The question occupying all media folk is 'will content sell online?' To which there is not yet a satisfactory answer.
I suggest that the question itself is nonsense and hence the argument for or against the sale of ‘content’ is fallacious.
Okay, that's a big claim, so where am I coming from?
I'd suggest that in the real world (or offline) no one ever buys 'content'. They do, of course, buy newspapers, books, magazines, reports, directories etc… all of which are brands – or bought mainly because of the brand and only on occasions because of the content.
When I buy a newspaper, I am buying a package. Yes, I get ‘content’, but that content is wrapped within a brand.
Brands have trust and values and relationships with me and other consumers. But publishing brands have more – they have a voice – a set of coherent opinions which lead me (willingly) to see the world through the eyes of the editor or author.
I believe that in traditional form, we have always bought the brand first and content second, although I accept that we can be seduced by a headline or enticed to buy a evening paper to read the cricket score on the way home.
However, most content brand purchases are repeat purchases. I buy Animals and You for my younger daughter when I pass through the airport – I used to be interested in the free gift, but no more – as I know she likes it what ever content it contains.
So, the ‘content’ argument has only occured because the internet allows us to break up the brands into pieces of content. This was never possible before – you couldn't buy a single article from The Times Newspaper, so the question never arose.
But here is the interesting thing. I love the new layout on Yahoo.com. It allows me to place all my favourite brands – and even my own brands – on the left hand column – so every morning I can review all the new headlines from my favourite brands before I decide which to read.
My use of google has fallen – and I probably spend 90% of my time on my favourite brand sites. I bet yours has too?
We are beginning to see the creation and defense of internet publishing brands.
So, I think we – as consumers – begin from the aggregate or brand.
Take a novel even. You may argue that you buy the novel because of its content? I would disagree. You can not sample the content of a novel until you have read it – at which point you either don't need to buy it or just return it to the library. However, some people do buy their favourite books that they have already read (from the library).
Music is different – as you can sample or even listen to the whole track on the radio before you buy it. Hence, it makes sense to sell tracks on the internet – but books are not the same.
With books I am buying into the brand – the brand of the author, the review on the back cover, the brand of the bookshop, how it feels in my hand or how it is laid out before my eyes on a screen. I may also be seduced by the price offer or the title or the smell of the book. I may even sample the content – read a page or two – but this is just to confirm that the contents are as I expect them to be – that they are consistent with the branding messages.
The reason Huffington post (a free online newspaper) does well is because it is a very powerful brand. One of its brand values is free access and make a donation – that is written into its DNA. I wouldn’t like to run this publication as it is deeply political and close to fund raising and quite a long way from publishing – but that is what it is.
I don’t expect my favourite newspaper to behave like this – and my relationship with it can be different so I’ll pay for it even though the Huffington Post might be free.
When we think first about ‘what would make you buy this brand online’ then I think we can have a debate about how to make content sell.
If a FMCG company starts from ‘how to make money from my online brand’ then one of the first things it does is start publishing or pushing ‘content’ onto Youtube etc… This makes us think that they are publishing businesses – which I would disagree. They are brands that are using publishing and broadcasting to sell. They are treating it as a marketing channel.
The challenge then, for media companies, is to ensure that their brand remains relevant for its audience and I believe that the essence of this lies in the transparency of media, which is not what you expect if you play a video game provided by a product seller.
Now, the argument is turned on its head and we ask 'will publishing brands sell online' we can have Polish newspaper launches (from a German publisher) making money and we can have a free to air political online newspapers.
It all makes sense – each is sticking to its brand. Which is truely the only way to make money online.