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Introducing Masterbucks: Epik’s Online Barter Currency

Epik is pleased to announce the general availability of Masterbucks™. Masterbucks is both an online barter currency and the “stored value” digital wallet in which those monies are stored. With Masterbucks, you can purchase goods and services not just within the Epik Network but from any site that supports the Masterbucks API. Masterbucks are easy to spend, and even easier to earn.

A Brief Bit of History

Those of you who have followed Epik are familiar with EpikBucks. The original concept behind EpikBucks was to create an online barter currency that would inject liquidity into the domain name market. Domainers, often “domain rich but cash poor”, could exchange some of their domains for EpikBucks, and then use those EpikBucks to improve their remaining holdings by purchasing other domains and domain development services. EpikBucks has been extraordinarily successful, creating the liquidity needed for hundreds of domainers to improve their domain holdings. Successful, certainly, but limited to a very particular audience and set of use cases.

With Masterbucks, Epik materially broadens the concept behind EpikBucks into an online barter currency available to anyone, and with which they can purchase just about anything, anywhere. Within the Epik Network, Masterbucks will be the primary unit of exchange, and as of today, replaces EpikBucks. As with the now-replaced EpikBucks, a dollar and a Masterbuck are equivalent, i.e. $1.00 = M1.00.

 

Content Creation for Fun or Profit

Masterbucks is a key component of the larger Epik ecosystem, and one of the linchpins to solving a huge problem in the domainer industry. As is widely known, good SEO and high Google page rank depends on high quality, unique content. Most domain investors are not in the business of producing an abundance of original content content, especially if they have to do it for more than a handful of sites. Up until now, the answer has been to source content from “content farms”. However, as Google’s Panda initiative made  clear, a lot of the farmed content is poor at best, and it’s use can backfire. How then can site owners source high quality content in a cost effective, scalable way?

The answer is user-generated content (UGC). If dozens or even hundreds of people write content for your site, then you will have copious amounts of the very thing that Google’s web crawlers prize the most: unique, continuously refreshed content from subject matter experts. This content can take many forms, from full-blown articles and product reviews, to comments, questions, and answers.

But why does someone contribute UGC? What’s in it for them? Up until now, the answer has mostly been the psychic benefits of sharing one’s thoughts with a large audience of readers — the boost to one’s reputation, and the sense of self-worth that comes when that content is appreciated. Ego satisfaction is certainly an excellent motivator, but, especially in these challenging economic times, so is money. And that is where Masterbucks comes in.

Site owners can offer, and users can accept, assignments for content generation which are paid in Masterbucks. The more they write, the more they earn. More importantly, the better they write, and the higher the reputation they’ve earned in various subjects (as determined by ratings, thumbs up, etc.), the higher they are paid; there is, essentially, a multiplier factor for highly reputed authors. Please note that this is a bi-directional effect — a poor writer will automatically earn less than the baseline fee just as a good writer will automatically earn more. Since the amount earned for any particular article is directly affected by their reputation, it is in the author’s financial best interest to write quality content. Write well, and you are paid more. Write poorly, and your compensation drops. In this way, Masterbucks helps ensure higher quality content.

New Infrastructure for Content Distribution

Epik is reworking its entire content generation and syndication infrastructure in order to support this concept of paid content. Previously disparate system such as Comments.com and Questions.com, as well as articles and reviews, are being rolled into a single new platform. This system will offer common mechanisms for editing and rating content, and allotting earned revenue. Below are some sample design comps. Please note that these are not final designs, but they should give you a general sense of where we are going.

You will hear much more about our new content creation platform over the coming months. Suffice to say, Masterbucks and UGC are tightly intertwined and integral parts of the larger Epik vision.

Spending Masterbucks

As E.M. Forster once wrote, “One of the evils of money is that it tempts us to look at it rather than at the things that it buys.” How then, to buy things with Masterbucks?

