Free Isn’t The Problem

There’s a big discussion raging in the digital content world. It’s all about content, pay walls, and unworkable business models. I think of it as a “doh” moment for a lot of companies but in many ways it’s an out growth of our own stupidity. Has “free” killed the content business or has the folks running the content business killed the free model? Let’s discuss.

My take is this. For a very long time the media (content) business was for the most part based on delivering eyeballs to advertisers. The important thing to remember is that it wasn’t very easy to get in the game. There was a fixed supply of TV and radio license; printing presses are expensive, as is professional writing staff; the cable operators weren’t rushing to give out channel space – in short, there were some pretty significant barriers to entry.

Fast forward.  Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection is now a publisher/content producer/media business.  What’s killed the ad-supported business model in media is that there is way too much content, containing way too many available impressions, chasing a growing but still insufficient demand.  The key to a supply/demand model is that there has to be some control of supply, even if it’s artificially done via access to the market (see above).

The free media world today is content gone wild, or maybe avails gone wild.  While I’d love to believe that media buyers can distinguish between top-quality content and a lot of the crappy content farms that do nothing but grab disengaged eyeballs via SEO, some of the numbers generated by the aggregators are too big to ignore so money follows eyeballs, as had generally been the case.

So is “free” the problem?  Not really.  Putting content behind a pay wall is a viable business model but this isn’t HBO and a secure cable system we’re talking about (and by the way, we all know people with hacked cable boxes who have been stealing premium pay services for years, right?).  This is the open Internet and anything can be hacked, republished, proxy-served, or worse.  The problem is that the folks spending money on inferior content because it’s a few cents cheaper on the spreadsheet are killing off their ability to buy the high quality stuff because it’s going to go away.  Instead, they should be the first ones demanding less supply by refusing to support crap content.  If you want great environments in which to engage consumers that reflect highly on your brand, support them.  If I’m charging users for my content I’m probably not going to want to impose a great deal of ad weight on them as well (see pay-TV).  After all, that’s the traditional model – your attention in return for my content.

Anyone else have thoughts on this?

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