Does Free Content – Sell?

There is no known answer. Numerous self-proclaimed “gurus” and “pundits” – authors of voluminous tomes sold to the gullible – pretend to be knowledgeable. However, their “expertise” consists of conjecture, superstition, anecdotal “evidence,” and hearsay. In the infant field of e-publishing and, more broadly, digital content on the Internet, no methodical, long-term, and systematic research has been conducted. No one can therefore definitively state whether free content sells, when, or how.

There are two schools that appear to be equally informed, despite the lack of concrete data. The first is the “viral school.” Its vocal supporters assert that the distribution of free content drives sales by generating “buzz” (word of mouth marketing driven by influential communicators). According to the “intellectual property” school of thought, free content cannibalizes paid content because it conditions consumers to expect free information. Free content frequently serves as an imperfect but adequate substitute for paid content.

Even though experience is inconsistent, it appears to point in both directions. Opinions and biases tend to converge on this consensus: whether or not free content sells depends on a few variables. The following are:

The character of the data. People are generally willing to pay for specific or customized information that is tailored to their unique needs, delivered promptly, and authored by experts in the field. The more general and “featureless” the information, the less likely individuals are to spend money (probably because there are many free substitutes).

The composition of the audience. The more targeted the information, the more it caters to the needs of a unique or specific group, the more frequently it must be updated (“maintained”), the less universally applicable it is, and especially if it deals with money, health, sex, or relationships – the more people are willing to pay for it. Users with less computer expertise, who are unable to locate free alternatives, are more willing to pay.

Time dependent parameters. The more closely related the content is to “hot” topics, “burning” issues, trends, fads, buzzwords, and “developments,” the more likely it is to sell regardless of the availability of free alternatives.

U-shaped curve. If the free information available to them is either (a) insufficient or (b) overwhelming, users will pay for content. People will purchase a book if only a few tantalizing excerpts are provided on the author’s website. However, they are just as likely to purchase the book if its entire text is available online and overwhelms them. Packaged and indexed information is more expensive than bulk information. The willingness of consumers to pay for content appears to decrease if the amount of content offered falls between these two extremes. They feel satiated, and the desire to acquire additional information disappears. Moreover, free content must be truly free. People dislike paying for free content, even if the payment is their personal information.

Extras and bonuses The relationship between willingness to pay for content and “members only” or “buyers only” perks, free add-ons, bonuses, and free maintenance appears to be weak but positive. Free subscriptions, discount vouchers for additional products, volume discounts, add-on, or “piggyback” products all appear to be effective sales boosters. Free, high-quality content is frequently perceived as a BONUS by consumers, hence its sales-boosting effect.

Credibility. Both the credibility and track record of the content creator and the vendor are crucial considerations. Here, testimonials and reviews come into play. However, their effect is especially powerful if the potential consumer agrees with them. In other words, the persuasive effect of a testimonial or review is amplified when the customer can actually read the content and form their own opinion. Free content fosters a covert dialogue between potential and actual consumers (through their reviews and testimonials).

Money-back guarantees and warranties. These are forms of truly free content. The consumer has the assurance that he can always return already consumed content and receive a refund. In other words, the consumer decides whether the content will transition from free to paid by not utilizing the money-back guarantee.

Comparative pricing It is assumed that Web-based information is inherently inferior, and consumers expect pricing to reflect this “fact.” The quality of free content is perceived to be even lower. Free (“cheap” or “gimcrack”) content coupled with paid content serves to increase the RELATIVE VALUE of the paid content (and the price people are willing to pay for it). It is comparable to pairing a person of average height with a dwarf; the former would appear taller in comparison.

Price stability Paid content’s price elasticity is diminished by free content. Typically, the more content sells, the cheaper it is. However, the availability of free content modifies this function. If paid content is priced too low, it will resemble the free alternative (“shoddy”, “dubious”). But free content is also a partial and imperfect substitute for paid content. Therefore, paid content cannot be priced excessively high, or people will opt for the free option. In other words, free content mitigates both the downside and upside of the price of paid content.

There are numerous other factors that determine how free and paid content interact. Law and technology also play significant roles in society. As long as there is no research agenda for the field, all we can do is observe, compile, and speculate.

Obviously, this article is free content…:o))

ANNEXE: Categories of Free Content

Online content experimentation is in its infancy. There are seven categories of content creators, providers, and aggregators, though hybrids and permutations abound:

1. Absolutely Free Content

Unrestricted access to all of the content accessible via a central URL or database.

2. Registration Required

Access to the entire body of content accessible via a central URL or database is contingent upon the provision of a few personal details and the assignment or selection of a user ID and password. However, upon registration, the content is completely free, as in (I).

3. Time-Limited Free Content – New but Unarchived

Unrestricted but time-limited access to a portion of the content accessible via a central URL or database. New content is freely and unrestrictedly accessible. A subscription is needed to access archived content.

4. Free Content with a Time Limit – Archived but Not New

Unrestricted but time-limited access to a portion of the content accessible via a central URL or database. Access to archived content is unrestricted and free. A subscription is needed to access new content.

5. Rotation of Time-Limited Free Content

Unrestricted but time-limited access to a portion of the content accessible via a central URL or database. Desks, chapters, features, articles, stories, sections, etc., become accessible at various times. Access is rotated periodically, thematically, or arbitrarily between these sections.

6. Content of Teaser

Unrestricted – time unlimited or time limited – access to certain content (selected articles, only headlines, etc.) accessible via a central URL or database. Access to the remaining content requires a paid membership.

7. Subscription

Access to content requires a paid subscription or per-item payment.

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