Ads, Paywalls or FreeWall – What Makes Sense for Media Brands?

Engage with this one ad, and we’ll let you view the rest of the article ad-free. That’s the crux of “freewall” technology, a middle ground between intrusive online ads and a content paywall. Some big names in media and publishing have started experimenting with it, as Piet van Niekerk writes in FIPP.

FreeWall technology loads an advertising option partway into an article,” van Niekerk explains. “To unlock the rest of the article, readers need to answer a question about the advert to prove that they have interacted with it. Once answered, the rest of the content is revealed. The amount of times a reader is confronted with the ad option is capped to ensure the engagement adds value to the reader experience.

The technology is provided by Rezonence, who aims to “create value from human engagement” per their website. According to co-founder Rowly Bourne, publishers will make more money with a smaller number of these engagement-style ads because advertisers will be willing to pay significantly more them.

“Described as ‘a new value proposition for publishers, their audience and advertisers’ the model has been experimented with by at least 14 publishing partners, including the likes of City AM in London and brands under the umbrella of Condé Nast, Hearst and TI Media. All of these have been using the FreeWall model alongside other advertising models,” van Niekerk continues.

The idea is certainly interesting. Most of us are constantly asked to turn off our ad blockers or sign in / subscribe when viewing digital content, so this seems like a fairly innocuous alternative. It’s attractive enough to make four of the UK’s largest magazine brands test this idea in lieu of any other ad models. The entire model hinges on the value proposition “that in exchange for a minute or so of attention [readers] subsequently receive a less cluttered online experience.”

It’s been notoriously hard to monetize digital attention is this attention economy; and even when readers do give the content attention, true engagement is lacking. The interruptive strategies of digital marketing are in fact contributing to a decline in consumer attention.

Given the challenges publishers have faced, this idea does seem to have some legs … and some political support across the pond.

“Early this year the FreeWall model received vigorous support from Dame Frances Cairncross in her 154-page government-backed independent review into the future of UK journalism,” van Niekerk writes. “Cairncross referred to Rezonence’s FreeWall model as the product of ‘entrepreneurs with ingenious schemes to help newspapers improve online revenues’. She also said the model would go a long way to fight against clickbait journalism.”

There’s a catch, of course, and it comes down to data.

“The freewall model will only work if the advertising the user engages with is relevant, which brings us straight back to the all important issue of data and analytics, as well as a willingness by the user to share his or her preferences with the publisher/brand to ensure relevant advertising to engage with,” van Niekerk continues. “Of course, this discourse around personalisation is nothing new, but becomes even more critical for an advertising model that needs to perform within the ‘attention economy’.”

Fascinating stuff, and it’s encouraging to see technology working in tandem with publishing to provide alternative ways to access – and fund – quality content. It’s also fascinating to see advertisers finally realize that attention is not what matters; true engagement with the right audience is what drives results.

The parallels to a print magazine are striking. Readers tactically engage with print ads, holding it in their hands as they turn the page to the next story. As digital grows up, it’s only natural to expect it to emulate the best of print in their own revenue models.