This came across my social media feed Thursday morning: “Google Unveils New Revenue Option for Web Publishers.”

In short: It’s a simple technology where readers who come across a pay wall can opt into taking a survey instead of having to reach for their wallet. The survey then creates some funds for the publisher and gives the reader access to content.

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Why does this sound familiar? Because it is.

I hate to sound like that guy at the bar who says “that was my idea,” as I cry into my whiskey because it’s not just about the idea/concept. It’s execution. And certainly anything Spot.Us (or really any startup) does can be executed at a grander scale by the big three (Twitter/Facebook/Google).

When I first expounded on this concept it received a lot of praise. Dan Gillmor called it the most innovative thing in news advertising in years. I obviously can’t/won’t take credit for giving the idea to Google. Often these kinds of ideas are out there in the ether for various people to reach out for. The same could be said for crowdfunding in general when I first proposed Spot.Us. I certainly didn’t invent the concept — I could just tell its time was coming.

I hope upon hopes that this is a concept whose time has come. Especially in light of the real “year of the pay wall.”

Good for the bottom line; bad for journalism

What is a pay wall? In essence it makes content valuable by creating scarcity. While good for the bottom line — this is bad for the essence of journalism. It says, “This information is valuable and if you pay you’ll know something that other people won’t.” The higher purpose of journalism is to create an informed democratic society — not to create a subset of society who can afford to be informed.

Finding an economic alternative to a hard pay wall is a good thing. The New York Times fired an opening shot with their “pay fence.” When I observed their positioning I thought it was something more akin to a poorly implemented NPR membership model than a pay wall. I still hold that view.

The idea behind Community Focused Sponsorships (Spot.Us’ version of Google surveys) was that we entered the advertising game, but instead of the funds coming to me (the publisher) I’d let the public decide which stories would be funded. In order to get their vote counted, however, they had to engage with the ads — thus creating the value to begin with.

Some people value money greatly and won’t spend it on journalism. For this large subset of society, the surveys are ideal. What we found on Spot.Us was that the number of folks who valued time over money (preferred to donate rather than take a survey) was below 1%, whereas when we offered a survey the number of people who engaged rose to be closer to 10%. Moreover, these people were more than willing to take new surveys as they came about. Some members of Spot.Us have taken every single survey we’ve ever offered. (With a sales force of one — this is not exorbitantly high — but still a positive indicator.)

On a long enough time line an individual who took surveys was more valuable to the organization than an individual who donated hard cash. People who gave money on average gave $40 twice — separated by 60 days. So after 70 or so days I could say a donor was worth $80 to the organization. But in 160 days I couldn’t say they’d be worth more. A survey taker was worth $5 a pop, which means after 16 surveys they are just as valuable as a donor. Anything after that is gravy and perhaps a reason to shift gears.

Next Steps

The New York Times metered pay wall was an opening shot. The Google consumer survey to get around pay walls makes an excellent one-two punch.

But neither of these are knockout blows.

For anyone considering a metered pay wall, take some time to think about this process. I strongly believe that a metered pay wall is the dipping of our toes into membership programs. Which begs the question — how do you become a member? Can you become a member by taking actions instead of just donating? I believe we are only scratching the surface here.

Megan Garber I believe got it right with her tweet “Did Google just launch an alternate economic system for the web?”

If you think that the final benefit of the Google surveys is to create some extra cash or a substitute for a pay wall, you’re thinking too small. You aren’t taking the plays that are already in motion to their logical conclusion. In truth, I wonder if Google itself is thinking too small. I’m not sure if they grok what they have started with this product.

I’d be lying if I tried to play “predictor” and hate when people do that. But so far my nose knows which direction to go. I can’t be 100% certain how it will be implemented, but I do believe that going from singular surveys to creating meaningful relationships with organizations, just as if you had donated, makes a ton of sense. You did, after all, provide some personal data, and in the age of information that’s just as good as gold.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Auntie P.

A version of this post first appeared here.