Why The Future Will Be Built Around Exclusivity, Inconvenience, and Paid Content
In relation to my recent post, When Being Difficult Has Its Benefits, and in response to this interview with MetaFilter founder Matt Haughey (hat tip Noah Brier), I'd like to make the case that the future success of communities and content producers depends on raising the barriers to entry, not lowering them as many businesses have tried to do.
The biggest difference between communities offline and online is that the physical barriers to community have been shattered; you don't have to get out of your house to meet up, chat, or share. Likewise, gone are the days of changing out a CD or record, and the days of DVDs, books, newspapers, and magazines have all been numbered. Communities and content (which have increasingly become intertwined) are now easier to partake in than ever.
Witnessing the internet's growth from these lowered barriers, many business have chosen to build around the same concept. They assume, incorrectly, that because the internet's strength lies in convenience that their business model must also seek to eliminate all hints of inconvenience. In the same way that McDonald's approaches hamburgers, they don't completely ignore quality, but they relegate it to the back burner.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but it's bad timing. When the pendulum of industry swings in one direction, smart businesses anticipate the backlash and begin building in the opposite direction. Convenience online has been pioneered, but in its wake there's been left an opportunity to pursue quality -- an opportunity for content and communities formed around curation, insight, and analysis.
The benefits of low-barrier communities are overshadowed by a few large and prominent first movers like Facebook, and content frequently gets lost in the shuffle. By shuffle, I mean the 46 years worth of YouTube video watched on Facebook everyday, the sixty tweets sent out over Twitter every second, and the millions of blog posts that saturate the web.
In order for a community to thrive in the shadow of Facebook, the best option isn't to play Facebook's game (i.e. become a ubiquitous, convenient, social identity), but rather to build a high-quality, selective niche with targeted content. In short, the future success of content and community online hinges on sacrificing a little bit of convenience in order to enjoy richer, deeper experiences.
Typically, that convenience can be most effectively removed at the point of entry. (Once someone is a part of your community or takes the effort to create content, they rightfully expect to be catered to.) Raising the barriers to entry has several benefits.
By creating small obstacles, a community can effectively ward against spammers, passer-bys, and unsavory types. Moderation costs are reduced. Quality is increased, and respect for the community grows.
In an interview with journalist Suemedha Sood, Matt Haughey, founder of the impressive community blog MetaFilter, says:
"[the signup fee] is mostly just putting a huge hurdle in front of having to deal with new users. ‘Cause it’s such a pain. The last ten years have shown that any time there’s press, like the New York Times writes something about us, 300 people sign up and then wreak havoc for a while, and then go away. [Without barriers to entry] it would just be a nightmare."
By increasing exclusivity, the perceived value of the community is also increased. It's long been known in commerce that a higher priced item is perceived as a higher quality item, simply because of its price. But whether you raise the price or create other barriers, increasing exclusivity creates value for people who choose to be members.
When you create exclusivity, you give people a reason to be proud of their membership; there's no pride in being part of a community that everyone is in. This pride is useful from a loyalty perspective -- people who are proud to be members of your community are more likely to pay for additional products -- but also from a social perspective: people are more likely to share content produced by a community that makes them proud.
Lastly, paywalls are a great source of revenue.
Like the food industry, there's plenty of room and reason for businesses to expand into more exclusive communities built around higher-quality, slower-produced content. While the tactical implementation of barriers to entry is very much up for debate; it seems inevitable that the future will see more communities and content producers succeed by raising barriers to entry. After all, the internet doesn't want to be free. It wants to get paid on Friday like everyone else.