The paid-content widget

Today, Keith Teare at Edgeio is launching a new means to charge for — and distribute — content within a site.

I’m no great fan of charging for content — and have argued that the Times and Journal should go free — because putting up walls only limits your audience and thus your advertising revenue — not to mention your Googlejuice and participation in the conversation, thus your brand — and it also increases your marketing costs. I also doubt that syndication is a sustainable business model for content.

But this is a bit different. What Edgeio has created is a slick little widget that lets you see and then buy content without leaving a site. So let’s say you’re on GigaOm or PaidContent and they want to sell you a special report or exclusive video they’ve done. You click and buy and view the content right there within the same page. Until they’re clever enough to go free — or until someone makes them — I could see the Wall Street Journal enabling people to embed their stories on their blogs or sites with this pay structure in place: ‘Want to see the story right now, here? You can.’ The widget also has a link that lets you grab it and put it on your site, selling the content and taking a cut. Right now, this is enabled with credit card or PayPal. Here’s a demo. It’s just a demo. Don’t buy it. Really.

What interests me about this is what else it could do and the implications that has for the architecture of content distribution.

One idea: Instead of paying for an individual article or video, they could enable membership. If you belong to the PaidContent club — if you pay a membership fee or go to one of their conferences — you get access to this content as a benefit.

Now layer on time as a factor. My son, a big fan of Diggnation, pays so he can get early access to the show. What if you charge for early access to a show — even a network show, even a magazine article — but it later goes free? If you care enough to get it now, you can.

Next look at the idea of paying with play money readers earn by doing something you want them to do. Watch these ads and earn the points to see that content. Click on ads and earn the points. Answer a survey to get points. Use your frequent flier miles. All this could be a pain in the ass but the pain of taking action or giving attention may be less than the pain of payment. And an advertiser could be seen as subsidizing your access to content: You could pay $1.95 but if you’ll just answer my two questions or watch my ad, you’ll get it for free (the Salon model).

Teare isn’t doing these things yet but he says he could. And again, I’m not endorsing any of these means to charge for content. I will regret it if this is used as another means to put up walls; it should be used as a new way to distribute more broadly. But I think it will be interesting to watch whether putting the checkout on the page you’re reading may make a difference.

But now finally — here’s the fun part: Take away the idea of payment entirely and look at this as a way to distribute content. (That’s my thought, not Teare’s.) I’ve long wished that I could grab an excerpt or an entire story and put it here on this page with branding and links intact. Imagine I wanted to share a great Guardian story with all of you. Today, of course, I’d link to it and quote it. But why shouldn’t I be able to show you the whole thing here, just as I can show you a video? What if news sites make their content — not just video but audio, text, photos, and graphics — available in player widgets we can put on our sites? And if they get to do it with brand and the ability to track data then they’ll be motivated to open up their content for us all to share. This becomes the basis of a new architecture of content: after the page, after the audience network.

Everyone in media is about to go widgetmad but they’re thinking about it the wrong way: They are deciding what to put in the widgets (here are our headlines, take our quiz…). We should decide what we want in the widgets that we distribute.