A Hard-Hitting Soft Paywall

Snapchat announced in a blog post Tuesday morning that they will be offering replays to users who are willing to pay out a little cash. The popular smartphone app can be downloaded for free, and it allows users to send temporary photos and videos to each other. Once a snapchatter has viewed an image and it has disappeared, the picture can no longer be accessed. At least that was until a couple of years ago when a feature allowing users one replay each day was added to the app. The new update will allow users to purchase additional replays at a rate of 3 replays for $0.99.

 This move could turn out to be controversial because the temporal nature of the app content is probably one of its most attractive features. Snapchat appeared on the scene as a last vestige of

transience and impermanence in an information age where a record of practically everything we do is kept and seemingly nothing can be erased or forgotten. It was an exciting and unique concept that probably led to the app’s widespread popularity.

Since the cost of replays is relatively high, this new ‘soft’ paywall is unlikely to completely destroy Snapchat’s apparent temporality, but it seems to be slightly ideologically opposed to its principles. On the surface, it may look like a solid business decision, but there exists the potential to damage Snapchat’s ethos.

Snapchat is not alone, though. Many of the large tech businesses have embraced some form of free content and are looking for alternative ways of making a profit. Google offers most of it’s services – such as e-mail and office applications – for free. Free streaming services like YouTube, Spotify and Hulu seem to be ubiquitous. Microsoft has even announced plans to move towards a ‘freemium’ software model in the hope that they will be able to regain some of their market dominance. It’s an effective marketing strategy: people simply love free things.

The demand for free digital content is large and only shows signs of growing, so businesses have had to find new ways of generating revenue. Advertising is the most common form, and the one upon which Snapchat has been most dependent. Paywalls are another more recent way of allowing users access to some free content, but forcing them to pay if they want more. It’s a more limited-access system than an ad-based model, and it depends on getting potential users hooked before asking them to reach for their wallets. YouTube, long a champion of free digital content, has also revealed a move to add its own ‘soft’ paywall for ad-free viewing.

Paywalls certainly seem to be a viable way of monetizing digital content, and making the paywalls ‘soft’ still allows consumers a certain degree of the free content that they crave. It could prove to be a lucrative compromise, but that remains to be seen. Some consumers become annoyed or angry when they encounter paywalls, seeing them as nothing more than an unwarranted cash grab. To others, the idea of paying only for the content that you want may be preferable to dealing with intrusive and distracting advertising. In the case of Snapchat’s new replay paywall, success will probably depend on whether the new feature is too antithetical to what drew people to the app in the first place, or whether Snapchat has done a good enough job of getting their users hooked that they will pay for more content.