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So much free content, so why pay?

‘Free’ and ‘superfluous’ have come to resemble a kind of base state for a lot of online content. The same stories and videos are repeated endlessly across free news sites, blogs, Twitter feeds and video-hosting sites – to name just a few. Undifferentiated content allows for more or less indiscriminate consumption as a recent survey demonstrated: those surveyed admitted that they “don’t notice which sites I look at” when reading the news online.

But the fact that we can consume content indiscriminately doesn’t mean we can no longer be discriminating consumers. In amongst all the videos of twerking celebs, the web still provides the perfect space for content that can differentiate itself. As the amount of impersonal content grows, consumers are increasingly looking for content that’s relevant to them, and has value beyond that available everywhere else.

The idea that we can charge for content ‘just because it’s content’ has become defunct (in an online setting, at least). Audiences can now pick and choose between a hitherto unprecedented amount of content – giving them an unprecedented amount of influence over what is successful. At the same time, the role of the audience has changed as the relationship between provider and consumer becomes more interactive – a shift driven in part by social networks and comment sections, and perhaps indicated more recently by the rise of large-scale crowdfunding and crowdsourcing projects. As a result, content providers who want to retain and monetize their audience must pay attention to them.

On top of this, if consumers are going to pay for content, that content must offer some kind of added value over that which is available for free. That may be through offering unique insight, rather than just reporting; a focus on quality instead of a focus on generating hits; an emphasis on exclusivity, rather than repeating what’s available elsewhere. It’s no coincidence that those media providers who seem most adept at getting people to pay are those like the Financial Times, which offers focused, high-quality, insight-driven content to a specific audience.

Is all of this enough to ensure a paying audience? Possibly not. Nicholas Lovell – whose book on the subject, The Curve, was published recently – argues that there are always going to be people who will exploit free access to content, and will never convert to paying customers. But, where free content is available, Lovell claims that the majority of those who pay will be doing so simply because they ‘love’ what they’re paying for. Paying need not be a forced necessity to access content, but can be a voluntary transaction related to the content’s perceived value.

That’s still only half the battle. Even when providers have valuable, unique, relevant content, and have solved the problem of attracting consumers that love it, how should they charge for it? Common solutions don’t always seem appropriate. Paywalls, whilst effective for some, aren’t working for everybody. The rise of digital subscriptions hasn’t exactly been meteoric, and can act as a barrier to more casual would-be buyers. If a one-size-fits all content model isn’t going to work anymore, it seems unlikely that a one-size-fits all payment model will.

A recent study by Znak It! found that on-demand or micro-payments for content were significantly more effective amongst 18-34 year olds than any other age group. The report suggests that this is due to the ways in which younger people access online content: they are far more likely to ‘just happen to come across’ content when browsing the net. The habits of younger web users make a system of open, on-demand payments ideal – in direct contrast to older age groups, who are more likely to seek out specific content, and so may be a more receptive audience for paywalls and subscriptions.

Alternatively, Lovell suggests a variable pricing model (the kind, he claims, responsible for Kickstarter’s success) – one which offers different pricing options to suit all consumers, from those who just want free content, to those who ‘love’ the content, and want to pay for it.

These are just a couple of options: at this stage, it’s far from obvious what the best solutions will be. Both, however, recognize that as our relationship with content changes, traditional ways of charging for it may not be appropriate any more. This might be particularly true when it comes to younger consumers, who, for better or worse, aren’t locked into ‘traditional’ payment methods, but may be more receptive to new models that fit better into the way they access content.

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