How I Think People Will Pay For Written Content Online

I often think about how hard it is to get people to pay for written content online. It seems to me that there are very few people who have figured it out.

The biggest and most obvious hurdle, is that there is literally so much information available for free now – on virtually every subject you can imagine.

The internet has made it possible for anyone to reach a large audience for free. This is good for those looking to consume content (even though discovery is now an issue) and for those who had previously struggled to get their content in front of others. It’s now easier and cheaper for both of these groups.

However, if you are a business which used to rely on revenue from print content, you find yourself in the middle of being disrupted.

There’s no doubt about it, getting people to pay for written content is very hard. If it were easy, we wouldn’t be watching many of the big guys so obviously struggling to figure it out.

That said, I believe people will pay for written content online. But, it will depend on figuring out what is the best way to get people to actually pay for it.

Below are some of my thoughts on how to get people to pay for written content online:

Publish awesome content

It sounds obvious, but above everything else you need to publish awesome content.

People need to love reading it. People need to look forward to it arriving. People need to think about it for days after. You need to make people happy, move them, improve their life, teach them new things, stir up joyful memories etc.

It’s actually very hard to do this and if you do achieve it, you’d be surprised at how easy it is to drift away from it.

You might get tempted to just get content out of the door for a tight deadline. Perhaps you fall into the trap of quantity over quality. Maybe there is pressure from advertisers, bosses or shareholders to change your content strategy. You may feel the pressure to monetise to early. Maybe you just get lost in the hoopla of running a business and start to forget what you stand for.

Never forget that ultimately awesome content comes first.

The old business models don’t work

Advertising and sponsored content worked for print, but don’t work as well for online. They may have 15 years ago, but advertisers have since become more savvy around return on investment.

Just showing you can provide lots of eyeballs and clicks isn’t enough, and unless your audience is utterly gigantic (twitter, facebook, google), advertising probably isn’t going to sustain your business.

I actually think this is a good thing. Advertising is at odds with providing people with good content anyway. It’s a very hard balancing act to get right and it normally jars the reading experience. I think consumers put up with it in the print world because it was the norm and the costs in producing and distributing a print magazine were easy to understand. It just was, what it was.

That’s not the case with the internet and there are far too many places where you can now consume fantastic written content and not have to fight through a bunch of crappy ads / advertorials all over the place.

It’s kinda sad to see people still trying to flog the old models hoping for equivalent success – my local newspaper being one of them. They are a total mess. The advertising overpowers the content and in many cases, actually obstructs the content. In fact, their adverts even mislead and rip off their customers (Get Ripped Without Exercising With This Incredible Stack & Strange Fruit Burns 2 Stone – Sold Out In Most Stores etc.) Talk about a good way to lose readers.


Cambridge Evening News website – Poor design and overpowering (and misleading) advertising at it’s best.

Go to their website on your phone and it gets worse. They do have an app, however it’s literally images of the print edition which are buyable through in app purchases.

The content doesn’t really appeal to anyone in their 20’s or 30’s either – perhaps even 40’s. It’s like they’re stuck in some type of time warp, hanging onto an ageing (and shrinking) customer base. They aren’t in tune with what type of content people want (and will pay for) and how they want it.

It’s the same content, same business model – just thrown onto the web / mobile in an ugly fashion. The end result is inevitable.

When it comes to monetising written content, there is going to have to be some degree of experimentation and risk involved in getting to the right solution. The Prison problem is a good example of some different thinking in this area.

You have to charge less

Content providers are going to have to get their head around the fact that they will need to charge less online – much less. Thats a hard one to stomach when your revenues are declining and you’re used to customers having a value of X.

What needs to be remembered is that the opportunity to reach a far greater number of people at significantly less cost makes this possible.

The music industry is the best example of where this has happened. It’s cheaper to buy music online than it used to be to buy CD’s. And it should be, because the distribution is less complicated and cheaper.

Having the balls to make this decision and push forward with it, is both scary and risky. Really though, what choice do you have? In most cases, customers literally won’t pay the old prices. So, you can either dig your heels in and stick to your old price points (and eventually lose your business) or adapt.

People pay for what they are deeply passionate about.

It’s scary how much money people will spend on things they care deeply about. The more content providers can tap into what people are passionate about, the better they will do.

If people are very passionate about something, it’s so much easier to get them over the line for a purchase. Sometimes they will pay even if they are drawn into only a particular part of what you are offering.

