By posing questions to website visitors, Boston-based HelloToken hopes to supply answer to revenue quandary

A pop-up question from Boston startup Hellotoken, intended to help online publishers make money.
A pop-up question from Boston startup Hellotoken, intended to help online publishers make money.

A Boston startup is just beginning to test an intriguing solution to the challenges of being an online publisher or blogger: how to make money without slathering your site with ads, or charging visitors for access. HelloToken wants to enable researchers to pop questions to Internet users — which of these two logos do you like better? for example — and then pass along half of the fees they pay to the site’s operator. The startup, currently working out of the Harvard Innovation Lab, raised $400,000 from investors last month.

HelloToken co-founder Brian Truong says that setting up a paywall and charging visitors for access “just doesn’t work — you get 1.5 percent of the visitors to pay, if you’re a top-tier publisher.” Various schemes to encourage voluntary donations appeal to a similarly small segment of visitors. And ads generate a fraction of a cent every time they’re shown, notes Truong, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Harvard this past spring.

“My generation has grown up thinking that the Internet is free, and content is free,” says Truong. Rather than asking users to pull out a credit card, or hoping they click on an ad, “we allow users to pay without pulling out their wallet. They can tip a blogger by just answering questions.” For market researchers, Hellotoken says it will provide quick answers to questions at a lower cost than traditional research approaches.

The startup plans to charge about six cents per response, and pass along three cents to website operators. Questions can be directed to particular demographic groups, such as asking women between the ages of 25 and 30 how frequently they purchase a new computer, Truong says.

Truong says that about 60 small and mid-sized publishers are ready to conduct a pilot test of the system, which he expects to begin in October. Among HelloToken’s investors are David S. Rose of New York Angels; Jere Doyle of Oyster Angel Fund; Trent Gegax of The Gramercy Fund; and Iqram Magdon-Ismail, co-founder of Venmo, a digital wallet startup in New York.

HelloToken will compete with a product from Google called Google Consumer Surveys, which pays publishers five cents per answered question. Truong says that HelloToken’s software will be easier for publishers to install with a single click, and that the startup will focus on smaller niche publishers.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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