I’m aware that English seaside towns do not, at first glance, have much to do with news audiences, but bear with me.

I live close to a town called Hastings on the south coast of the United Kingdom — famous for the battle that saw English King Harold succumb to the Norman conquerors in 1066. The town made the news more recently after its new pier went into administration barely two years after a £14 million project to restore it was completed, prompting a search for a new owner and fears it will become over-commercialised as a result.

People continue to hesitate at paying for online subscriptions, but there is an inherent value exchange in paying for access.
People continue to hesitate at paying for online subscriptions, but there is an inherent value exchange in paying for access.

Hastings Pier is a quality attraction — a beautiful, award-winning piece of architecture constructed after the original burned down in 2010. But it doesn’t make enough money to sustain itself. I would gladly pay for something to gain entry, but it’s not a view shared by many, especially locals who maintain access should remain free.

Pondering this in the sunshine (on the pier) over the weekend genuinely got me thinking about what’s worth paying for. Do you see where I’m going with this … ? What is wrong with asking your audience to pay for something that has clear value and, more to the point, they’d be sad to see go?

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, during his testimony on Capitol Hill, Mark Zuckerberg said there will “always be a version of Facebook that is free” — hinting at a paid-for version at some point in the future. This latest hint has come under some duress, but it’s not the first time something like it has surfaced. Back in 2011, rumours swirled that the social media giant would apply a subscription fee.

The misuse of data is serious: Watch this space for tighter regulations for social networks. But using data to target audiences is a practice marketers, including this one, are up to their elbows in. And, in light of the steady downturn in online ad revenues, most publishers have already realised a re-evaluation of their business models is essential. It’s having a wobble at the moment, but a lot of people would be sad to see Facebook go.

If you Google “paywalls are …  one of the top suggestions you’ll get is “evil.” As an employee of a media company whose flagship publication sits behind a paywall, I have an obvious bias in the opposite direction. Successful introduction of paywalls at The New York Times and The Washington Post shows it’s possible to retrofit one.

According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017, 16% of people in the United States paid for news in 2017 compared to just 9% in 2016. But that’s still not a lot of people.

I think, paradoxically, the way to convince audiences that paying to access content is a good idea is to convince them of their own value — or, more precisely, the value of their personal data. Accessing the Internet for “free” isn’t really free, as the brilliant podcast Freakonomics considered in an episode from 2016 called “Is the Internet Ruined?” (which was published before the repeal of the net neutrality rules).

By paying for something, you’re making a conscious decision to engage with it — and this doesn’t have to be a model where advertisers miss out entirely. Adblocking hasn’t been the disaster many predicted. Only 18% of people in the U.S. and 16% in the UK use them, according to the 2017 Ad Block Report by PageFair.

It’s our experience at The Economist Group that users who navigate to branded content via an ad placed on Economist.com or our digital edition are a highly engaged audience, spending more time than audiences arriving via social, for example, with the content.

For me, it all boils down to a value exchange. And, increasingly, I believe that should involve paying for more content online. Otherwise, we’re all going to find ourselves at sea.