In other words, ads are the lesser of two evils, but they're still an evil.
While none of this is to say that platforms like Twitter can't drive meaningful results -- regardless of how consumers feel about paying for service -- the zero percent figure from the Annenberg study should give advertisers pause. If users won't even express a willingness to pay for some of the most popular services on the web, perhaps it's time for advertisers to ask themselves why they're so eager to.
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