What You REALLY Pay for Content and What This Means for Marketing

“The best things in life are free”–so goes the 1959 hit Motown single Money (That’s What I Want) by Barrett Strong.

Content, on the other hand, is never free. You pay something for content, knowingly or not, though there’s not always a price tag or exchange of money. You pay in the form of time spent with content, divulged online behavior, personal data and–yes–cold, hard cash.

The revelation on price comes from a discussion on value.

This idea came initially from an off-hand remark I took from a discussion that many content marketing fans find shocking: “when you give information away for free, it essentially means that it has no value.” Hearing this from the (still anonymous) head of an award-winning content program sent my head spinning. Quickly, I took to the blogosphere, wrestled the claim in this post and sent the subdued remainder of an argument bouncing around discussion forums, the Twittersphere, and the like. It soon became clear that when content works, not only is it valuable both for the provider and the audience, but that you–the audience–pay for it. Always.

Knock, knock. You’ve been called to action.

The original, analogue example was a report–though any message, note, flyer, prospectus or other dead tree product addressed to you or put directly in your hands will do. Once you have the content in front of you, you make a conscious decision whether to toss it, skim it, or consecrate a few minutes to make sense of the message. In this brief window, you’ve already been called to action. As the seconds tick by, you’re engaged with the content–and you are NOT doing much else. In the time it takes you to pick up the content and decide your next move (ignore, skim, set aside for later, read), you’ve already paid an opportunity cost.

The more you like, the more you pay.

Your opportunity cost represents the lowest level of engagement–the bottom rung (Rung 1) on the price of admission ladder which illustrates what you pay as your involvement with a provider’s or website’s content increases. The more an audience engages with content (a sign that they attribute more value to it) the further they’ll move up the ladder–paying more time, data and cash along the way.

Value and engagement drive the audience to pay more in terms of time, data and money.
The price of admission ladder. Value and engagement drive the audience to pay more in terms of time, data and money.

Climbing the ladder.

As you move online, you continue paying opportunity costs that vary in length from obnoxious pop-up ads to hour-long videos. All the while, an invisible transaction takes place. On Rung 2, cookies record and store and your IP address, geographic location, and web-surfing behavior. As you spend more time on the site, you may move to Rung 3 by creating an account, or using social sign-in to identify yourself–thereby divulging personal identification information such as name, phone number, email address, interests etc. B2B sites may hit you up for corporate identification information (company’s name, your professional role, number of employees, sales turnover, etc). Divulging this information can unlock protected or premium content including special reports, tutorials, and the like.

You reach Rung 4 by opting into periodic communications from the provider–checking a box or signing up for a newsletter. Here you essentially enter into a tacit agreement for the provider to eat up more of your future opportunity costs in exchange for the convenience of being altered to new developments/stories/offers that appear on the site. Rung 5 introduces the distinction between free-of-charge and paid content by giving you a sample, i.e. 30-days free or 10 free articles per month. It serves to convey a single message: “See this paywall? there’s great stuff behind here and we’ll give you a taste while you’re looking for your wallet.”

You cross into Rung 6 territory once you’ve forked over money for content. It’s an initial purchase that likely bite-sized so as to be more affordable and less of a commitment than Rung 7’s full-on subscription.

Not all ladders are equal.

The price of admission ladder shows all possible payments paid by an audience, though each website or content provider’s actual model will vary. If you discover and immediately fall in love with a newspaper’s online site you may only traverse rungs 1, 2, 3 and 7. B2B websites not equipped with e-commerce functionality may only build out rungs 1 through 4.

Implications for marketing.

Understanding the costs your audience pays to engage with your content can be helpful in a number of ways.

1. Design a sturdy ladder. Figure out which height you would like your audience to reach and make it as painless as possible for them to get there.

2. Don’t leave money on the table. It would be a shame to leave data unused in your web team’s closet. Do you have a robust and compliant data collection system in place? Crunch it for more insight about your clients and prospects.

Does it make sense to think about free/paid content engagement as a series of costs paid by the audience? Have you seen something similar? Can you think of other uses for the price of admission ladder?