Sub Ramp logo sketch

Sub Ramp: a WordPress plugin for time-function subscription pricing

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News-gathering companies have been floundering for years, looking for ways to monetize their timely digital content. Micropayment schemes have failed, so now various combinations of advertising, donations, grants, and paywalls typically generate the revenue that keeps them afloat. But it’s a trickle compared to the old days. Professional journalism is important, so this is a problem for us all, and some foresee the industry’s extinction.

As of last October, over 430 newspapers in North America use some form of paywall. But paywalls drastically reduce readership, because readers can usually find what they want for free. “Leaky paywalls,” which allow limited free access to content, are an improvement– but as with micropayments, they’re ultimately rooted in the print-era assumption that the price of delivered content needs to be static. And that’s a mistake.

If published information has some time value, why can’t publishers charge for it accordingly? If you learn some valuable information before others do, that translates to greater opportunities and higher status– that’s a universal. So why aren’t our subscription mechanisms designed to reflect this? Why can’t you say, “The more you pay, the sooner you get it.”?

A time-function ramp, not a wall, for subscription pricing

Sub Ramp is a WordPress plugin that lets content publishers charge subscribers time-variant amounts to access their content. Subscribers who pay more get to access it sooner, and after a defined interval, the content times out to free, open access. For example, if you price a subscription at:

  • $P = 5 (4 – log2t)

where $P is the price of the (yearly) subscription and t is the delay (in days) after first publication, then here’s when different subscribers gain access:

Subscribe price Delivery time (delay)
after t=0 publication time
$50 22.5 minutes
$25 1/2 day
$15 2 days
$5 8 days
$0 16 days – published openly, no sign-in needed to access or comment

Of course, you can tweak the formula to be whatever you want.

Scenarios

Potential applications of Sub Ramp include:

Financial news: Traders follow the financial news, and race to beat others in making trades based on what they learn. They will pay more to read this content before others do– and every minute counts. (They read general news headlines for the same opportunities, but financial news is probably a better market to target first.)

General interest and opinion: People process and interpret news socially via a public dialogue that’s hosted in large part by recognized publications and broadcasters. If you want to know the latest in news, policy, and ideas, and write comments or engage in discussions before other people, you can subscribe at a higher level

High-end newsletters: Insider types who cover major industries, Washington DC, and other corridors of power charge high subscription rates for their newsletters. They might do better and reach more people by keeping their current top subscription price, and adding a graduated “tail” of lower-priced, delayed subscription options.

Daily deals sites: On sites like w00t.com, supplies of bargain items are limited. Regular bargain hunters can subscribe to get earlier access– and if they still see too many Sold Outs, they can up their subscription. (Okay, this example has nothing to do with news gathering; see the “Corrections” section below.)

Social Dynamics

Sub Ramp creates the following dynamics around publication and subscribership, which are absent with a conventional paywall:

Increased Immediacy of Attention: Subscribers at all levels know that their subscription money will be wasted if they don’t consume the content soon after it becomes available to them. This incentivizes them to pay attention to it promptly and to consider it valuable.

Increased Significance of Publication Event: Subscribers know when a piece of content was first published, and how much later they could access it. Consuming it within this mental frame points back to the t=0 publication time as a significant event, imbuing it with importance.

Social Anxiety and Competition: Low-end subscribers and post-timeout free readers will have to join conversations or add comments after the higher-level subscribers have already had their chance. Coming late to the party, and seeing that all the cool kids have already connected and had fun without them, will leave them feeling left out. This will incentivize them to subscribe at a higher level.

Conspicuous Consumption: Much of consumer behavior is is driven by the desire to show off, but existing content publishing and broadcasting offer few opportunities to support this desire. With time-function subscriptions, high-end subscribers can show off their consumption by knowing and talking about the content they have accessed and can access before other people.

Corrections to Everything Above

It’s not just how much you pay– it can also be reputation, social proximity, favors, etc.

The P in the formula that determines t, as in the time function above, doesn’t have to be payment level. It can be any number, determined through any factors, including reputation, participation level, social proximity, or personal judgment. So Subramp isn’t necessarily just about how much you pay, and publishers can develop the criteria that work best for them.

It’s not just logarithmic decay– the price can also increase, oscillate, or follow any other function.

Logarithmic decay pricing gives subscribers one type of incentive, but you can use any formula you want to connect P to t, like if you want to release content free and charge for archive access, or incentivize people to access the content between midnight and 1am GMT. If you can express it as a formula, it can be charged.

It’s not just for news– it’s for data, entertainment, or anything else.

As in the Daily Deals example above, the uses of Sub Ramp are not restricted to news– it can support any digital content. With a database that facilitates past-snapshot views, it can also be used for data.

It’s not just for WordPress– it’s a frame for monetizing any form of communication.

A WordPress plugin is a low-budget, low-overhead way of introducing time-function subscription pricing to publishers and consumers. But once people are familiar with the concept, the same principle can be applied via additional development to any form of communication– not just WordPress, and not just the web.

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