What are you willing to barter in exchange for content?2009-04-09
Back in 1984, Stewart Brand uttered the words that have become the slogan of the free content movement: “Information wants to be free.”
Those who advocate free content, however, are taking Brand’s statement out of context. At the first Hacker’s conference where he made the statement, he was talking about the tension between the value of content and the vanishing cost associated with distributing it. Here’s what he actually said:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
While the free content movement has embraced the latter part of Brand’s quote, paid content advocates haven’t adopted “information wants to be expensive” as a motto. Maybe they should. At the same time, maybe they should argue that compensation for that content doesn’t have to assume a monetary form. In the world of barter, there are things besides money that have value.
KPMG, the professional services firm, has found—in the UK, at least—that Internet users are willing to tolerate a brief delay in getting to otherwise free content to watch an advertisement. In its third annual Consumers and Convergence study—produced by the company’s Communications and Media practice—KMPG found that more than 60% of British consumers said they were willing to receive the Internet ads as long as the reward of free content awaited them at the other end.
If people are willing to pay for “free” content with their attention, you have to wonder what else they might be willing to give up. Contact information? Participation in a brief survey?
Ultimately, it’s a question of convenience. The free content movement has a point when they argue that there’s so much free content available that nobody has to dig into their wallets to get at it. But there’s plenty of free music available, too; yet people seem more than happy to give Apple (or WalMart or Amazon) 99 cents rather than go through the hassle of finding and downloading illegal music via Bitorrent or Limewire. Convenience makes it worth the 99 cents.
The same concept can easily apply to other kinds of content. Sure, if I dig around long enough, I might find an alternative source for the information I need. But if getting to the easy-to-find, original, authoritative document only costs me my name and email address (for addition to a lead list), four answers to questions on a poll, or 20 seconds with an ad, I’ll be happy to enter into that bargain. It’s more convenient than starting a new Google search and assessing the quality of the resulting links.
In the survey, only 16% of respondents said they would rather pay for the content and avoid the ads. This suggests different views of what it means to pay. Money is the issue, not other kinds of exchanges. Of course, this is the UK we’re talking about. Worldwide, more than 40% said they’d rather pay than receive ads. That’s a lot more than 16%, but it’s still a minority.
Tudor Aw, KPMG’s convergence partner, said, “This willingness to view adverts in exchange for free content is good news for advertisers and is perhaps a pointer in the ongoing debate over whether advertising or subscription is the right revenue model.”
Ultimately, this could be one of those rare cases of having your cake and eating it, too. Content can be free and yet you may still be able to extract something of value in exchange for it.