As with EpikBucks before, domain investors can use Masterbucks to purchase domains and development services. As for end users, the challenge is to integrate Masterbucks seamlessly into standard e-commerce workflows so that using Masterbucks is even easier than using more standard forms of payment. Over the next several weeks, Epik will be rolling out a unified shopping cart mechanism through which Epik sites (and any non-Epik sites that adopt the technology) can offer a single-click purchase experience using Masterbucks as the medium of exchange. Among the more obvious uses for this technology will be an updated “Buy Now” button on all Epik Product Portals and eCommerce sites.

Perhaps of even greater interest, however, may be a related technology rolling out several weeks after that: an “embedded paywall”, Epik’s solution for restricting access to certain online content to paid subscribers. Most sites charging for online content, e.g. The New York Times, place their content behind a paywall; users can either subscribe for a period of time, or in some cases, can purchase access to a specific article. The problem with paywalls is that the protected content must, by definition, be accessed only from the site containing the paywall. This limits one’s ability to syndicate revenue-generating content. Epik’s plan is unique: instead of placing the content behind the paywall, we wrap the content inside a portable, embeddable paywall that can be placed on any site, anywhere.

Content owners can distribute and/or syndicate their content anywhere they like, and users can view it, for the required fee, without having to leave the site they found it on. Attaching the paywall to the digital asset(s) instead of to the site itself makes it trivial to build premium content sites without having to develop an expensive paywall system. Instead, they simply upload content, and the paywall functionality comes along with the data. Naturally, the payment medium is Masterbucks.

Domain Investors can also continue to earn Masterbucks by selling domains to Epik and/or Epik members; as of today, Masterbucks replaces EpikBucks, and all transactions formerly done through EpikBucks are now done through Masterbucks. Existing EpikBucks balances will be honored for purchasing domains and domain-related services.

A Brief (But Illuminating) Digression

One of the alien races in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” is the profit-obsessed Ferengi, who do not allow their women to wear clothes, hold jobs, or earn latinum (money). In one episode, a character named Quark attempts is challenge these customs:

NILVA: Let me see if I understand. Giving females the right to wear clothes allows them to have pockets. Once they have pockets, they’re going to want to fill them with latinum.
QUARK: Which means they’re going to need jobs.
NILVA: And once they start earning latinum, they’re going to want to spend it.
QUARK: Which means Ferenginar will be expanding its work force and its consumer base at the same time.
NILVA: (excited) There will be plenty of profit for everyone!

That, in a nutshell, is the value of Masterbucks. Masterbucks provides each member of the Epik Network a digital wallet into which they can store earnings. Naturally, users will want to find ways to fill this wallet, especially by writing high quality, original content, precisely the commodity most needed by site owners. Those users can then use their earnings to purchase the products available on thousands of Epik e-commerce sites. Masterbucks thus provides users a mechanism to earn, store, and spend money, turning them into both a potential content-generating work force for site owners and an expanded, newly enriched customer base for those very same domainers. I trust that you, like our excited Ferengi, see the opportunity for everyone to profit, users and site owners alike.

Next Steps

For both end users and domainers, the first thing you should do is go to Masterbucks.com and create an account. This digital wallet is associated with your Identity.net account, so if you already have an Identity.net account, you can sign into your Masterbucks wallet — it already exists. You can add money to your Masterbucks account using Paypal or major credit cards.

 

For domain owners, we encourage you can create and post assignments, such as writing articles for your sites, that can be accepted by other Masterbucks users; this is an excellent way of getting original content onto your sites. If you like the content they provide, you then simply transfer the appropriate funds from your account to theirs.

End users should review both the current offers to earn Masterbucks, and special purchase offers available on various e-commerce sites. The volume of such offers will increase dramatically when the Masterbucks e-commerce modules become available next month.

We hope you are as excited about Masterbucks as we are. We believe that this game-changing technology can help make the Internet a more useful, engaging, and profitable place for users and site owner alike.

John Lawler
SVP, Products


Comments (5)

  • Michael S.

