AUGUST 11, 2009 3:46AM

ESPN pay wall: Get it right or don't build it

Rate: 7 Flag
By Patrick Thornton: Many news organizations have proclaimed that they will begin charging for news on their Web sites soon, but how many have thought of some of the hidden issues associated with pay walls and authentication schemes?  

For instance, yesterday I tried to access an ESPN Insider article at ESPN.com, but was unable to do so, despite being logged in (the top of the page welcomed me, while the body of the page told me to sign in). Insider allows users access to premium articles and features. It's not that uncommon, however, for the ESPN Insider service to give me issues when I'm trying to view articles.

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These are the kinds of issues that news orgs will have to deal with, especially for sites that employ a free/premium model similar to ESPN.com's. It's one thing to have user authentication for an entire site (verifying that a user is logged in and a paying customer, in this case), but it's entirely different and more complicated to have select articles and features require authentication. ESPN.com, for whatever reason, gets confused and won't allow me to view certain premium articles, even though I'm clearly signed in.

The issue may lie in the way that ESPN tries to seamlessly weave free and premium content together. Free content is not segregated to blogs or held in some far corner of the Web site like some free/premium sites do. Rather, ESPN mixes free and premium content on every page of its site. 

One article about an upcoming football game may be free, while another piece about the same game will be behind the Insider wall. It makes sense to want to create a seamless experience where free and premium content appear side-by-side. It's a great way to get people to notice premium content. 

If the problem persists, I'll be calling ESPN customer service to have it rectified. That will cut into ESPN's margins. Fielding customer service calls because the site is having trouble understanding when I am and am not signed in is not a great way to make money off of premium features.

These confused user experiences are going to turn people off. If users are paying for content, they don't want to haggle with a Web site or call customer service. People expect Web sites to work, especially when they are paying customers.

If a company as resource rich as ESPN struggles with these issues on its Web site, imagine how a small newspaper in central Pennsylvania will deal with setting up a pay wall that consistently works. Most smart news orgs are talking about a free/premium model, and ESPN.com clearly shows that it's not always that easy to pull off. A strict pay wall with no free content is probably a poor idea for just about every news org.

ESPN, however, can get away with having issues like these, because ESPN does not need Insider to make money. ESPN is raking in plenty of broadcast money and has several revenue streams (not to mention the fact that ABC owns it). Insider is, in many ways, a nice little experiment for ESPN. 

This is not to say that charging for news and features can't work, but it's important to keep in mind that setting up a system that A) works and B) doesn't turn customers away is easier said than done. And trust me, the last thing you want to do is spend time and money setting up a pay wall that just turns would-be paying customers off. 

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As I pay for access to several sites, I can vouch for the many problems which come with it. Just remembering all the different passwords and user names is difficult enough, and when you change your email, it's a drag going round to all the sites to update your information. If you're really lucky, you then discover that you have forgotten your password, and when you request a new one they send it to your old email adress, which you no longer have access to...

And it's one thing for ESPN or Encyclopedia Britannica to charge you for their content. But how are newspapers going to do it, when you can just drop by aggregator sites to read all the interesting bits from todays' papers for free?
As a web developer I can say that it really shouldn't be that difficult. Each article will sit in a database, that database should have several fields, one of which should be the display type for that article (in ESPN's case Insider or Free), a second database holds the user information, if you've logged into the site then the page should build with all articles, if not it should build with out.

I'm oversimplifying the process somewhat but I will wager the smart folks who built the ESPN backend have over complicated it to the point of where it is difficult to fix.

Note to FOJ folks looking to launch their own...sure, the design part is sexy, the content part makes you feel like Cronkite, even the web development part has its appeal in a mastery of technology kind of way but designing the database system (which is really just a bunch of tables) is the most important thing - my philosophy is to put more data than you could possibly think you'll need in there, because it is a lot harder to redesign the backend management when a site is up and running than it is to do it before you launch.
@RIRedinPA,

It's more complicated than that with ESPN.com. I didn't get into all the possible login options with ESPN.com, but here are some other issues to consider.

ESPN.com has free accounts that people use to post comments, build a little profile, etc. That's one part of their authentication. So simply checking if someone is logged in isn't enough. You need to see if they are logged in and check for what level of privileges they should have.

Then ESPN has Insider with it's premium features. But wait there is more complication! ESPN also has ESPN 360, which only works if the site can validate that you have Comcast.

Now, I think you're right that this shouldn't be that difficult with building a site from the ground up. But ESPN.com predates Insider, and I'm willing to bet that many news orgs will try to tack on premium features to their sites and CMSes. It's this tacking on of new features that causes these issues.

Honestly, I can't imagine struggling news orgs investing the time and money into rebuilding their backends from the ground up before they erect pay walls. It's the smart move, because it will help avoid issues like these, but I don't see it happening.
It's actually not that difficult to separate free and paid content. ESPN puts all of their paid content on an entirely different server. You can tell by the URL -- if it starts with "sports.espn.go.com/" then it's free but if it starts with "insider.espn.go.com/" then it's subscriber only. This alone makes it incredibly simple to manage security.

ESPN may have a poorly coded site that can't maintain an authenticated session or some other problem, but that's really no worse than Salon.com requiring their paying customers to sign up a second time to comment on their Open Salon section. I just wasted 5 minutes trying to log in here to post this comment before I discovered you require users to create a whole new login for just this part of your site. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!
not to be a pedant, but....

"ESPN puts all of their paid content on an entirely different server. You can tell by the URL ..."

the url *may* indicate that it's on a different server, but not necessarily.
I used to have a problem with Salon periodically where it would make me watch that commercial before accessing the site, - and sometimes when the commercial ended I wouldn't get the link to enter Salon. Sometimes even after reloading the page and watching the commercial again I'd have the same problem as if whoever designed the commercial simply forgot to include the link...and in those cases I'd just go away and try again the next day - but still, lost clicks for Salon. I don't remember it happening recently, though.
I've had that happen too at the WWL, but not for a while, and it BETTER not happen while I'm sacrificing precious moments to bone up for fantasy... And I gotta say - it has never happened to me at Salon, so kudos for that, although of course we are talking light years apart in terms of system load.
ESPN isn't the only one that has this problem. Many of the newer sites I've seen are trying to make money from having customers pay for premium content. And there are alot of problems with authentication and what people can see and what they can't. In fact it typically falls in to the area heating and cooling boise where I don't get to see the right content even though I paid for it. (wouldn't it be nice it was the other way around once in awhile!)