When a reader arrives at an article that is behind a paywall, they can either subscribe to the publication or try and access the story via a different source at no cost. But what if there was another option, that could benefit both the news organisation and the audience?
Dutch start-up The Playwall has been working on a way to allow people to pay for online content by providing data in the form of their opinion on different topics. The Playwall has been designed to be used in addition to an existing paywall, and works as an interactive quiz tool integrated with a publisher's existing CMS.
For example if a reader comes to a story on a website where a paywall is in place, they will have the option to pay with money, or to 'pay with their opinion' by answering a set of five questions.
The publication decides what questions they want to ask based on what they would like to know about their readers, such as 'what mode of transportation do you use to get to work?' or 'on a scale of one to 10, how would you rate the current government?'. Publishers are not allowed to ask for details that would interfere with readers' privacy, such as their address or phone number.
The data readers provide is anonymous and securely stored by The Playwall without being passed on to advertisers or other third parties. Users can also recall any information they have given to a particular publication at any time by getting in touch with the team, explained Annefleur Schipper, founder of The Playwall.
"We wanted to solve the problem of how people, especially young people here in The Netherlands, don't want to pay for journalism.
"We also know that media companies want to know and collect data about their audience but the way they are doing it now is very secretive and users don't really know what is being taken away."
In the long run, news organisations would be able to convert readers into paying subscribers, as the information they get about their audience through The Playwall can help target people with the content they are interested in, and also to ask for feedback and editorial contributions.
Screenshot from The Playwall
The software also enables publications to create audience profiles, by connecting all the data a user has given to a publication through The Playwall on an anonymous basis, based on their user ID.
For example, an outlet would be able to know if they have a large portion of their readership accessing articles on their morning commute, or if many of their readers work in a certain field, based on the questions they have asked.
The Playwall's team of seven people have been working on the tool since September 2016, after winning two competitions organised by the Dutch Journalism Fund and receiving grants to develop the idea and build a prototype.
They also conducted a test with some 40,000 people across different age groups, simulating an online platform with news articles, and asking if they would like to pay with money or by answering five questions.
"From those 40,000 people, only 0.3 per cent wanted to pay with money, and 13.5 per cent wanted to pay with their answers, and the two groups don't overlap so it's not like the people who used to pay with money now pay with data.
"People who want to contribute financially are already invested in your platform, they have that stickiness that a lot of young people don't have. This is a group that you normally know nothing about that would go and read a free source, so it's that group that you can target.
"It's very important to create a connection with the audience – there's a lot of innovation in journalism but the way we pay is still very old fashioned."
The Playwall team is now looking for two launch partners for the tool, and they are also exploring how the software could work for other types of online content, such as podcasts and video.
In the future, publishers who would want to use the tool would be charged a monthly subscription fee based on their volume of content.
"In a way this project is also a thought experiment," Schipper said. "We are trying to tell people that their information and opinion is really worth something."