    June 16, 2011, 3:06 pm

    It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

    One of my favorite books is “Predictably Irrational” and it would suggest that this idea might not work. If you ask someone to help you change your tire, he’ll probably do it for that sense of satisfaction that he gets from helping a fellow human being. But if you offer that same person $5 for helping you change the tire, it removes the morality from the equation and it becomes a business transaction. He’ll weigh whether that $5 is worth the time and effort of helping you change the tire, and most likely decline. Hard to believe that someone would do the same thing for free that they wouldn’t do for $5, but the author of the book did many studies to back this up.

    I would assume the same principle applies to user-generated content. Once you remove the fuzzy feeling and make it a business transaction, unless you’re offering substantial money, I would assume for most that it would no longer be worth writing the content.

    Reply
    • John Lawler

      June 16, 2011, 6:27 pm

      Michael,

      Interesting point, and thanks for the book referral. I’ve downloaded the book to my iPad and will have to find time to read it. It does seem odd that people will do for free what they will not do for a small fee, but people can be funny. That said, I wonder if there may be a difference between direct and indirect financial benefits.

      Even the people who create content for free get something out of it. In most cases, the major driver is getting the warm fuzzies from having your thoughts read by a wide audience, earning some good karma, etc. As you point out, for many of these users, turning their content into the basis for a business deal may strike them as crass. Even so, there may still be some secondary financial benefits. Take StackOverflow, for example, where people earn reputation points for generating good content. These repetitional scores help display a level of expertise, which can become a useful way of attracting new consulting customers and/or employment opportunities. While I have no doubt that most of the members contribute almost entirely out of the goodness of their heart, there is the potential for an indirect financial benefit, in this case, new job opportunities. The difference, I think, is that the financial benefit was secondary and indirect — it basically came along for free.

      So you may well be right that authors would reject a small DIRECT payment for an article. Of course, in most cases, domainers are unlikely to pay for more than a few high quality articles, so we certainly expect that direct payments to authors will be the exception rather than the rule. However, we still think that a financial benefit can be attractive to many people, and so we’ve been exploring how to offer an indirect financial benefits to contributors, something that might be more palatable to the types of people you cite.

      Consider a site that contain three UGC articles written by different authors. On this page are also, say, Google Adsense ads as well as some affiliate store links. Largely by virtue of the articles on it, the page draws enough viewers to make, say, $15/week through ads and affiliate fees. We are exploring how to automatically allocate some of that revenue to the content authors based on their relative contribution, their reputation, and several other factors. This would be a much more indirect, revenue share style model in which one users earns $1.00, $0.35, and $0.75 per week, respectively (NB: numbers pulled entirely out of, well, you know where…). But, like the job opportunities previously mentioned, these payments are an indirect side effect of posting that content, not the raison d’etre for it, and perhaps, might seem less like a business transaction.

      It would be interesting to see whether such a system would be more palatable to someone who would reject a direct payment for that same article. Of course, for those who still didn’t want to receive payment, we could enable them to direct their passive earnings to the charity of their choice, in which case they’d earn a double sized dose of good karma.

      Thanks again for the though provoking comment, Michael. It will be interesting to see how this will all pan out as an incentive for the creation of high quality user-generated content.

      John

      Reply
  • Rob Monster - Epik

    June 16, 2011, 9:22 pm

    Marketplaces for freelance writers and content suppliers already exist.

    Associated Content (acquired by Yahoo) was a pure play in this category for giving content writers paid distribution. We think this model can be done better by closely tying content sourcing with distribution but without the overhead of a middleman.

    Content suppliers have also been around for a while. The most mature market is probably image libraries that saw how successful Getty Images was and entered the market with lower cost model. Video, Slideshow and Article syndication is still not there — most of this is free content.

    We see an opportunity to give content producers a better way to syndicate their content and get paid for it. MasterBucks is our platform for doing that without the mandatory overhead of managing 1099 tax compliance relationships with 10,000 freelancers.