I think this is why Crossfit Journal seems to be successful. I subscribed for a year, literally for one article I particularly wanted to read. I love the movement and am passionate about my health. I really wanted to read a particular article and I was sure there would be others throughout the year I would also like. If I was ‘so, so’ on fitness and crossfit, I would have hesitated at the point of purchase I am sure, and not gone through with it.

I noticed the other day that The Onion has turned into a subscription site with a paywall. I think you get to read X number of articles for free per month, and subscribing gives you full access. I have no idea if they are / will be successful, but my gut tells me it won’t be.

No doubt it’s a very funny and popular site, but at the end of the day it’s a humour site. They are not tapping into something people deeply care about. My guess is that a hardcore, loyal part of their audience will sign up, but it won’t get much traction beyond that. I’d love to know how it is panning out for them.

Go deep, not broad

It’s hard to build a loyal, active following (which can then be monetised) around something that is very broad. I just don’t think it will connect with people enough for them to stick around and pay.

Going deep and tapping into a niche is a better idea. If you do a great job at providing content people think is really good within a niche, you will be blown away at the type of audience you can build. It can become almost cult-like. High engagement and open to paying for something valuable to them.

Monetise later

Monetising too early can kill your content business. Do whatever it takes to avoid being in the position where you are forced into it.

It’s best to focus on just publishing awesome content and building a fantastic community around it who love what you do. From there, you can slowly bring in the right monetisation model.

If you’re readers really do love what you do, they will adjust to having to pay something for it or will buy something else from you.

The other thing about waiting to monetise is often the right model will be easier to see once you have actually built something you are happy with.

Customers need to see the value

Being able to charge money for content has always fundamentally come down to offering value.

People will take the price you are charging and immediately do all types of calculations and comparisons in their head to determine if they feel comfortable paying you that price.

If you want someone to pay you $9.99 a month, people need to feel like they will get at least that much value from it every month. And often they will compare what you charge with other things they spend the same amount of money on.

Many of the very successful subscription services do this well – spotify, netflix etc. Their customers very happily pay a monthly fee because the value they get each month, far outweighs what they pay. And when they compare that amount to what they pay for other things (or used to pay), it looks like awesome value.

For example, a spotify monthly subscription fee is roughly comparable to a trip to McDonalds. It’s cheaper than one album used to cost. People use it every day and people get really passionate about their favourite music. It’s an easy purchase for most.

Passion can help to get people over the line, but fundamentally people need to see the value in subscribing to something. Will it make me feel better? Will I get joy and happiness from it? Will my life be improved? The more obvious that is to people, the easier it will be for them to pay for written content.

Community is important

Groups of people are getting around products, people and companies like never before. It’s happening on all types of platforms such as twitter, facebook, instagram, blogs etc.

If you can bring people together into an active community, you’re far more likely to be able to monetise your audience.

Peer pressure starts comes into the mix. People won’t want to be left out of being able to discuss paid content with the rest of the community. You’d be surprised at how much value people put on being given an environment to make friends on subjects they are passionate about. All of these things make it much easier to get people over the line and pay for written content online.

A good example which is personal to me, is AtLarge Nutrition.

Before I launched AtLarge Nutrition, I built a bodybuilding site called Wannabebig (funny name I know!). It was a mixture of articles and a forum in which people could discuss bodybuilding topics and just hang out. It grew to quite a nice size and even though I decided not to monetise the content directly, the power of the Wannabebig community was instrumental in the growth of AtLarge Nutrition.

Many of our long-time AtLarge Nutrition customers were Wannabebig members who loved what they had learned and the friends they had made on Wannabebig. In fact, often Wannabebig members were our biggest sales force, recommending our products to other members on the forum.

Long form Content

I think long form content is really interesting.

At the moment, short online articles are making books look long-winded and not a particularly good return on investment of time. Non-fiction books tend to draw out 4 or 5 points into over 200 pages. The vast majority could put their points across in just 5,000 or 10,000 – hell, even 20,000 words. Sometimes I think people write a lot of words because writing a book is a personal goal for them.

Short, online articles tend to be free. You pay for non-fiction books.

I think there is room in the middle for long form, online content. Something that takes 20-30 mins to read and is packed with the value / learning you might receive from a book. I think that would really stand out.

They could be one part of a subscription offering or sold on a one off basis. I think I would pay in both of these scenarios for high quality, long form content.

Paul Graham’s Essays are a good example of long form content. Some of the longer ones can take 20-30 mins to sit and read properly. The ratio of ideas to words is very high. You can tell they are well thought out and a lot of effort has been put into crafting the final version you see. The content for me is amazing and I get a lot of value from each one. Sometimes I feel more inspired and other times I realise something big.

