‘Free Content Has No Value’

When free = worthless.

The other day I happened to speak to a marketing director who laid out the details of the brand’s distribution of thought leadership content. The firm in question has a solid reputation for producing high quality pieces and, as I learned during the discussion, seeks to imbue them with an air of exclusivity–meaning that they print and deliver hard copies to the target audience by snail mail. No email blast, no pdf posted to the web. In describing this particular strategy, the director emphasized how this exclusivity reflects the characteristics of a premium brand, adding that “and of course, when you give information away for free, it essentially means that it has no value.” The corollary: only paid content has any worth.

When you give information away for free, it essentially has no value…

Premium content.

There’s a certain attractiveness to the idea that top content comes at a price. After all, paying for content does indicate premium value: think cable/satellite television, industry/client market reports, the Michelin guide (their green guides for travel or the red one for restaurants), stock research, sites with paywalls, etc. So people do pay for content, and in general that content tends to be of higher quality than the free version. Most firms do give it away for free, so those that can convince clients to buy it clearly make a compelling offer. In a sense, creating content that people will purchase could be seen as the pinnacle of content marketing success. Yet, by most accounts, content marketing should provide content for free (or at negligible cost).

Are innumerable marketing professionals damaging their companies’ bottom lines by creating something of value (with a price tag) and simply giving it away?

Widespread panic.

Here I’ve spent years trying to refine content marketing efforts for financial services firms–which relies on providing useful information as a service in order to gain the trust and credibility of prospective clients and eventually make a sale. If we break it down to price per word, the customer paid…absolutely nothing. Was that a mistake? Could content marketing, which has been recently garnering a lot of interest across the intertubes, be a hoax? Or worse, are innumerable marketing professionals damaging their companies’ bottom lines by creating something of value (with a price tag) and simply giving it away? Surely, these questions merit serious investigation.

Multiple response.

While I find the notion that valuable content should command a price on the market compelling, this seems a very high bar that few firms actually meet. It’s hard to imagine an average or even above average marketing team convincing management and sales teams that monetizing their output takes precedence over brand building, lead generation and other key marketing objectives.

So the contention that free content has no value misses the mark for several reasons:

  1. One need not conflate price and value. They’re not the same thing. I value many things that do not have a price. Within a corporate paradigm, a firm may find it more valuable to provide content to its customers than not provide/create it–precisely because it’s appreciated by customers, bringing reputational benefits to the firm along with a more robust sales pipeline and perhaps even more revenues–which would clearly be more profitable than keeping the information locked away in a dusty archives.

  2. There is a cost/price paid, but it’s not paid to you. When someone takes the time to consume your content, they pay an opportunity cost–that is, they choose to spend their time doing that rather than something else. A key goal for marketer’s is to facilitate a purchase, not put up paywalls or roadblocks at every step along the way.

  3. It’s free anyway. The brand in this example prides itself on exclusivity–but doesn’t go so far as to charge for content–since that’s not the main business. Rather, they achieve the appearance (or illusion) of exclusivity by artificially restricting distribution of their content (offline only). Clever, but still free to consumers.

  4. It’s costing you. There’s a danger that the brand has effectively limited the upside to its content (that is, restricted the potential benefits that could have been gained from it) by limiting distribution. Perhaps the firm in question could  achieve more with the same amount of content by effectively recycling it online. This could include pre-release using the current method (snail mail) and later running online efforts (teasers, sign-up drives) that could be conducted without damaging the brand’s exclusivity by using equally exclusive online channels, such as native advertising, invitation-only forums, etc. Movie distributors have shown that carefully staggering content across multiple channels can multiply the rewards (a paid content example, but worthwhile nonetheless). Online distribution means more than simply posting a pdf to the web.

While some brands may find that a paid-content business model works well, the trend in journalism and elsewhere clearly suggests otherwise. The majority of firms must find ways to make free content work: the financial success of companies like Google suggest that it can be done. But an ad-supported revenue stream is not the only option. Firms that combine content marketing with consultative selling (most professional service firms) could charge for workshops or staff training, while some may decide that the benefits of having an audience engage with their content is reward enough.

What do you think? Is paid content the zenith of content marketing? Does monetization align or conflict with other marketing objectives?