Saturday, July 04, 2009

Free! Ok, sorry, almost free!

One of the hottest attractions in a trade show is the free popcorn. But it isn’t truly free. You don’t have to pay any money to get it, but you will have to barter something - a few minutes of your attention. Depending on how much 5 minutes is worth to you, the popcorn is either free or expensive.

Memories of that yummy popcorn were triggered not by hunger, but by Malcolm Gladwell’s (author of Blink and Outliers) review of Chris Anderson’s (author of The Long Tail) new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Gladwell’s review starts with pondering what will happen to newspapers and journalists when information is supposed to be free. Well, they were founded on the premise of “news”, being defined as fresh information. When everyone newsworthy or in possession of information can “tweet” their own updates in real-time, clearly there isn’t much value for information. The role performed by newspapers, should then be closer to that of aggregators – bringing together material of interest to a particular target audience and exercising some judgment on its credibility. This is still a very valuable role, so why should it be done for free?

In the 90s, when India liberalized, the Iron Curtain came down in USSR, and China decided to be more market-savvy, over 1 billion people entered the global work-force. This exerted a downward pressure on real wages in many countries – more people vying for the same pie. Something similar is now taking place in the communications industry – so many people on social media like blogs, facebook, twitter, are competing for the same eyeballs that used to earlier be glued to the newspaper and TV. All these mini-broadcasters can afford to do it for free because they make money elsewhere. Given the ever-growing pool of such people, obviously it is going to be extremely hard to make social media a profitable venture. A very,very few people, those who can add either a lot of insight or aggregate really well will be profitable and might be fully employed by this business.

But as Seth Godin points out in his blog people will be willing to pay for souvenirs of news. So you’ll see a lot of these micro-broadcasters making money on speaking tours, books, consulting sessions. (Though, frankly, just because you’re a good blogger doesn’t mean you’re a good speaker or trainer!!)

Anyways, if the content is free, what about the hardware? Here, I agree with Gladwell that even a fraction of a cent adds up to a lot when there are billions of such transactions. Many of us are addicted to blogger, facebook, twitter, youtube and consider them as ubiquitous as the telephone. But phone companies charge and social media ones don’t. At some point the big money that is keeping them going is likely to want payback, and that is going to be the next big disruptor in this space. The monetization may not be in the form of money, but in terms of time. Like the good old booth popcorn.

Since stuff IS free for now, how can you benefit? Here are my fractional cents worth:

1. Think of yourself as a broadcaster. Understand your audience, scout around for stuff that will interest them.
2. Information is cheap. Try to propagate insights too. Otherwise your audience will not be sticky.
3. Look at whether social media is an end in itself or whether you can sell souvenirs.
4. Keep a back-up copy of your valuable content. That way you can switch mediums if the current one moves to a monetization model that you do not like.

My book is titled “No Money Marketing”. It’s about how you can substitute time and intellect for money and build a brand, even against much larger competition. Perhaps that’s the souvenir for this blog!!


Danesh said...

Nice post; contains valuable insights.

Point 2 you've mentioned, in my opinion is key, when sharing information add valuable insights to it. Plain retweeting/forwarding may not work always.

Venkatarangan TNC said...

This is the first time I came to your blog. Saw it referred in recent Business Today magazine.

Since my company does lot of work for New Media houses, I have been thinking on this topic for long. On how "free" is causing a disruptive change online, is it sustainable?.

Media Houses in India (and around the world too) seems to be not meeting their ends with Online Advertisement revenues alone. How long can this be sustained?.

You have nailed on the head, that just reposting and RT in Twitter doesn't help anyone, it is waste of time. It is more of a FAD that will die, but adding insights on to a post immediately turns it into a jewel worth every character.