If Paul charged $20 for each new article he wrote, I would pay it in a heartbeat because of the value I get from them.

Personalities over brands

We’re seeing the power shift from brands to people.

A lot of this has to do with how the internet has made it easy for individuals to reach and build audiences of their own, inexpensively.

If you wanted to learn about fitness 10 years ago, your only real source was books and magazines, which tended to be controlled by one or two companies. Now if you want to learn about fitness, you can go directly to the leading fitness professionals who are sharing and selling content independently and building a community themselves, through their own websites.

You can see this happening on all types of subjects – cooking, travel, venture capatilism, fashion, technology etc.

For me at least, it’s easier to connect and buy into a person over a brand. It feels more personal and genuine. The content feels higher quality and unbiased (politics tend to get in the way and influence things at companies).

Below are some examples of people killing it – Leo Babauta, Tim Ferriss, Marie Forleo, Fred Wilson. Each one of these has a big, highly engaged audience who love what they do.

This is something that news / journalism type companies are not leveraging enough. Instead of trying to build a following purely around their brand, they would be better off to build it through a number of popular, highly respected personalities.

The old guard shouldn’t be trying to figure this out

Ok, I want to say this upfront, I’m not being ageist.

But, the disruption is happening today. It’s todays (and the futures) technology which is disrupting things. It’s todays generation that isn’t being properly understood.

So the reality is those who will figure it out are likely to be millennials.

I have a suspicion that there are still way too many people with suits and grey hair trying to figure things out, particularly in the companies which are being disrupted. I say this because of the mixture of denial and unimaginative strategies we can see playing out in public.

The startups that are disrupting the established, bigger companies are being run by twenty somethings. Twenty somethings are now building billion dollar companies. They are switched on to technology. They know what their generation wants, because they are in it. They are ready to take the right risks. They are brave. And they are smarter and more capable than twentysomethings ever used to be.

I’m not saying they should come in and replace everyone, or hired and be given carte blanche.

But, whoever is running the established companies, they need to hire the best of this generation and give them the autonomy to solve these problems. They also need to not be afraid to move people out who are in denial or resistant to change.

Wrap Up

I’ll finish by simply acknowledging that getting people to pay for written content online is both tough and also a big opportunity. I think we’ll see some big success stories in the future and they may not look like what we expect them to.

Buy Your Ex-Customers a Cup of Coffee

On my run earlier, I passed a local tea shop which opened a few months ago. I was surprised to see no one in it.

And then I realised, I had visited a couple of times in the first few weeks of it opening and never went back.

It got me thinking, why did I never go back?

I mean, I really liked the concept (indian street food with a twist, unique leaf tea blends). The food and drink was lovely. It was reasonably priced and the service was always great. I had a chat with the owner on the first visit and he seemed really nice and passionate about the business. I even told at least a handful of my friends about it.

The more I thought about it, a few things hit me.

Firstly, no alcohol license. The prospect of only drinking tea seemed cool at first, but more often than not I am looking for a glass of red with my food when I go out.

Despite opening until 9pm, it comes across as a cafe / lunch spot. Part of it might be the lack of an alcohol license, but the general vibe tends to make it come off that way too. Its not a place that immediately comes to mind when I’m thinking of somewhere to pop out in the evening.

It’s also lacking some atmosphere. I think the way they have fitted it out is pretty cool, but there is something about the place that just seems.. a bit flat..

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the place. I actually think it’s a cool place – the above are simply the reasons that came to mind as to why I haven’t returned.

As I was thinking about this, my mind turned to how powerful it can be to actually have a conversation with your ex customers.

I doubt many companies do this, but I think they should.

Imagine having a quality conversation with ten to twenty ex-customers of yours to ask questions for why they stopped being a customer of yours?

Imagine how much you might learn and the ideas that would surface to combat the reasons they left you?

You could also break them down into different segments:

  • Those interested and close to buying something from you, but didn’t
  • Those who bought something from you once, but never returned
  • Those who bought something from you a few times, but never returned
  • Long time customers who dropped off the radar
  • Long time customers who dropped off the radar, only to suddenly return

Another really interesting segment is people who are aware of you, but were never interested enough to find about more about you – let alone buy from you. Why did you not resonate with them to at least a level where they might be mildly interested? You could easily discover a new market or group of customers that way.

So why don’t businesses have these conversations?