    As context, I have some experience with point-based reward models. My previous company, Global Market Insite, Founded in 1999, runs the largest online panel in the world at GlobalTestMarket.com. The incentive is called MarketPoints and has been highly successful.

    Stay tuned.

    Reply
  • Michael S.

    June 20, 2011, 5:16 pm

    There are certainly marketplaces for content creation such as TextBroker, eCopywriters, etc. They pay quite poorly for writers and thus you end up with high school students and people who don’t speak English natively generating mediocre content. The talent pool at these marketplaces isn’t very deep.

    So if a 300 word article would net the author $10 which generally isn’t enough to attract quality writers, you’d have to offer maybe $20 or $30 to get good content. But if you’re paying in MasterBucks that have limited usage, you might have to give them $50+ because let’s face it, you can’t pay your bills with MasterBucks (yet anyway, I’m sure you’re on it :) ).

    I just wonder how long it will be before the government starts taxing virtual currency. Any thoughts on this?

    Definitely looking forward to seeing how this works out for you guys, I wish you the best.

    Reply
    • John Lawler

      June 20, 2011, 7:09 pm

      Michael,

      I cannot agree more with your observations about content farms. While there may be some gems here and there, for the most part, farmed articles are poorly written and mediocre at best. Our Product Portal platform supports the ability to import from content farms due to the scalability requirements of many large domain investors, but even in my recent Product Portals 3.0 announcement (http://epik.com/blog/launching-product-portals-3-0-where-content-is-king.html) I state that farms are not the place to go for original, high quality content.

      Why then, do we believe that we can get high quality content through our approach? The reasons is less about money than about reputation, and how the two interact. Within the Epik Network, authors will be earning reputational scores tied to their actual identity, even if they use pen names. Reputation points are earned or lost for both free and paid content. As such, we believe that authors will write with greater care. Earning a high reputation will help drive the psychic benefits of authorship, while also affecting the monies they can earn within the Epik Network. As I previously mentioned, we will be introducing positive and negative multipliers on the fees earned through content contribution; the better you write, the higher your reputation, while sloppy writing lowers one’s reputation. Since the reputation score affects payments, even the free content they write will help them earn more down the road.

      Many of the problems that plague the Internet, from spam to trolling to lulz, exist because anonymous users are not self-regulated by the consequences to their reputation; if one wants to take a jaundiced view, many people try not to at like jerks because they do not want to be seen as jerks. I think that we see some of this with respect to content. The lack of consequences (either reputational or monetarily) for poorly written content helps create the environment for the mediocre content available on content farms.

      We believe that adding reputation back into the equation acts as a powerful mechanism to swing the quality vs. quantity debate back in favor of quality. And as a side effect, this can help put more more into people’s pockets, both directly and indirectly. How much an article earns is entirely up to the owner of the site in question; Epik does not set prices, and some domain owners will be more generous than others, but Epik does mandate the positive and negative multipliers on those fees for good and poor content, respectively.

      As for your concern that we might have to pay authors extra because we are paying them in Masterbucks instead of dollars, we do not believe this will be an issue. Masterbucks can be easily converted to actual dollars (on a one-to-one basis, less a percentage-based fee), and is payable by check or into Paypal. We do no expect that users will need or want to do so often, since they will so easily be able to convert those Masterbucks into real products (the very products they might buy with those dollars), and without the fee. But the ability is already there. Because Masterbucks can be used to purchase very real products, and because they can be converted into real dollars, we think Masterbucks avoids many of the downsides of other virtual currencies.

      One of the things that separated Epik from other companies is that we are trying to build an ecosystem. Simply having a payment system would not affect the issues stated above, nor would a reputation management system that did not have real world effects. But because we can combine the positive effects of reputation and payment systems, we get synergies that can help drive behavior. In this case, that behavior results in better content.

      As you said, it will be interesting to see how this all works out, but I think this ecosystem approach is powerful and will prove out our hypothesis.

      John

      Reply

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