Have you heard about the “Freemium” business model? It’s a label offered by
James Governor Jared Lukin in a “name-that-model” contest proposed almost exactly two years ago in a post at A VC by Fred Wilson, a partner in a New York venture capital firm.
Wilson looked at many of the more successful Web ventures and observed that what they had in common was a basic service that they offered for free and a step-up premium service that they charged for.
The basic voice over IP service Skype, for example, lets users call anyone anywhere for no cost, so long as both the caller and callee are at broadband-connected computers. However, if you really want to be able to call anyone anywhere—that is, to a land line or cell phone -- there are per minute charges. Want voice mail? Upgrade to Skype Pro.
A wonderful service I use called LogMeIn employs a similar approach. It gives me access to my desktop computer from any other computer, anywhere. A free version lets me see all my directories and files and transfer them to my remote laptop. The upgraded version actually displays the screen of my desktop, with access to any program or file, as though it was on my remote computer.
There are many other examples.
But for the Freemium model to work, Wilson observed there are other characteristics that demarcated the more successful implementations and the others:
• Ideally, they don’t require any downloads or plug ins to start. Lots of exceptions here, but it is a helpful goal.
• Support every browser with any material market share. There is no excuse these days to be FireFox or Safari challenged
• Make sure the service works on various flavors of Windows, OSX, and Linux.
In short, he says, eliminate all barriers to the initial customer acquisition.
But unlike 30 day free trials before having to pay, a true Freemium experience ensures that whatever the customer gets day one for free they are always going to get for free. Nothing is more irritating to a potential customer than a “bait and switch.”
If Freemium is such a great approach, why wasn’t The New York Times’ foray into this model more successful? It gave away a basic service and, with Times Select, offered a premium upgrade.
Part of the answer (there is sometimes but not usually a silver bullet) may be that the model is most likely to succeed when the customer implicitly understands why the paid service has to cost money. Free e-mail accounts that offer greater storage for a fee. Termination cost on other carriers networks in the Skype model is explicit justification. In the case of TimesSelect, it would be obvious to most readers that arbitrary withholding of access to some portions of content was not related to significant costs. It may have made some sense as a “value” play, yet it clearly did not work. “But if your free service is loved and you do a good job articulating the value that comes with the paid service, you can convert to paying users with good results,” concludes Wilson.
The Freemium model was augmented one year later by another venture capitalist, Josh Kopelman. He has labeled his observation “The Penny Gap.” I recall meeting Kopelman when I was teaching at Temple University in Philadelphia. He had started Infonautics Corporation, the predecessor of today's High Beam Research, in the early Internet days. I assume from that he learned some lessons about offering a subscription service that gave users access to a wide range of magazines, journals, reference and newspaper material. (And that he was more successful with a subsequent venture, Half.com, acquired by eBay).
The Penny Gap says in essence that getting a user to go from free to any sort of payment, even a penny, is harder that getting a paying subscriber to pay more. Going from free to $1.00 is a much higher hurdle than from $1 to $2, even though the difference is the same. The Penny Gap is a disconnect with classical economic theory, which would hold that demand increases as the price decreases. As Kopelman illustrated in the accompany figure, getting users to make any financial commitment is the greater hurdle than the amount itself.
What does this say about the content-heavy online ventures of the legacy media business? In large measure it helps explain why they settled for the most part (well, except for The Wall Street Journal) on an advertiser supported Web model. From USA Today to Slate to The New York Times media sites have tried and failed to make a user pay model stick, despite offering some high grade content.
But by dissecting the successful non-media sites that have achieved a substantial user-pay component, could media firms find areas where they can truly find value added to justify a premium? I’m not optimistic. Two years ago I might have offered that a comprehensive ad-free video service could be sold at a premium. Recall CNN tried that with its Pipeline service, providing real time video streams and an archive of telecasts. It met many Freemium characteristics, including a presumption of additional cost for all the storage and bandwidth. Apparently Time Warner determined that more advertising revenue outweighed the subscription dollars. Hulu, the new NBC Universal-News Corporation joint venture, is all free, all the time. It has not made noises about offering paid-for premium content.
The bottom line is that as a generalization the media business may not get over the Penny Gap chasm. For those firms that have been on the electronic side, where advertiser supported has long been the total revenue stream, maintaining that model may be easiest to accept. For that segment of the print media that has been used to drawing at least some of its revenue from consumers, resigning itself to only advertising may be tougher. And perhaps a bit of a blow to its self-esteem.