The launch of two new paid subscription services from Google heralds the birth of a new ‘Premium Web’ - one that isn’t free, but offers premium content free from ads. Are the days of the free internet numbered?

A new Web is born

This year, the World Wide Web turned 25 and grew to over one billion websites, confirming the Web as the most massive repository of free content on the planet for its three billion users. In every sense of the word, the Web is now ‘mass media’.

And like other forms of mass media, the Web is evolving. Specifically we are seeing the emergence of a new second Web; the Premium Web. Unlike the original Web, which is largely an ad funded affair for the masses, the new Premium Web is for the select few who can and want to pay for a premium ad-free experience. Free media for the masses, premium paid media for the few.

The Premium Web

Two new offerings from Google illustrate the arrival of this Premium Web; Google Contributor and Music Key. Subscribe to Google Contributor and you’ll get your Web content from select sites ad-free and tracking free. Subscribe to Music Key from Google’s YouTube, and you’ll enjoy music videos ad-free, anytime, anywhere. Both Contributor and Music Key are being piloted in the US, before being rolled out elsewhere.

What’s interesting about Contributor and Music Key is the company behind them, Google. Google has a massive vested interest in the original mass media Web, not in any Premium Web. Its entire business model is based on the golden rule of mass media that marketers will always pay more for audiences than audiences will pay for content. Google doesn’t sell search results, it sells mass media audiences. So why is Google seemingly undermining its own business model with Contributor and Music Key?

Premium audiences

The simple answer is there is money in the Premium Web. People are paying for ad-free experiences. Take Apple’s app ecosystem; free apps if you accept in-app advertising, or premium paid for versions for an ad-free experience. Likewise for digital print; you can pay for a premium Kindle ebook reader and read content ad-free, or you can pay less, and read with ads. The same is true for digital music; you can pay for ad-free music on Spotify, or get music free with ads. From this perspective, it makes perfect sense for Google to carve out a slice of the Premium Web for itself with Contributor and Music Key. And of course, we only need to look back at previous iterations of mass media to see precisely the same phenomenon; as television and radio matured, premium offers emerged in the form of ad-free subscription channels for movies, TV and radio. Free media for the masses, premium paid media for the few.

Ad-free marketing

For digital marketers, the emergence of the Premium Web is both a threat and an opportunity. The threat is that the very people most likely to pay for premium ad-free content and services are those we want to target with our ads. How will we reach people with money to spend if they are spending money on premium ad-free content?

Answering this challenge is the opportunity. Smart brands will become part of this new Premium Web by offering and sponsoring premium content, services and experiences that are genuinely worth paying for. In short, the Premium Web means upping our game with premium offers to reach premium audiences.

So rather than lament the emergence of a second Premium Web, brands and marketers should celebrate it. For too long we have relied on the uneasy truth that if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product; someone somewhere is selling your attention, your profile or your personal details to marketers. Google’s core product is not a search engine, it’s you. The Premium Web allows us to change this, and treat people not as products, but humans for whom we create value.

The Premium Web will be better than free.


By Dr Paul Marsden, Consumer Psychologist at SYZYGY Group. 

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