Guest post by Valerie Merahn Simon, senior vice president at BurrellesLuce.

There’s been a lot of debate lately about free versus paid content online. All this talk leads to one simple question. What features will motivate readers to scale the paywall?

Back in college I found myself at the campus store with less than a dollar in change in my pocket. To the left of the cashier was the New York Times. To the right was an assortment of gum and candy. As much as I wanted a pack of gum, the decision was a no-brainer. I paid for my New York Times and headed back to my dorm, reading as I walked.

Fast forward to January 2011 when the New York Times will roll out a new metered model that charges users after they exceed a set number of articles per month. Faced with the prospect of losing Stuart Elliott David Carr, Cathy Horn, or other favorite columnists, what will I do? Will I reach back into my wallet? Will you?

Does anyone remember the episode of The Office where Dunder Mifflin employees agonized over whether to pay $1.99 to read a Wall Street Journal article containing information about the fate of their company? I certainly wouldn’t think twice about paying for that pack of gum, so why the reluctance over the New York Times or Wall Street Journal?

Dan Schaible, senior vice president, content management and my colleague at BurrellesLuce, shared some insights on the subject of paywalls with me. He noted that successful implementation of a paywall or subscription model is based on two things: Content and availability.

“It is difficult, if not impossible, to erect a paywall in front of news everyone else has,” Dan explained. Publications that consist primarily of AP, Reuters, and other syndicated content will not fare well behind a firewall. Likewise, exclusives that will simply be read and reported/repeated elsewhere don’t belong behind a paywall.

So why WOULD someone pay for content? It’s simple really, if you consider the purpose of consumption and anticipated value.

MediaBistro’s premium content includes transcripts from live panels and “how to pitch” posts that offer freelancers insights to help them land assignments. A subscription is an investment (in your career).

Likewise, day traders cannot depend on information that is not verified. Institutions such as the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal will prevail in trust because of the resources they invest to assure that the information is trustworthy.

If you knew content from a particular source could give you information that would help you get a job or promotion, would you subscribe?

If you believed a source could give you a competitive advantage, would you be willing to pay?

If you knew that subscribing to a site would help provide financial support and awareness for a cause you believe in, would you invest?

What if the subscription included access/networking opportunities with other subscribers/members who share similar interests? Or came with privileges and discounts to other related services? What if payment was as easy as using EZPass is at any toll in NJ?

What rewards or value would it take to motivate you to go beyond the paywall?

Valerie Merahn Simon serves as a senior vice president at BurrellesLuce and writes a national public relations column for She is a regular blogger for BurrellesLuce Fresh Ideas.