A better way to pay for 'free' content

Tired of being tracked? Hate paying for news you're used to getting for free? Just answer a few simple questions and all will be revealed.

Let’s be honest. The so-called “free Internet,” the one you’re reading now, the ad-supported model that offers you content without asking for anything more than your eyeballs, is dying. People don’t like ads. They don’t click on them. They do everything they can to avoid paying attention to them.

The reason the online ad industry is so hell bent on ensuring that Do Not Track fails is because it’s desperately hoping that sending ads targeted to your Web surfing habits will make you both more attractive to advertisers and their ads more attractive to you.

Crappy bottom feeder ads for cut rate mortgages, criminal background checks, cheap knockoff sunglasses and belly fat cures --  which used to be relegated to third-tier Web sites and splogs -- can now be found on mainstream sites. Why? Because they need the money.

Many major newspapers are turning to online paywalls to recoup some of the money they spend on original content. Others are experimenting with “sponsored content,” “native advertising,” or “content marketing”– all code words for “advertisements trying to fool readers into thinking it’s editorial.”

Lately, though, I’ve noticed an  interesting alternative to both targeted ads and paywalls. Some sites have begun asking their readers for information – specifically, to fill out a brief survey – in exchange for displaying a story.

Here’s an example I ran across last month from The Financial Times, which is otherwise behind a metered paywall.

ft survey question 600p.png

There are two ironic items of note here: a) this is a story about Acxiom letting consumers see the information the data broker has collected about them; and b) according to Acxiom, it’s also totally inaccurate.

But this not the only example. A while back I found the Christian Science Monitor doing the same thing. In exchange for displaying me a story about Google, CSM wanted my opinion on a variety of topics.

csm junk food 600p.png

If I didn’t like the question being asked I could ask for a different one. They ranged from what brands of shoes I prefer to whether I read the labels on food packages to how many snacks I eat each day. Or I could choose to simply share the story on Facebook.

The survey came with a disclaimer that explained the questions were being asked by Google, which was paying CSM for the privilege of doing market research on its readers. It also said this:

Your answer to this question is anonymous – it’s not connected to your personally identifiable information and is not used to develop a profile or to deliver ads to you….. Like the ads on the web, some surveys may be delivered to you based on the interests and inferred demographics associated with your browser.

And then it offered a link to opt out of Google’s ad tracking.

What’s nice about these surveys is that they make the value exchange explicit in a way 99.999 percent of Internet transactions do not. Everyone kinda/sorta knows that the price for free content is viewing ads. But the details of this bargain keep changing, and not for our benefit. More and more companies are collecting more and more information about us without delivering anything more than they did five or ten years ago. Many of them are collecting data that has nothing to do with delivering ads.

The price for “free” content is going up, and the fine print on that deal is written in invisible ink.

It’s true that having to answer a question every time I want to read something would get old. I might eventually decide I’d rather pay for the content directly, share other more personal information with the publisher, or, heck, even allow advertisers to track me in a limited way.

But the choice wouldn’t be invisible, and it would be mine to make. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?

Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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