Perhaps they are more interested in acquiring new customers or looking after active customers. Perhaps it seems too time consuming or unscalable to sit down with someone and actually have a conversation (you could use something like surveymonkey to streamline things). Perhaps it would be too uncomfortable a conversation to have – it would certainly be more comfortable to hide behind a KPI dashboard.

Personally I think it would be time well invested. I think most businesses could pull together some really interesting segments of ex-customers and there would be some insightful conversations to be had.

If you prioritised and implemented your ideas to address the reasons why people stopped buying from you, the impact to overall customer retention could be significant.

So, go out and buy your ex-customers a cup of coffee!

Why Knowing Your Personal Time Zone Will Make You More Successful and Happier

Recently, I was given a piece of advice which led to breakthrough for me and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

It changed my perspective on a couple of things:

  1. Why I am happy doing certain things.
  2. Why I am good at certain things.

These might seem like simple questions, but knowing the answers to these two things can be incredibly powerful.

They help guide you to make better decisions about your life – things you do, people you spend time with and ultimately they can influence how successful and happy you are.

Below are just a few of the things, that become easier (I’ll cover these in more detail further below):

  • Know which jobs you’ll be best and happiest in.
  • Know who to surround yourself with to be more successful (particularly at work).
  • Know which hobbies will likely be a good fit for you – aswell as be more motivated and consistent when starting new hobbies.
  • Have better personal and professional relationships (specifically because you can understand where others are coming from).

Personal Time Zones

The best way to introduce the concept of personal time zones is to share the conversation when I had my ‘Aha’ moment.

I was talking with someone who I had specifically sought out for some advice, and he asked me the question ‘what do you love doing? – what can you get lost in?’

I typically find this question quite hard to answer. However, we continued to press through several rounds of me trying to come up with stuff – things I liked doing recently, things I enjoyed doing as a kid, particular jobs I really enjoyed (and specifically what parts of those jobs I enjoyed the most).

And then he hit me with it.

‘You sound like a 2-3 steps ahead type of guy’

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, but he asked me a few further questions, and the answers started to highlight that I do indeed think a few steps ahead a lot of the time.

He went on to explain that everyone has a personal time zone that they are best and happiest in.

  • Some people like to think a lot about the past and like analysing it.
  • Some people are much more comfortable in the now and being present in what they are doing. They easily get lost in what they do and don’t stress much about the future.
  • Some people tend to think a few steps ahead, thinking ahead to the next few months.
  • Some people find it easier to think a few years ahead.
  • Some people find it most natural to think about things 5-10 or even 20+ years ahead

He quickly followed with, each of these is perfectly ok. What’s important is that you know what type of timezone you are most comfortable with and then use that to help guide decisions in your life.

He finished with ‘you seem like a person who is always trying to be 2-3 steps ahead and likes to think forward probably 1-3 months at a time. You probably struggle to get excited and comfortable about the past, or things that are very long term


As soon as he said this, my mind started racing with all of the very obvious examples that seem to back up this statement.

When I read, I tend to skim read. I just want to know the gist of things and am always racing to be a few chapters ahead.

I struggle to sit down and watch a movie. I just see it as a couple of hours of dead time (very much a ‘now’ type of activity).

At work, my default mode seems to be briefly understanding the long term view (say 12-18 months), but then to get very clear on what needs to happen in the next 3-6 months. My only focus then is to start laying out the path towards it and to start building momentum around it.

It’s not a coincidence that there are two types of people who can frustrate me at times (mostly at work). Those that only focus on what they are doing that day (I find this random and disorganised) or those that prefer to talk about things many, many years ahead (It’s not that I think there isn’t a time and place for this, but generally I find this distracting from executing in the short-term).

The projects I have always found the most exciting is when there is a big, juicy goal 3-6 months out (preferably 3). I love building momentum around those types of projects.

I’ve never contributed properly to a pension. Even though I know it’s probably the right thing to do, I just find the whole concept way too far in the future. I would rather build wealth throughout my life so I know for sure what I’m working with when I am older.

When I speak with people, I’m often a few exchanges ahead in my head. I literally consider what the next few talking points / things to say could be in parallel to having the conversation (that actually seems a weird thing to do as I read back on what I typed!) This can be useful in certain types of conversations (influencing people, dealing with a difficult situation etc.), but it also interferes with being able to listen to people properly.

I’ve never been interested enough to ask many questions about my family’s past / history and as a result I have an embarrassingly low understanding of it.

