Content: Paid vs. Free

[fr] Quelques réflexions sur le fait que produire du contenu n'est pas gratuit. En général, celui-ci est subventionné soit par des pubs, soit l'accès est payant, soit il fait office de "budget marketing", ou alors les canaux de distribution sont payants.

Zeldman just wrote that content wants to be paid for, sending us to read Erin Kissane’s Content is Expensive (followed by Paying for it, which examines the four ways in which content can generate revenue).

Although I’ve been writing online for free for over 10 years now, I agree with the premise that content — especially good content — is expensive to produce.

I have a few thoughts around that.

If I can do something, and people have a need for that particular skill (or what I produce), it does not mean that (a) they are ready to pay for it or (b) if they’re ready to pay for it, that they will be willing to pay enough for it to be worth my time/skill/effort/expertise.

For example, I can write blog posts. I’m not too bad at it (I’m not the best, but I’m better than most people). Some of my clients need content on their blogs. I can do it for them. BUT there is a problem: often, the money they are willing to invest for that content, and the value it has for them, sets the price way too low for it to be worth my while. If we actually do go through and reach an agreement, chances are that I’ll feel underpaid and they’ll feel they’re wasting money.

One of my blogging friends is currently in this situation with a client — and maybe in some cases (like ours) part of the problem is the client not realizing exactly how valuable this content can be to them. But the fact remains that it’s not because somebody is ready to hire you to do something that it is a viable commercial endeavour. Another example of this situation is home arts and crafts — Suw and I had a discussion about this a couple of years back on Fresh Lime Soda (remember the times?) for home-made lace she was making: people would simply not be willing to pay a high enough price for it to cover materials and work.

This is also true in the sense that if people want something for free and enjoy it, it doesn’t mean they’ll be willing to pay for it. In that respect, I think that people like Philippe Barraud and Thierry Crouzet aren’t being very realistic if they expect to make their blogs paid content in the future. The fact that people read their blogs (and enjoy them) for free is not an indication that they would be ready to pay for it. That would be misunderstanding the power of free.

Erin talks about the subscription model in her second post:

Subscriptions didn’t keep most print publications profitable even when print was doing well—classified and display ads did. Legal databases, academic databases, super-specialized content . . . that’s something a lot of people or institutions will pay for. News? Bloggy or magazine-style content? Not so much. That’s the conventional wisdom, which seems to be validated by disasters like Newsday’s acquisition of 35 whole subscribers in its first three months of operating behind a paywall. Jack Shafer provides a nice summary of paid content woes in Slate:, listing the NYT’s TimesSelect, the LA Times’s CalendarLive, and Slate itself as publications that tried and failed to make subscriptions work. [...] So what’s the upshot? People will pay for content that is difficult or impossible to get elsewhere, either because:
  1. the information itself is unique, as with Consumer Reports, Cooks Illustrated, and the Gaming Industry Weekly Report, or
  2. the information is surrounded by obviously and uniquely valuable analysis and context, as with the financial newspapers.
The first is an easy sell; the second is a bitch and a half. If your content meets either of the above criteria, you’ll also be attractive to advertisers. Funny, that.

Philippe and Thierry are both “writing professionals” before being bloggers — in my opinion, paywalling content (just like slapping ads on pages) is pretty much an “old media” way of doing things.

Now, does it mean that I believe we writers should not be compensated for our work? Not more than my stand on filesharing means I believe that musicians and other artists should not be compensated for theirs. Let’s go back to Erin’s article Content is Expensive and look at the two remaining “monetization” solutions for content (aside from paywalling and advertising). This is where things become interesting:

  • Marketing. A lot of “free” content is subsidized by its function as a marketing tool for the content producers or the people who pay them. Many, many blogs work this way. A List Apart now runs small ads, but long before it did, it worked as a marketing channel, establishing the expertise and credibility of its publishers and writers. Most non-fiction books are also subsidized by their value as marketing tools: they don’t pay well enough to be worth the effort for royalties alone. Most commercial content strategy work deals with this kind of content.

“Marketing” or some kind of self-promotion is the obvious. For more years than I care to count now, I have been answering the tired “so, how do you make money with your blog?” question with “I don’t. I make money because of my blog.” The time I invest in writing on my blog is my marketing budget.

And that doesn’t mean there is no love, or passion, and that this writing is narrow-mindedly self-promotional. I was a blogger before I became a social media professional, and will most probably continue being a blogger if I change my line of work. I am a thinker, and a sharer, and by genuinely providing content because I love writing and I hope I can be useful to others, I happen to also be promoting my business (business which, incidentally, grew out of this blog — and not the contrary).

This is a tough message to pass on to a client: “The money you’re paying me to write is actually marketing money. The content I provide will add value to your website for years to come, and help build your reputation and credibility. How much is that worth?” It’s not just words on a screen, disposable stuffing like so much of what is unfortunately filling our newspapers today. Scanned today, gone tomorrow. Great writing, online, has no expiry date.

Back to Erin:

  • Paid Delivery Channels (The New Hotness). The paid iPhone app is a way of getting people to cough up money for content that they normally wouldn’t dream of paying for so they can receive it in a convenient way. Kinda like how we used to pay for newspaper delivery instead of going to the library to read the paper for free. (Spoiler: there is nothing new under the publishing sun.) We’re going to see a lot more of this in the nearish future as publishers realize that the race to free has resulted in a pileup of bleeding, sad people with no income.

This, honestly, is something I find exciting. As a customer, I will definitely pay for convenience. I may not be inclined for the right to own a file which happens to be a song or an ebook (the slippery terrain of IP — my jury is still out on that one, to be honest) but I will without hesitation buy a song on iTunes, because it’s easy to look up, easy to pay for, unexpensive enough, lands directly on my iPhone and computer, is guaranteed good technical quality, and it comes with cover art. I’ll pay for an iPhone app if it makes it easier for me to access content that is precious for me. I’ll pay for a concert if it allows me to watch a song performed live :-) (I’m not sure that’s still in the “delivery channels” department, though…)

Ah well, this was supposed to be a short blog post with just a few links. Now look at me. No wonder I get blogging-anxiety when I haven’t written in a while.

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This entry was posted in Blogging, My work and tagged ads, blogging, content, delivery channels, free, marketing, paid, subscription, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Content: Paid vs. Free

  1. Pingback: Du “droit” de gagner sa vie — Climb to the Stars

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  3. Peter Childs says:

    Very interesting & insightful piece.

    As a producer of content (video cooking) I have been struggling with the issue of paid content – or more specifically how to implement it in a way that is consistent with the long term goal of the site.

    While I’m leaning towards syndication even that decision is fought with choices that impact the long term viability of the site.

    One thing though, by controlling the delivery of the content & using copyright allows producers some leverage if partners are interested in it.

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  5. Pingback: Blogazines and Partial Posts. Blog, What Happened to You? — Climb to the Stars

  6. Bo Yuan says:

    The concept of paid content is funny. In the old model, content attracts attentions, attention generates ads hits. The minimal cost of the daily newspaper really should just cover distribution cost. In the new days, the distribution cost is almost zero, so all online content needs to be free, period.

    If you still consider selling one-lumpsum or monthly subscription for “premium content” to your potential readers, remember, you are drastically lowering the value of the content by reducing the number of people who can access it.

    As for your clients, it would be reasonable to set up some sort of profit sharing model with low or zero down payment to the content writer. That would be less risky to your clients; however, not sure if the market actually accept it. (e.g. your clients turns to your competitors instead)

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