The cartoonist Matthew Inman (a.k.a. “The Oatmeal”) has weighed in with a characteristically hilarious, somewhat obscene take on Internet paywalls.
I think that, underneath the humor, there’s a very serious lesson to be gleaned for media companies and entrepreneurs from what Inman has to say. To the extent that paywalls have been a hot topic lately, the conversation often focuses around very short-term, very self-evident economic issues: Do users have a reasonable obligation to pay? Will they? What price will the market bear? And so forth.
But there’s a whole category of usability issues associated with paywalls that often goes unexplored. This stuff may not be as obvious to CEOs on the surface, but it carries very real economic consequences of its own. That is to say, if companies increase the overall hassle that users have to go through just to get to what they want to see, how many will simply give up and not come back regardless of their ability to pay?
With so many choices at users’ disposal these days, simplicity of interaction is at a massive premium. Paywalls inevitably make websites and apps more difficult to use. Over time, what’s that trade-off worth to you if you’re a media company or a startup?
Within the context of arguing against the legislation known as SOPA, Google engineer Johnie Lee touched on this theme at length back in January in a smart post to his Google+ stream. He and Inman are ultimately saying the same thing, though Inman had a lot more fun with the idea.
It’s the complexity, stupid.