Sports Illustrated Is Testing a New Type of Paywall

What’s more valuable, time or money?

Sports Illustrated is testing a paywall that lets readers access its print articles early if they watch a 30-second video ad first.

The provider is Selectable Media, which has been testing consumers’ willingness to watch video ads for free WiFi, music and games. This is its first public test with a major consumer magazine.

With ad dollars under pressure, publishers are looking to consumers to generate revenue, but with so much news and information freely available, paywalls have had mixed success (The Dallas Morning News and San Francisco Chronicle recently dropped theirs). Time Inc. has tried to protect its subscription business by making its print content only available to subscribers when posted online. Like all publishers, it’s also wrestling with how to extract more value from its readers and advertisers. To that end, People is trying tiered offers to retain existing customers and lure new ones.

But the advent of tablets and the hope that they would create a new base of paying customers notwithstanding, some readers may never become paying subscribers. The premise of Selectable is that they may pay with their time, though; it’s not unlike tactics attempted by Salon and others a decade ago and more recently by Genesis Media.

“At the end of the day, every publisher is looking to boost their subscription base,” Selectable Media CEO Matt Minoff said. “More and more people are expecting content to be free. Publishers are coming to grips with that new reality and looking for new ways to monetize that content and create premium content that can still be profitable.”

The SI experiment is modest for now; it has applied only on the desktop and to a range of SI stories, which typically are only immediately available to paying subscribers (magazine content becomes available for free online after the print issue goes off sale). Akin to the Hulu and YouTube ad swap model, viewers are offered a choice of ads to watch (Del Monte vegetables and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were two recent options), the assumption being that if people get a choice of which ad to watch, they’re more likely to recall it and buy the product. Once the visitor watches the ad, the article is unlocked for a 24-hour period.

Selectable claims that in general 50 percent to 70 percent of visitors will view videos that are implemented this way and that SI’s results fell into that range. (SI declined to discuss the test or the results, other than to say, “This is an era of great experimentation with content and technology and what Selectable offers is intriguing.”) The platform, whose evp, chief revenue officer Tom Morrissy is a Time Inc. vet., is in talks with other brands at the publisher.

For Fox Broadcasting, which has been testing the unit for its new show Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the unit was a way to reach sports fans 18-49 while seeing whether viewers are more engaged with ads they choose versus forced preroll, said Emily King, svp of media and on-air planning for Fox Broadcasting. “Hopefully it means they’re more open to our message,” she said.