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Charge For Content?

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TL;DR: This article discusses the possibilities of charging for content on Coffee Space, and more generally for other content creators. I make the argument that charging for content is a bad idea and how other money making possibilities exist.

Introduction

Content comes in many forms, whether that be news articles about current affairs, books that contain stories or knowledge bases, videos that change us, music that moves us, or crappy little blogs on the corner of the internet. Whatever medium the content exists in, it usually has the purpose of changing you somehow - whether to think, laugh, cry, believe, or something else. It almost always has some purpose. Sometimes that purpose is only for the author themselves, for example a public-facing diary - but ultimately if the content is consumed, the reader gives it purpose.

Specifically, the content I want to discuss here is in the written form, and usually around current issues/affairs. The ideas discussed here are more broad, but it's this type of content that I really think about when I use the word 'content' in this context.

I got thinking about content quite recently. A public figure named Dominic Cummings was somebody I had been watching for quite some time, especially after Brexit, which he played a significant role in. As Wikipedia puts it:

From 2007 to 2014, he was a special adviser to Michael Gove, including the time that Gove served as Education Secretary, leaving when Gove was made Chief Whip in a cabinet reshuffle. From 2015 to 2016, Cummings was director of Vote Leave, an organisation which successfully executed the 2016 referendum campaign for Britain's exit from the European Union. After Johnson was appointed Prime Minister in July 2019, Cummings was appointed as Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister. Cummings had a contentious relationship with Chancellor Sajid Javid which culminated in Javid's resignation in February 2020 after he refused to comply with Cummings's request to dismiss his special advisers.

So, quite important in British politics and worth keeping track of what he has to say.

Many years ago he started a WordPress blog and I have been following for some time via RSS feed updates. Since coming into office, he had not posted so much, but he still occasionally posted something interesting. Recently, however, he switched to SubStack - where most of his content now sits behind a paywall.

Whilst I had been interested in what he has to say, I am not that interested that I would be willing to pay for his words. Actually, why should I ever pay for his words? Why would anybody ever pay for another person's opinion?

Relationship

This got be me thinking more generally about the relationship between us and the things we consume. Whether it be a blog or large corporate news, ultimately it's an opinion on current events with specific framing. That's why we can have The Guardian and The Telegraph report on exactly the same news story whilst having different framing.

When you pay for a newspaper, you are essentially paying for somebody to sell you their framing of events. These news companies go one step further too, they have an expectation that you pay for their framing. You literally pay for propaganda 1. Something seems fundamentally broken about this.

What has been interesting about the dawn of the internet, is that this relationship has fundamentally changed. People viewing content now have an expectation that it's free - and I think when you are buying somebody else's framing, this is not an unreasonable expectation. Of course there are still costs associated with content creation and distribution, but we'll circle back to this.

I now jump slightly, but it'll loop back...

Coffee Space Statistics

Now we take a look at Coffee Space:

Site requests per day

Site requests per day

If these statistics are even remotely correct (which I don't believe they are), then I am supposedly pulling in 30k views per day.

According to some random source, you can expect to earn 20 cents per click. Click-through rate (CTR) is the ratio between views to clicks, which can apparently reasonably be expected to be 0.05%. Revenue would be:

Views×CTR×Clicks=30k×0.05×20=$300

That's $300 per day, or $109.5k per year. Sign me up! Of course, there would be some issues with this, and I would be lucky to see even 1% of that kind of money - but even $1k per year is significant (given my current financial situation). So why not?

Monetization

There are many reasons to monetize, such as paying wages for the people who produce the content or the costs associated with distribution. As your content gets more popular, these costs become even more unavoidable - and kind of free tier becomes less possible.

There is also the motive of greed - if you have investors, for example, it's expected that they will want larger returns for their investment.

So how can content be monetized?

Advertising

Advertising has long been a method for monetizing content, which came to the internet from newspapers and the like. The idea is relatively simple: people interact with you content in some way (views, clicks, watching, etc) and you pay for that. In turn, you are able to sell ideas, services or products to somebody and earn money that way. Ideally you want as much as your target audience as possible in the group that interact with the media.

In the early days of the internet, this was just an image on a web page. Then we got GIFs and Adobe Flash, and things started becoming more hellish. These days, we have iframe's and javascript, where webpages are loading massive and intrusive content that can also perform tracking.

People dislike advertising that prevents them from viewing the content they actually want to review, or massively breaks the engagement with the content itself. Flashing images on articles for example can make the text itself harder to read - and as a result, ad blockers were created.

It didn't actually used to be this bad though - and some people have returned to this. Troy Hunt for example has a great method for advertising, but gets tonnes of real viewers per day. He puts a small banner on his website consisting of just text and a link. I would go further and suggest that a picture can also be tasteful.

Youtuber's have also been great at embedding advertising after it was abruptly removed from them - with people now embedding them in the videos themselves. The advertising that typically works the best is the kind that makes people want to watch it - it's almost part of the actual show. Other successful integrators have been podcasts, for example.

Tracking

Modern advertising though normally comes hand in hand with tracking, or more specifically, data collection. Data has become a lot more valuable since 'big data' became a thing. Targeted advertising is very big business as it allows companies to sell specific products to specific people.

This is bad for many reasons - it usually involves some massive javascript libraries, slower webpage load times and massively reduced privacy. If you are looking at flights for example, when you next return to the page, flight costs will likely increase, as they can tell you are serious about using their services and know they can charge you more.

Tracking doesn't have to be like this though. There is such a thing as 'personalised ads', where the user simply tells people their preferences. Instead of using dark patterns to get data from people, you can simply have them voluntarily tell you what they want.

Mining

This is probably the worst possible method for generating money, as crypto mining is very inefficient (especially in browsers) and volatile.

Services like Chia may point to a way forwards, as they actually offer some service (in this case storage) in return for a crypto coin. As storing data is in itself a valuable service, the coin is actually valuable.

In the future I hope that blockchains in general either become better or are phased out 2.

Donations

I believe one of the better options is donations, where people who enjoy your content opt to donate to maintain its creation and/or distribution. The problem with this is that it makes a few assumptions:

  1. People realise the significance of your content - This may be difficult if people do not spend much time interacting with your content, but gain high value from it. For example, Wikipedia is often asking for funding, as people just consider it a 'free resource' and don't really consider the value behind it.
  2. You have a signifiant enough number of appreciators - This can go either way: donations can allow a small number of people show their appreciation, or simply mean that the probability of finding such people to support your work being much less.
  3. Your content is able to be discovered - This is often a mistake made when going to a 'pay-wall' model, where you then end up sacrificing content discoverability.

Ultimately, whilst donations can be highly successful for large-scale content creation and distribution, for smaller authors it can be very difficult.

Future

Currently the running costs of this site are about $5 per year for the domain ($50 for 10 years) and $60 per year for the server (about $5 per month). These are currently costs I am willing to cover - I can even further reduce this cost by moving to a smaller server.

What does this mean for Coffee Space? Tracking will almost always be out of the question, especially when it comes to the privacy of readers. Advertising could be possible if done in a respectful way. Mining will never be on the table - especially in the currently extremely inefficient form its in. Donations are certainly something I would consider in the future if the number of viewers increases significantly.


  1. We won't even begin to discuss the insanely high elevated self-worth that journalists in mainstream media have.

  2. One way to prove you have a document for example could be to provide some proof of existence (PoE), where you can simply compute some arbitrary hashing computation on some data to prove that you still have it. As long as the total number of possible hashes is greater than the storage required to store the original document, you would opt to store the original document. This of course does assume that you maintain the original document yourself. This would be specifically useful for distribution of data or backups.