The never ending debate of Free Content vs. Paid Content: Who pays for your free content

Online publishing / digitization of content has changed the way publishing businesses are run. However, there are these two main things that have changed, evolved, or some say, developed with regards to the availability of content on the web and otherwise:

Availability of free content and its significant effect on the patterns of content consumption:

The shift of paradigm has probably been the fact that content production and diffusion is now virtually free. The media are free, and you find enough smart, reliable, educated content producers that do that as a hobby, to sustain your researches and needs. To top it all, plagiarising ‘User Generated Content’ is not being looked down upon half as much as we writers want it to; not morally nor punishably.

One example that I find extremely valuable to understand the shift in consumption habits, is newspapers in France. It’s been a few years that free newspapers have been available there. They are distributed freely at bus stations or subways entrance every morning, by specific teams. The newspaper format is smart: small pages (roughly A4), illustrations, concise articles, varied topics from politic to show-business. Basically what you want to read during a 20 min crowded ride.

I won’t explain their business model, it’s Google-like… you get it.

Now what are traditional newspapers doing differently to face this aggressive attack of their market? Of course they fight back on week-ends editions, with more and more quality content, specialized issues on big topics and so on. But essentially they fail: they are losing market-shares without really investing in new, better differentiated segments.

And clearly it’s about how they cope with digital technology. Free newspapers are ultra-formatted to take advantage of fast electronic text submissions and photos, with a cloud of pros, freelancers and bloggers to feed them. Paying newspapers have improved but are still stuck between two mindsets: paper vs. digital. The way for example the paper edition of any leading Indian Newspaper and the web edition are playing together illustrates this. They don’t play along so much. Different teams, different work.

You can’t tell ‘paid content’ from ‘free content’ in this digital age:

The problem begins with the way the question is presented-as many times happens. “Content? What do you mean?” -Anything that can be stored and delivered in paper, magnetic waves, electric impulses? Is ‘Content’ the Odyssey, a porn star’s interview, the Yellow Pages, a phone call, a classified ad, a recipe, images of man walking on the moon, Princess Diana’s dying photos, stock market last second information, Steve Jobs’ strategic plan for his company leaked by an insider, your therapist’s notes?

The real problem is that “content” is the way people into the entertainment and information business are calling what they produce and sell -and they are wrong. But the main problem of calling it content is because you transform something that is essentially a service into a product, bottle it up and sell it.

Hence us marketers are asked to be specific. Don’t ask your customers if they’re ready to pay for (bottled) content; instead, tell them if it is a great isles scotch, a drug for cancer or just plain water. And specify when and where: what need your content will fulfill. There will be occasions for high price water and a worthless whisky too…

As marketers, we should be vary and alert of the fact that, “free content is not really free, but someone is paying for it or rather for your time or attention.”

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