The long-held myth that web companies can achieve profitability through free products, services and content solely based on advertising is fading.  The diminishing rates of online ads, and the slowdown of venture capital and IPOs, has led to a realization that a sustainable business model for web companies must have multiple, diverse, revenue streams.

VC Slowdown

Over the last few months I’ve seen a growing number of companies offering alternative strategies to generating revenue.

Subscription Services / Premium Content (Blizzard, New York Times, GigaOM, Forrester)

The most straightforward revenue source is paid subscriptions. Blizzard, makers of World of Warcraft, absolutely crush it.

“if [their] 10 million subscribers were to pay the regular $14.99 month-to-month fee, then Blizzard would fill its pockets with almost $150 million every single month… that means a revenue-target of more than $1.7 billion for FY 2008.”

While many media companies have experimented with paid subscription models, very few have been able to do it successfully.  The exception is research focused companies like Forrester which banks on corporates with deep pockets shelling out $700 for a 12 page report.  GigaOM and TechCrunch have also recently launched similar premium research and analysis services.

The New York Times recently released it’s TimesReader 2.0 Adobe Air client. While the client offers an improved user experience, I can’t ever imagine shelling out $3.45 a week for content I can get for free.  Though I would pay for their $3 iPhone app.

It’s possible that with the success of the Kindle, these paid content services will flourish in the future.

Freemium (Wetpaint, Pandora, Google Apps)

A variation on premium content services is the freemium model. Give away 80% of your service for free, and charge for heavy users who want more functionality or a better experience. Pandora, a music discovery product, recently launched a premium services which, for $36 a year, removes ads, provides higher quality streaming music and offers a desktop app.  A compelling offering for their top tier of users.

Wetpaint is another company that has found success through the freemium model:

“When Ben Elowitz formed Wetpaint in 2005, it was intended to let anyone create a Web site free… Wetpaint typically offers advertisers space on a few Web sites with a few hundred thousand visitors. But last fall, many of their advertisers raised their sights to publishers with more than five million readers, Mr. Elowitz said. Rates for leftover ad space fell to 25 cents per thousand views from $1… Now, Wetpaint charges its big company customers, like HBO and Fox, a fee in exchange for providing extra services like site promotion and moderating reader forums… Smaller customers can pay to keep their sites free of ads. Wetpaint plans to add more paid services, including additional storage for big files and personalized domain names. It is also considering selling virtual goods on its sites. “

Finally Google Apps is another nice example of successfully upselling premium services. The communication and collaboration platform is free for up to 50 users, but for $50 per user per year you get access to a whole range of services including: additional storage space, email security and archiving, video sharing, phone support and access to API’s.

App Stores (Apple, Nokia, Blackberry, Google Android)

It’s tough to argue against the game-changing success of the Apple App Store.  Rival companies like Google, Nokia and Blackberry have launched their own stores (the Android Market, Ovi store and Blackberry App World respectively).  A cursory glance on the Blackberry store only showed about 20 apps, and none of them were paid.  While they won’t be competitive with Apple (at least for some time), it’s at least showing that this model is profitable and worth pursuing.  I’m sure this is now central to how mobile handset makers and software developers plan on monetizing phones.

Interestingly this model is now being extended beyond just phones (and why not!).  According to the Sun CEO, Jonathan Schwartz:

“Vector is a network service to connect companies of all sizes and types to the roughly one billion Java users all over the world. Vector (which we’ll likely rename the Java Store), has the potential to deliver the world’s largest audience to developers and businesses leveraging Java and JavaFX.

Our runtimes reach more consumers than just about any other company on earth. That ubiquity has obvious value to search companies, but it’s also quite valuable to banks looking to sign up new accounts, sports franchises looking for new viewers, media companies and news organizations looking for new subscribers – basically, any Java developer looking to escape the browser to reach a billion or so consumers.

