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Do you hope to get audience support for some of your online content or from some of your audience?

Or both? Or do you expect neither?

Image of Kachingle widget, actual sizeCompared with other online publishers, public broadcasters are in a great position to get support from at least a portion of their users — voluntary support. They were successfully winning that for decades before the Web came along.

Now a dot-com called Kachingle is starting to roll out an online service designed to make voluntary support easy for even the most Internet-dazed, pledge-averse, marginally committed and low-budgeted Medici to virtually toss coins, or dollars, to reward the online media they love and appreciate.

For the company’s beta phase, which began a month ago, little pale orange-and-green widgets like the one at left are starting to appear on a few websites. Cynthia Typaldos, the founder, gave her pitch at public broadcasting’s Integrated Media Association conference in February, and Current found a variety of nonprofits interested in trying the service.

  • Boston’s WGBH might try Kachingle on some pages, for targeted kinds of givers, but wants the company to design a widget that fits on their website, says Teri Lamitie, director of online marketing.
  • MinnPost, the Twin Cities news site, plans to test the beta version, says Karl Pearson-Cater, operations director.
  • Most of Kachingle’s prospects are news publishers, but other kinds are interested. Symphony Space, a Manhattan performance presenter, expects to try it, says Steve Rathe, a public radio music producer who works closely with the group.

“We’re ready to get down with them,” says Rathe.

“Voluntary crowdfunding” through Kachingle isn’t going to replace the big checks that Donors 1.0 have been willing to write, the company admits, but it gets around some of the impediments to online support of content.

Notably, it carries very low “mental transaction costs.” Kachinglers don’t have to enter their credit card numbers or PayPal passwords into cranky e-commerce mechanisms. They don’t even have to think about how much to give, as they would in plain-vanilla micropayment systems.

Instead:

  • Users sign up with Kachingle to allot $5 a month for all the online media they consume and want to contribute to. It’s debited from the user’s account.
  • Website operators sign up and place a Kachingle “medallion” widget on their sites.
  • When a user visits a site displaying the medallion, and feels any kind of warmness about the site, she clicks the medallion, causing electronic communion between the Kachingle’s cookie in her browser and the giant whirring computer somewhere in the clouds that keeps track of her bestowals.
  • At month’s end, Kachingle divides the $5 among the web publishers she liked that month. As in pubcasting-donor relationship theory, more visits means more chingles.

Those are the basics, but the company has dozens of additional features in mind, as discussed below. In the meantime, Current promises not to describe the step-by-step directions for every similar service that pops up — not immediately anyway.

A number of companies have dreamt up online payment systems that could come in handy for web publishers, especially desperate newspapers. SurfShare and Payyattention have been testing their moves, writes Steve Outing, online media columnist for Editor & Publisher Online, and he has analyzed others with quite different strategies.

But Outing says his money is on Kachingle. (Literally, a little. Outing discloses having a “small financial stake” in the company and having served as an advisor to it.)

On the nonprofit side, Doc Searls, a Silicon Valley columnist and techno-populist, envisions a somewhat similar system for supporting online media as part of a much broader Vendor Relationship Management concept that he and like-thinkers are developing at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center (Current, July 20).

Though Kachingle is steaming ahead, however, at least a few potential competitors have dropped out. In recent months, Payyattention has turned its attention to other schemes and Tipjoy decided to shut down.

That little? That much?

About those details: One of the big ones is how small the proposed monthly donation is. But Kachingle officials say $5 is just for starters. “Ultimately, the user will have the opportunity to increase the amount,” says Mike Krigel, Kachingle’s director of business development.

Another detail is bigger than some public broadcasters might expect: Kachingle proposes to keep $1 out of every $5 donation.

This, too, is not permanent, says Krigel, and is likely to drop. For now, however, the company wants a substantial rate, what with monthly donations set at $5, heavy startup costs and PayPal’s flat 30-cent processing fee paid by Kachingle for every monthly donation.

Twenty percent is a high fee if you compare it to the single-digit rates charged by companies that process credit-card transactions. But it’s not so bad if you compare it to the costs of direct-mail solicitations to total strangers, with their low rates of donation.

Rathe points out that a service like Kachingle finds donors who might not respond to other kinds of fundraising. “They’re not merely collecting money for us, but they’re aggregating users,” says Rathe. Kachingle is developing an infrastructure with social-network characteristics that Symphony Space was not prepared to match on its own. Money earned this way would be “found money,” he says.

Besides, the 20 percent fee isn’t a lot of money when a website is getting just a fraction of a donor’s monthly $5. If the dollar amounts get bigger, Rathe says, “we might want to revisit the 20 percent.”

Kachingle’s got an interesting idea, says Lamitie at WGBH, who sees it as an add-on fundraising method that might be the best way to interact with some givers. But surrendering a 20 percent fee to the company, she says, “would be absolutely unacceptable” if it involved a major stream of giving for the Boston station.

Krigel says Kachingle expects the fee to drop to 10 percent or 12 percent.

For now, the main job is to get consumers accustomed to the idea of donating voluntarily for content they now regard as free.

But public broadcasters and other web publishers want to get into the details right away.

Payment processor: Kachingle is starting with PayPal as its only processor, but it expects to add other options, Krigel says.

Deductibility: Yes, the company would like to rig up a way to make the donations tax-deductible where appropriate, he says.

Online medallion: What about that sizeable widget? The original horizontal rectangle is 234 x 60 pixels — one-quarter to one-third of the width of a screen. But Krigel says smaller alternatives are coming: 160 x 60 and 120 x 60.

Donor names: Pubcasters are quick to ask whether Kachingle will share the names and e-mail addresses of the stations’ little online angels. This request creates a little awkwardness, because Kachingle knows that many potential Kachinglers prize their anonymity and freedom from solicitations.

What users want will come first, the company routinely insists. “This is about the user,” says Krigel. “We don’t want to look like a spam service.”

But to some extent the service is also about the publishers who must agree to put Kachingle medallions on their websites—and must participate in large numbers if it is to become a well-known and ubiquitous payment option.

So, what about the names and e-mails?

Website publishers are free to try enticing their Kachinglers to reveal that info, Krigel says. And if the donors gave their actual names, the publishers will be able to find them by matching names.

“I think $5 donations are incredibly valuable,” says KQED web chief Tim Olson. “But not $5 and never-see-you-again.”

Kachingle also plans social-networking functions that could give users an incentive to donate more. Reports about their recent Kachingling will follow them into the maw of the Facebook relationship machine, where widgets will inform them what sites their friends are giving to, and how much, says Cynthia Typaldos, Kachingle founder.

A user donating $5 a month overall, may learn from Kachingle that his friends are giving $10, she says. “People are looking for social signals” about what they should do.

Big givers may win badges to display on their Facebook pages. That’s one of Krigel’s favorite features. He expects users will enjoy Kachingling directly for the columnists and other features they especially enjoy.

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