Micropayments – huge opportunity ahead?

Micropayments are creating a brand new revenue stream for digital media, mobile and technology companies. An easy payment mechanism such as automatic billing significantly lowers the bar for making small purchases (up to a few dollars) on the web. For such small payments, it turns out, the bar is oftentimes not the users’ willing to pay. Rather, the showstoppers have been the overhead (pulling out credit card, filling up digits into the form, and the transaction processors’ minimum fee) and uncertainty associated with such transactions. Systems that remove these overheads and uncertainities by giving the user a seamless, trustworthy payment and billing mechanism are well positioned to unleash a huge new revenue stream on the web.

Apple’s iTunes and iPhone apps are the best examples of this. The seamless purchase mechanism and small amounts involved transform the user’s software purchase decision from a meditated one into an impulse purchase. The result is the ongoing “Gold Rush” where thousands of paid apps are being downloaded hundreds of thousands of times for a few dollars each. What does this signify for similar platforms on the web?

There is an immense potential to monetize online media and content through micropayments. Online micropayment systems have been around for almost as long as the Internet. However, several factors prevented first generation micropayment systems from taking off, including a) Lack of differentiated short-form content and applications that users would pay small amounts of money for b) Lower comfort with online credit card transactions c) Lack of trustworthy micropayment systems that presented a seamless experience to the user and were widely adopted.

However, with the wave of online apps (including those on social networking platforms) and the iTunes-iPhone mindset, all of the three factors above seem to be changing substantially. There is a large variety of apps, music, videos that is now legally available. And customers are more comfortable using their credit cards online, thanks to the increasingly high adoption rates of online ticketing and travel. 

Players to watch out

Besides Apple, there are a number of players who are positioned to take advantage of this trend. Here is an attempt to capture some of the categories:

  • Startups such as Spare Change and Tinker which are enabling monetization of social network apps and blogs. Space Changeis apparently already processing $30M of micropayments annually. Expect to see social networks such as Facebook and MySpace start their own competing micro payment systems, or buy some of these small players.
  • Mobile phone companies, which already have billing relationships with customers are really well positioned to build micropayment systems of their own. Indeed, Apple is eating what could have been AT&T and Verizon’s lunch, had they given up their walled-garden approach as the times evolved.
  • Similarly, ISPs and Cable companies such as Comcast/CIM have an opportunity to create or integrate micropayments into their broadband customer sites, use micropayments to monetize some of the premium content on their new media sites, and charge customers directly through their monthly bills. 
  • Other usual suspects who have customer relationships and/or customers’ credit card numbers include Internet giants Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Amazon and Ebay/Paypal, and eCommerce providers.
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