The web has spawned an incredible flood of free information. Business portals and even individuals now publish and give away educational content as a primary business strategy. I’ve certainly participated in the production of and support for this kind of marketing content.
However, I’ve also noted a subtle transition of late. Because it has become so easy to produce and distribute information, it makes sense to put it out there for free. But, the job of absorbing the quantity, and in some cases dubious quality, of free information has become a very difficult task, precisely because it’s so easy to create. Free doesn’t always mean quality and even if it does, is it accessible? In fact, there are scores of free information sites that have gained little traction because the information was simply dumped into a giant bin.
The often quoted rallying cry of free is the mid 80’s expression attributed to Stewart Brand – Information wants to be free. (This quote was later used to build the primary thesis of Chris Anderson’s book FREE. )
However, when taken in full context I think it points to a dilemma that many information producers and consumers are now facing. Here’s the expanded text that surrounds the free quote.
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. – Brand’s remarks are transcribed in the Whole Earth Review (May 1985, p. 49)
I believe there’s an important shift in the mindset of free going on right now and much of it is being led by the adoption of paid applications and membership sites. While free information has value, the right information, in the right format, delivered at the right time is game changing and worth paying for. This is not a cry to go back to walled content, but a suggestion that we as information publishers understand the need to produce and deliver content that is both trusted and accessible in ways that people can receive the most value from it. And, that suggests a range of possibilities and opportunities for both publisher and consumer.
Business information producers need to start considering tiers of information access and delivery. For example, while blog posts often represent extreme value, a group of category specific posts collected into an ebook, can offer much higher value to someone seeking that specific information from a trusted source.
I produce a free podcast that anyone can subscribe to and listen to for free. And yet, hundreds of have chosen to plop down $2.99 for the new iPhone app that features the same content because they choose to consume the content in that fashion. I didn’t create the $2.99 app to make money, the price was actually set to offset the cost of production and distribution, but it’s telling that people are choosing to pay to receive the content in the way they want it.
Mainstream publishers are taking note of this shift as well and are rushing to create paid or metered content models. While I wonder if they will ever truly understand how to do this in a way that benefits the consumer, it may just save the magazine and news industry from total demise.
This is a slippery and dangerous topic and I fully expect that some will be indignant at the notion that publishers, businesses, or bloggers would consider actually charging for content when bucket loads can be had for free.
I believe that we’ve come to a point in time when information, or more accurately those that need this information, wants to be worth paying for. If delivered in the right way, people will do so gladly and thankfully. In fact, you may be doing your community a disservice if you don’t start analyzing ways to make your information more personalized, searchable and available in multiple forms.
So, what’s your information value proposition going to look like? Where does the art of filtering, aggregating and curating information fit? Can you make your brand of free information free and more valuable? Have you considered custom information packaging, information apps, and membership options? I think it’s time.