How will it work? Candidate applications will be submitted via a simple web site, evaluated by Sun for safety and content, then presented under free or fee terms to the broad Java audience via our update mechanism. Over time, developers will bid for position on our storefront, and the relationships won’t be exclusive (as they have been for search). As with other app stores, Sun will charge for distribution – but unlike other app stores, whose audiences are tiny, measured in the millions or tens of millions, ours will have what we estimate to be approximately a billion users. That’s clearly a lot of traffic, and will position the Java App Store as having just about the world’s largest audience. “

I believe that a paid app store is also a viable business model for social sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Microtransaction (Tencent, Zygna, Facebook)

Tencent, the largest Chinese social network, focuses on microtransactions as their primary revenue source.  Users pay for subscriptions, virtual clothes for your avatar, new weapons, cute pets, etc… From their ’09 first quarter results:

Internet services (digital goods, game subscriptions, micro-transactions) – $279.9 mil (76% of total revenues)
Mobile Subscriptions – $64.5 (17.6% of total revenue)
Online Advertising – $21 mil (5.9% of total revenues)

Online advertising only 5.9% of their total $350mil revenues?  Impressive.

Another company successfully generating revenues from social gaming microtransactions is Zygna.  According to TechCrunch:

“Zynga, the online gaming publisher, is making a ton of money… [close] to $100 million. And clearly, it’s accelerating… There looks to be a bright future in the online gaming sphere and specifically around micro-transactions. That’s how Zynga makes most of its money. With some of its leading games on MySpace and Facebook, it charges users for playing time or for things like chips in poker. These small purchases which usually amount to only a few dollars at a time, start to add up quick. And that’s only with a small percentage of overall players opting to buy them.”

Facebook finally launched it’s much anticipated payment platform for testing.  Facebook hopes to be the OS for the social web.  They are banking on companies like Zygna figuring out what it the masses want and developing social applications on top of their platform.  App developers will be able to charge for subscriptions and create opportunities for in-app transactions. Facebook will get a cut of each transaction.  Cha-ching!

Another interesting company in this space is Tipjoy, which facilitates small payments on Twitter. I haven’t seen this used effectively yet, but I imagine a micropayment based Craigslist Twitter app could be successful.

Trend Analysis (Twitter, Zensify)

It’s undeniable that Twitter has achieved massive popularity, but that doesn’t always translate to profits (see YouTube). I believe Twitter’s most effective strategy for monetization will be mining and performing trend analysis on the millions of thought bubbles created by users daily. Both companies and individuals would pay big money to answer the following questions:

  • What are people saying about me/my product right now?
  • How has the perception of my brand changed recently and in what direction is it trending?
  • Geographically where is my biggest, rapidly emerging and diminishing audiences?
  • Who are my biggest evangelists, in what demographic do they fall in, where are they located?
  • Who are my biggest naysayers, how can I change their perception?
  • What is the perception of my product vs. my competitors?
  • What are the trending (in both directions) topics in my industry?

On a smaller scale the new iPhone app Zensify:

“Shows the user trends within your social graph in the form of a tag cloud of key words. In other words it brings a lot more intelligence to your social graph. Suddenly, you can see a big trending topic amongst people you follow… “Wouldn’t it be cool if “trending topics” were localized to the people who are followed by the people you follow.” Well Zensify does this… And it doesn’t just do it across Twitter. It does it also does it across updates from Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Digg, Delicious, Photobucket and 12seconds.”

Zensify Tag Cloud

I believe that providing a set of tools to monitor trends amongst your social graph (and public timelines), will be a huge revenue opportunity for companies looking to monetize on social and real-time.


When the internet was originally created the “page metaphor” mimicked the existing print industry. It followed that the way to monetize was through advertisements. As we move from pages to activity streams we’re starting to see entirely new, innovative ways to profit. We are still in the infancy of this new stream based revolution and while companies like Twitter and Facebook have achieved huge valuations no one (especially the Newspaper and Music industries) has yet figured out Monetization 2.0. Put on your thinking hats…

Related posts:

  1. The Transition to Real-Time, Social Search
  2. Billion Dollar Business Idea
  3. The Razorfish Consumer Experience Report
  4. Why Would Anyone Advertise Online Without Google/Facebook?
  5. Nu Analytics