I struggle to be present and simply enjoy the moment – whether that’s reading, enjoying a cold beer in the sun or watching a movie. I always have stuff going on in the back of my mind about what I could be doing next. It’s something I’ve been trying to be better at lately, and I can now see why it isn’t coming easy to me.

Aswell as noticing examples for my own personal time zone preference, I also started to think about other peoples personal time zones. It was actually amazingly obvious. I can picture friends and colleagues who clearly fit into each of the timezones I mentioned above.

I can even picture a few who seem to work quite well across a few of them. This can make someone incredibly effective, but I can only think of a couple of people that are like this. It’s more common that people seem to fit mostly into one.

Back to the five examples above

I mentioned a few things at the beginning, that become easier when you have an awareness of your personal time zone:

Know which jobs you’ll be best and happiest in

If you are like me and you have a view to being a few steps ahead, a role which requires you to spend most of your time either devising very long term strategy or analysing the past probably isn’t going to be a good fit for you.

By knowing your timezone, it can help you pick which types of jobs and responsibilities you will be both good at and happy in.

Know who to surround yourself with to be more successful (particularly at work)

Not only is it important to know your own personal time zone, but knowing other peoples can be really useful too.

We need people that can analyse the past as this helps us make better decisions for the future. We need people who get lost in what they do today and don’t get easily distracted – it’s called actually executing. 😉 We need people that can help lay out short to mid term milestones and keep the team focused and motivated around them. And we also need people that spend time thinking about the bigger picture as this helps guide our decisions in the short to mid term.

When I think back to some work situations / projects, I can see that often when things went well, we seemed to have a good mix of people with different personal time zones. But when there was an over-bias of one time zone, it caused problems (normally when thinking about the past or too far in the future was the bias)

It’s worth spending some time thinking about people in other timezones than yourself and how you can leverage different types of people to get the best overall result.

Know which hobbies will likely be a good fit for you – aswell as be more motivated and consistent when starting new hobbies

If you more naturally think in the past or too far ahead, sticking with hobbies can be tough. You either never get started or you become overwhelmed quickly.

A good example is I have been trying to learn French recently and have been inconsistent with listening to the audio lessons each day. I seem to be more focused on wanting to be quickly at the level where I can hold a good conversation (probably 3-6 months away) and also being fluent (probably 12+ months away). This can cause me to get frustrated with how slow things are going and I get impatient. Sometimes that discomfort causes me to skip listening to the audio lessons. I realised I need to break this down to a 1-3 month view, so that I can get really excited about it, much like I do at work.

So, I am booking in some conversational lessons in 2-3 weeks time. I am also going to book a week trip in France in 8 weeks time. After that, I should be at a point where I can hold down a conversation in French.

Not only does this act as a nice piece of accountability for me, it also gets me focused on just the next 2 months – both the result I want and what I need to do.

You might also want to consider what type of hobbies could best suit you. If you think super long term, something which requires intense day to day focus and activity might not be up your street. But something with a very clear and long term goal (i.e building a boat, car etc.) might be a good fit as it has a clear, long term result.

Have better personal and professional relationships (specifically because you can understand where they are coming from)

As mentioned above, it’s really about knowing your own personal time zone and having a good idea of the personal time zones of those around you. Once you know these, it’s much easier to put yourself in other peoples shoes.

The person that always seems to be going on about things five years ahead might get on your nerves, but at least you know why they do this. In fact, you almost certainly get on their nerves in much the opposite type of way 😉

I don’t like to admit that I can sometimes judge people too easily and harshly (myself included). Being aware of peoples personal time zones can make it easier to be patient and forgiving of others, including ourselves.

Closing thoughts – What this all means for me and you

Firstly, simply knowing what your personal time zone is makes things easier. Whatever it is, that’s perfectly ok.

Being self aware of it will help you see why you’re happy and good at some things, and not so happy or as good at other things.

It will also help you see why you like working with some people and why others can frustrate you. You’ll find that you become less judgemental and forgiving of others (and yourself).

Secondly, try and pick things and jobs to do which fit nicely with your time zone. You’ll achieve more and be happier for it.

Lastly, it can be interesting to experiment with other time zones. For example, I’m currently experimenting being more comfortable in the ‘now’. I really do want to be better at it.

I think I know in my heart it will never be my default zone to be in (although I do think with the right amount of time and effort it is possible to change), and that’s ok.

I’m very happy being a 2-3 steps ahead type of person, I just want to be able to enjoy the ‘now’ more when I choose to.