You don’t need a paywall if you have cool ads, The Outline CEO Josh Topolsky says

Last updated: 05-13-2018

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You don’t need a paywall if you have cool ads, The Outline CEO Josh Topolsky says

The New York Times saved itself by switching to an online subscription model, and almost everyone in digital media is following suit — so, paywalls are the future! Right?

Uh, no, says Josh Topolsky. As CEO and editor in chief of The Outline, he’s trying to prove that free content on the web can still be supported by advertising if the ads don’t suck.

“Internet advertising is very aggressive and often bad,” Topolsky said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “For the smartest, most savvy consumers on the internet, they are blocking it or tuning it out or avoiding places that have it altogether.”

He dismissed the idea that putting everything behind a paywall is a foregone conclusion, or a “one size fits all” solution. However, The Outline isn’t currently planning to charge for its content, and it’s also not going to churn out masses of low-quality stories that will drive up pageviews and, therefore, views for display ads.

So, smaller audience, not paying for what they read: How does that work? Topolsky said the site makes it easy for brands to craft “creative, beautiful” advertising and then serves those ads up to its readers as they swipe through stories, a delivery mechanism he compared to Instagram or Snapchat; as a result, the site can “do millions of views on a piece of custom content” and, often, get its readers to engage with that content rather than just looking at it.

“I’m open to the idea of asking for money from people,” Topolsky said. “But I think there’s an unapproached opportunity in advertising that’s been bungled for 20 years by most people in this industry. Good advertising is good, and when it’s good it’s great. Also, we have to prove that we’re worth spending money on.”

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On the new podcast, Topolsky said digital publishers have wasted energy trying to shove ads into banners and other static display formats, which are boring to look at and only make money when the page is overloaded with them. He likened this approach to broadcasting a picture of a magazine ad on TV.

“That is what most advertising on the internet is,” he said. “It’s like people built the Model T and were like, ‘That’s as good as a car is ever going to get!’ And now they’re like, ‘We need to invent some kind of a plane or something! This is never gonna work.’ There’s a Tesla version of this that’s really awesome, but nobody seems to be working on the Tesla. They’re all painting the Model T different colors.”

“The TV ad works because it’s good for TV. The magazine ad works because it’s good for magazines. You know what Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook, to some degree, and Pinterest figured out? There’s an internet ad that works really well. It just isn’t the box that is on every website.”

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