This article was first published on The Fix.
You’ve probably seen social media trip over themselves this summer to provide creators an option to receive tips from their followers. The list is increasingly long – by now YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Linktree, Clubhouse, TikTok, and even Facebook have a form of tipping either being rolled out or already fully operational.
As with much innovation these days, it already appeared in China some time ago. Chinese apps such as QQ Music, KuGou, and Kuwo had people tipping creators – especially musicians and podcasters – as early as 2013.
The trend hit many Western markets in the wake of the pandemic. People were stuck at home, consuming content, with newly disposable income on their hands – a lot of which went to creators. But if tipping is becoming a more mainstream and acceptable habit, this raises the question: should publishers also have some sort of tipping solution?
Reinventing Tipping for the Digital Age
Some might question what is so important about tipping and how it differs from existing solutions for people who want to make a voluntary contribution. Indeed, one might ask, wouldn’t you be able to achieve the same with a simple link to a donations or crowdfunding page?
Part of the difference is process. A crowdfunding site like Kickstarter takes you out of the site and turns the action of contributing into something exceptional. You lose a lot of people along the way.
Who hasn’t opened a donation site only to hit an admin/ data-collection page along the way and then left it untouched, promising yourself to “get back to this later”?
To really understand why tipping is different from donations, think back to times when physical cash was still the main medium of exchange (how long you need to go back will depend a lot on where you live). Back then, it was common to show appreciation for the work of a taxi driver, a hospitality worker, or a street musician with a few bills.
Chances are you’re still tipping some of these groups. Apps like Uber or food-delivery Deliveroo have made tipping simple and controllable.
Street performances are a whole different story. Despite the rise of contactless contributions, nobody has really come up with a good alternative to throwing a few bucks into a hat. While data is patchy, the 50% decline in street fundraising by the Salvation Army gives a sense of scale.
The result: less music in the streets.
2021: The Year of Light Readers
“If 2020 was ‘the year of subscriptions,’ 2021 has been ‘the year of the light readers’”, argues a new INMA report. The global pandemic (and a few other loud events) led to an uptick in news consumption. In turn, this brought in a bumper crop of subscriptions (up a whopping 58% in 2020 vs. 2019, according to Piano).
In 2021, readership habits have become less favorable. People still consume news at higher levels, but they are now more deliberate about their choices. The report’s author Grzegorz Piechota describes them as “casual, infrequent, and picky”.
In turn, Piechota argues publishers should ditch classical funnels for longer engagement loops. This means long trial periods, more dynamic paywalls, and better selection of articles to push towards readers along the increasingly long courting period.
But this initial period is relatively limited in terms of the data that publishers can collect. If a reader only comes back every month or so, judging how much they appreciated a given piece is more challenging. Moreover, there are limited tools – aside from asking to register – that you can use at the beginning of that engagement loop.
Tipping offers publishers an option for not just monetization but also deeper interaction with light readers. Especially with the ultra-light end of the spectrum – i.e., people who are more likely to never subscribe. By gathering data on what they value, it becomes significantly easier to understand what content to push towards occasional visitors or newcomers.
A Solution for Public Service Journalism
One type of journalism is especially well-suited to this kind of model – public service journalism.
Partially that’s because of the typical, often self-imposed restrictions attached to this kind of work. Media driven by social mission and impact (and often funded by larger or smaller donors) cannot lock content behind a paywall – this would violate their spirit and brand.
At the same time, however, this does not mean that people will not contribute because they don’t value your work. But those people need to be given a simple, convenient and controllable solution to show their support. Importantly, this needs to be stretched over time.
Take the recent Pandora Papers. The massive data leak revealed suspect or even criminal behavior by businesses and officials in around 200 countries. The work of sifting through the 2.9 terabytes (that’s 1,000 gigas – or an absolute deluge of pdfs and excel files) was done by some 600 journalists, many from outlets that are struggling financially.
Such a huge story is a great opportunity to gather monthly donations. But let’s not kid ourselves, those are not coming from a “donate button” in a corner we have all learned to ignore. They come from a social media campaign and appeals from journalists themselves.
As huge as Pandora Papers is, chances are it will be off people’s radars in a month. So, what do you do then? People will continue to come across the stories and feel both outrage at the story and support for the journalists that created it. Media need to give them an option to express that support.
Whether you’re a public service media or a blog covering commodity trading insights, you probably need to review your subscriptions strategy in 2021. The windfall of the global pandemic is largely over. Publishers need new tools to engage with your broader audience.
Tipping provides a way for readers to show they value a piece of work, and publishers to gather data, all while leaving the subscription model intact. You can still limit free articles to a handful (or a dozen, if you want a really wide net).
But all the people who regularly comment that they value journalism but simply can’t take yet another subscription can still show their appreciation. We’re now deep into the service economy – and people know what to do when they get great service.