The assumption behind this new app is that our Society can continue generating revenue by putting cheetah pictures on mobile devices. But apps are just paywalls by a different name: You want the content, you pay up front.
Here are three good reasons paywalls are a bad idea. Worth highlighting: “One of the world’s most successful paywalls [at the New York Times] is not even making up for the continuing decline in print ad revenue.” And yet publishers can’t let go of pay-per-view.
What’s odd is that most publishers would kill to have what National Geographic already possesses: The word “Society” on its masthead. That word (and variations of it) is publishing’s new holy grail. On a quest to build vibrant online communities, publishers are trying to reshape old media brands into new hubs for “the conversation,” and to create relationships with readers that give them a sense of belonging for which they might actually have a reason to pay.
Here at Society Matters, we don’t believe the National Geographic Society has a platform problem, as in: Hey, Bill — let’s make sure those cheetah photos are optimized for iOS and Android devices so customers will keep sending us money.
Instead, we believe that John Fahey and his team at National Geographic confront a challenge that’s less about technology and more about people: If we’re really a Society, then what’s the glue that makes this community cohere?
In the next few months, National Geographic is planning to roll out a new membership program. Even though the initiative is spearheaded by Chief Marketing Officer Amy Maniatis, we sincerely hope it doesn’t come off as a marketing ploy. We hope it doesn’t feel like just another way to harvest email addresses to target consumers. We hope that it doesn’t make our Society feel like an online shopping mall.
Yet we fear that’s exactly what’s coming.
We hope we’re wrong.