Esquire’s Micropayment Experiment

For the first time, Esquire will charge for an individual piece of online content in an experiment that could hint at the magazine’s future digital evolution.

The Hearst property has teamed up with Tinypass, a company that helps publishers sell digital content, to charge readers for access to Luke Dittrich’s new in-depth profile of Dr. Eben Alexander, a man who claims to have gone to heaven and back. Readers wanting to dive in can pony up $1.99 to get the content.

Esquire, a subscription-based monthly with an ad-supported free site, is looking to experiment between the two ends of this continuum. Implementing Tinypass’s payment system for individual articles is one end.

Micropayments have a tortured history. For one, they entail a process. While the process has gotten better, a user still has to go through several steps: decide which payment method (credit card, Paypal); enter an email; set up password; enter credit card information. This actually speaks to the biggest friction problem: People don’t want to spend a buck or two on their credit card, especially for content they’re used to reading for free.

Esquire is betting that folks will do this for a deeply reported 10,000-word piece. This perhaps highlights the ridiculous publishing economics of today. For $1.99, you can go through all those steps to read one article now. However, you can get a three-year subscription to the magazine for $18 (or a one-year subscription for $8) that also gives you access to online content. The article will run in the August issue.

Troy Young, Hearst’s president of digital, explained that Esquire is morphing. Not just with payment and packaging options, like Tinypass, but also in the frequency with which it publishes. The monthly publication now puts out content daily and weekly — and in September, it will launch a cable channel.

“The role of the digital team is to provide product solutions, innovate and not get in the way,” Young said.

Esquire’s relationship with Tinypass started about three months ago when Esquire teamed up with the storytelling nonprofit Narrative 4. Esquire and Narrative 4 commissioned 106 stories called “How to be a Man”’ and ran about a dozen in the magazine. The rest – including original stories by Colum McCann, Salman Rushdie, Jess Walter and Ian McEwan – were published behind a paywall on the Narrative 4 website. Tyler Cabot, an Esquire editor on Narrative 4’s founding committee, said that it only took a few weeks to set up the Dittrich article paywall and that “it works fantastic with our system.”

“We are learning that when you put something behind a paywall, sometimes it’s harder to get journalists to write about it,” said Cabot. “We’re learning about conversion rates, how readers react, all different lessons we can take and use going forward.”

Cabot said that 3-4 percent of people are paying for the content, and the outlet will continue to monitor over the coming months — and experiment.

“This may not be the right model for the different kinds of articles we do,” said Cabot. “Our content is so different in the magazine. What works for some content might not for others.”

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