July 04, 2008

AssetBar Launches Fanflow for Premium Messaging and Content

One of the major issues hindering the growth of many Web services today is that users are not willing to pay. We don't want to pay for using their service, we don't want to pay for content, and we usually don't want to see or click through ads. Yet, free services, like Twitter, Google Reader, or any other Web activity aggregator have a cost of creating an infrastructure to support user growth. The more popular the service, the more expensive it can be to develop and deploy the underlying technology. And if they don't get it right, outages and slowness are inevitable, as we've seen many times.

So, how can this be solved? Is it possible to try and make money from a Web microblogging and messaging service, when everyone else out there is giving away the store for free? AssetBar is working to find out.

AssetBar first reached my radar about nine months ago, when they were in the process of developing a next-generation RSS feed reader, with all the bells and whistles thought needed to compete with Google Reader. But in the months they worked to release their initial product, a rising number of external services became hooked into Google Reader shared link blogs, and other social aggregation sites, like FriendFeed, debuted, making their social RSS feed reading experience less differentiated and less appealing. Combined with some slowness and an unpolished GUI, the product didn't take off, despite early promise, and it was officially closed last week, even for the small handful of us who kept checking in.

But through this fast failure, the team learned a few things, including the need to build an infrastructure that could scale, and the need, especially, to monetize. And they think they've found a way to monetize content and microblogging, with a service called Fanflow.

Fanflow lets anybody who believes their content has value sell it directly to those who would like to subscribe. Fanflow lets people sell anything, from pictures, to messages, videos, or even MP3s and PDFs directly to paying users, while also maintaining access controls. In its first iteration, Fanflow is targeting those who have "fans", who are willing to pay a premium for content directly from the originator, be they celebrities, sports personalities, or musicians.

As they write in their launch post, The Profit Equation of Twitter-style Messages, today's Twitter users are focused on sending status updates, but their content has not yet been monetized, as Apple has done with iTunes. Fanflow is aiming to separate free messaging from premium messaging, and helping to create an opt-in "fan club" that brings fans together and lets them share and discuss the content with other fans.

Are they on to something? They certainly talk a big game, and they've already got paying customers. As their initial post says:
"Bringing payments and commerce to twitter-style messaging is too large to ignore. You just can’t have mobile + web this close together and ignore the great potent for fans and stars with lightweight commerce. There’s zero doubt that a secure commerce solution would enhance the value of Twitter and chart a path to profitability."
Their first test site is a comic strip called Achewood, which has been running on AssetBar's engine for more than a year.

As creator Israel LHeureux wrote me yesterday, there is a market for paid services over a Twitter-like engine. He writes:
"We started selling premium twitter-style messages a few hours ago, and our first customer literally signed up and paid for a 3 month subscription 2 minutes after we posted the banner... it feels SO FANTASTIC to be able to help fans and stars make some money, and help them connect in new ways."
Assetbar is looking to do more than become a micro-payments engine for Twitter-like services. They talked about being a proxy for Twitter back in February, and their initial attempt at a feed reader amassed 20 million unique assets from 100,000 publishers, but as they write, they're "bored of free", and want to turn the Web on its ear, from relying on cost centers, instead developing a way to leverage their infrastructure and make a digital sales system for anybody making content to make money. And they're not afraid. As they wrote, "It would be a shame to not take a shot at this beast and try for something better than free. I would rather try–and fail hard– than to not try."

We'll be watching.