I’m not suggesting mainstream sites should remove all ads immediately and leave begging bowls outside their offices (although this would save us all from the Independent’s dreadful display ads), but there’s no reason smaller publishers shouldn’t consider it. 

Pay as you feel principle for publishers

PWYW is nothing new in the wider publishing world. 15 years ago Stephen King offered chapters of his novel-in-progress, The Plant, with a ‘guide price’ of $1 and pledged to continue writing it if three quarters or those who downloaded it paid.

Radiohead’s seventh album, In Rainbows, was released under a PWYW arrangement. It made the band a not-to-be-sniffed-at £3m in sales. 

But these are big names in fiction and music, and those campaigns were arguably more PR stunt than sales strategy. Could this tactic actually work for smaller, lesser-known digital publishers?

Let’s have a look at the potential benefits:

People have tried it already, and it worked

This is not just a theoretical business model devised by some ideological ‘digital prophet’. Many small publishers have already experimented with the idea and made a living off it. 

A personal training site called the The Hybrid Athlete brought in $400-$600 per day by letting customers choose their price for digital fitness programmes. That’s $146,000-$219,000 in annual revenue. 

Computer game developer Joost van Dongen released a hobby project on a PWYW basis. He didn’t want to charge for it, so instead just asked for donations.

The results within just three months?

  • Total revenue: $23,000+
  • Total installs of the game: 250,000
  • Average price per paid download: $5.23 

Again, these numbers are not exactly going to stand up to the likes of the Guardian or The Mirror, but it’s certainly food for thought. 

You will improve the user experience

I hate to keep picking on the Independent, but screw it. Its uncompromising use of nauseating display advertising makes the perfect case study for the use of ad blocking software.

In fact, I’m beginning to think it has shares.

A screenshot of the Independent

Annoying display ads

Another screenshot of the Independent.

Annoying display ads

Looking at the atrocities above, clearly the user experience would be drastically improved without those ads. 

Publishers that rely on advertising revenue are forced to give up a certain degree of control when it comes to the user experience. They have to include clearly visible ads, or why would anyone pay them?

But ‘clearly visible’ to a publisher or advertiser translates to ‘utterly intrusive and annoying’ for the reader.

The PWYW principle removes the necessity for brightly displayed ads, and the publisher can have complete control over the look and layout of its site once again. 

Granted, valuable ad revenue would be lost. But there is definitely an argument to suggest this would be counteracted, at least in part, by a greater and more engaged audience thanks to a better user experience overall. 

You develop a better relationship with your readers

Relationships work both ways and are built on trust. 

I trust my wife to borrow my credit card because I’m confident she won’t use it to buy one-way tickets to The Seychelles with a bloke named Roger. If I told her she couldn’t borrow it because I was worried about that, it wouldn’t go down well. 

Obviously I’m simplifying things (‘are you not entertained?!’), but you get the drift: if you show your readers you trust them it will have a positive impact on your relationship. 

PWYW is all about honesty, so obviously you’re going to get the odd a***hole who doesn’t pay anything even though they’ll happily lap up your content. 

But for each of those a***holes I bet there are more people who would gladly pay a decent price for content they love as long as you proposed it in a fair and honest way. 

What would you do?

Perhaps you’re yet to be convinced by PWYW despite my best efforts, but I want to end by asking you this: 

Think about your favourite publisher, whether it’s a blog or a news site or a research hub. 

Let’s say they removed all ads, kept their content free to consume/download, and then invited you to donate as much money as you thought that content was worth. 

Honestly, how much would you pay?