Setting the value of content

When mobile services were first introduced on a global level, one of the deployment issues that received a lot of attention was whether or not to charge for enhanced network services (that is, anything above basic connectivity). Most carriers at the time were looking for rapid adoption, and were adamant about giving everything away. I worked as a consultant at that time, and my consistent push back was no, you have to charge something, even if it’s only a symbolic amount. If you create an initial mindset that enhanced services are free, you’ll never be able to charge consumers for anything in the future. And now, several years later, the on-line and mobile content space is having the same conundrum.

There have been a lot of business models developed and deployed over the years to try and commercialize the vast amounts of on-line content that is continuously generated by professional authors, the news media, and consumers. Most commercialization models are either ad hoc pricing (popular with the analyst communities), subscription pricing (popular with the news media), advertising based content delivery (also media as well as User Generated Content), as well as, of course, free content (like this blog).

One of the core challenges content creators face is driven by the need for utility, uniqueness, and monetization. If I’m a market research professional with a large organization, and I need a report on a very specific topic in a hurry, I can trot over to an analyst site and cough up $3000 for a copy of exactly what I need. The information has high utility, it is unique, and I have the means to purchase it. However, if I’m doing research for myself, then that $3000 is coming out of my own pocket, and given the opportunity cost of $3000 (for example, a 65 inch LCD monitor), I am much more inclined to take my time and try to find a free version of the same material. If I’m lucky enough to find the free version, it doesn’t matter if it’s supported by advertising; clicking on the ads are optional, the important thing is that I’ve found what I want at a much lower price point.

This utility/uniqueness model works when the information is a reflection of extensive research and analysis done by experienced professionals. The problems facing the news media is that most of what they cover is current events, with limited analysis. If you want a quick and dirty overview of swine flu, you can find unlimited sources of information without having to pay a penny; therefore anyone trying to charge for it is one click away from being out of luck. They have utility, but they lack uniqueness.

User generated content faces an even higher hurdle; the barriers to entry are essentially flat, the rate of content generation is staggering, and as I’ve mentioned in prior blogs, very little of the information begin created is organized or tagged, and is therefore going to be very difficult to find or syndicate. This ecosystem is then further muddied by folks who are trying to create device specific readers such as Kindle, or the recent announcement by News Corp that they are looking to create a delivery device specifically for their own content. The default access device for any network based content is going to be a smart phone; you can build devices like the Kindle, but if you can get the same content on an iPhone, why bother with a new device that only serves a single purpose?

The only area that is a solid bet for direct monetization is high value information written by experienced professionals (utility and uniqueness). User generated content and news can generate revenue through advertising, but it s a secondary effect (that is, people are not paying for the content directly). Content creators in this group will still make money, but it requires a much broader reach since the click through rates are a small percentage of people who view the content. The more interesting challenge is how to apply monetization schemes to the 7th mass media channel (see the post from 3.3.09 for more detail). I will address that in my next post.

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