April 25, 2001 -- See the ad flashing at the top of this page? How much would you pay to get rid of an even flashier ad?
Starting today, Salon.com is hoping some users will pay $30 per year, partly to make that happen. "Salon Premium" will spare users the ads, and give more features including dispatches on politics, extra columns, audio downloads of F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories, and "premium-only galleries of erotic art and photography" similar to items previously viewable for free from the site's "Sex" index.
Or, users could continue to use the free site — despite bigger, louder ads seen headed for the Web to combat the perceived ineffectiveness of current banner ads stripped across the tops of Web pages.
Traditionally, with the exception of The Wall Street Journal, which also runs Web ads, paid Internet sites have been unsuccessful. However, an industry analyst believes the choice between a traditional site and an alternate ad-free subscription site may become a trend in coming months, as large "interactive marketing units" replace or supplement traditional banner ads and demand more attention from Web users.
"My prediction is that as these units are implemented and put on these sites, because they're more obtrusive, people will be more open to paying for content that is ad-free," says Denise Garcia, research director for media at Gartner, Inc. of Stamford, Conn.
Salon, an upscale but economically ailing Webzine, has had to lay off about a third of its staff in recent months. It hopes the move to create free and subscription-only options will bring in much-needed revenue, but does not see it as a "silver bullet" to instantly make the site profitable, a spokesman says.
At least one other site is offering an ad-free option in addition to a free site with advertising — albeit little more than public service ads. The Quia Corporation operates a site offering resources to educators, and says it has 400,000 unique users. The site recently started charging schools and other facilities approximately $2 per student per year for ad-free content and custom-tailored educational quizzes and games.
A company spokesman said Quia responded to customer requests for the ad-free environment and customization, and the company's online surveys that indicated people would be willing to pay for it.
"The easiest way to sum it up would simply be customer demand," said Kyle Miller, a business analyst for the company. "Just like sometimes you want something red, sometimes you want it green, that's what we're trying to provide to our customers."
He said "quite a few" customers had opted for the ad-free, custom-tailored service, but he would not specify how many.
‘Best Interests of Our Readers’
Salon.com is a much larger site, with 3.5 million unique users in January, according to Patrick Hurley, Salon's senior vice president of business operations. He, too, refused to say how many users have opted for the premium service so far, or whether they indicated they were selecting it for the lack of ads or the extra content.
"Our motivation for doing it was that we saw it as really capitalizing on the flexibility of the Internet and doing something that could be in the best interest of our advertisers and the best interest of our readers," Hurley says.
"This option to view without banners and pop-ups, that is going to attract people who are averse to that kind of thing," Hurley adds. "They don't want to be marketed to. When those people are marketed to they complain to me and they complain to our advertisers. So our advertisers understand. … Taking those people out of the pool isn't necessarily a problem."
Hurley said he believes the premium users will be so few at first so as not to dramatically affect the number of viewers of the free site, and, therefore, the amount of money that the company can charge to advertisers for ad space.
Content Is Key
Walter Janowski, research director for customer relationship manager marketing at Gartner, is not convinced the next generation of Internet ad formats immediately on the way will be sufficiently intrusive to prompt widespread use of Salon's new subscription service. He believes the success or failure of the subscription site will ride on the strength of the exclusive content.
"Ultimately, if you have content that is important enough and compelling enough for people to want it, like The Wall Street Journal, people will pay for that," he says.
"You can't charge for weak content, [but] you can probably charge very much for very strong content," he adds. "I think Salon could have some reasonable success given that they have a little bit of a cult status in what's left of the old-world Internet community."