The free content conundrum

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With the release of Chris Anderson's new book this week on the free content model called "Free," experts have weighed in on the subject. Everyone from Seth Godin, to Malcolm Gladwell, to Chris Brogan and even Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has an opinion, so I decided to dedicate this week's Editor's Corner to the subject of free content.

From a content management perspective, free content comes into play not only because you have to manage it like all other content, but because free content has a unique role for marketers (who are often managers of web content management tools). Free content can be an engine that drives traffic and interest in your site, raises your search engine ranking and helps customers find you, so why all the fuss?

Why give it away?

On the face of it, if your content is good, why give it away? From a sales perspective, you should sell whatever the market will buy, right? This is true on one narrow level, but if your goal is to get people to your website, good free content can help you achieve that goal. David Meerman Scott has written extensively about this in his books: "The New Rules of Marketing and PR" and "World Wide Rave." He preaches to anyone who will listen that the rules are different on the web. You can try and find an SEO expert to raise your search engine ranking, but he says that good content does it naturally because people come to your site and as they do, and the popularity of this content rises, it raises your search engine ranking. Then, even more people find you, and they see what other things you do while they're there. This can drive sales, raise your company profile and position it as an expert on whatever you are writing about.

What if content is your business?

Sure that works for marketers, but what if your business is content like a newspaper, magazine, blog or this newsletter? The argument gets trickier here. Marketers can use content to generate new audiences in ways that weren't possible using old-fashioned marketing techniques such as direct mail ads, but newspapers have always been in the content business right? They should be able to sell their content shouldn't they?

Actually, Scott Karp from Publishing 2.0 (whom I wrote about in a recent Editor's Corner) says newspapers were never in the content business. They were in the distribution business, that is, getting that newspaper to you every morning. Because they controlled the distribution, they had the audience and could sell ads. In his view, the industry has lost control of distribution to the Internet.

But Mark Cuban, the outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks weighed in recently on this subject in his blog, and he believes it's time for newspapers to seize control of distribution again. He doesn't dismiss the concept of free so much as the idea of maintaining control of the distribution of their content. And there's the rub right there. Cuban isn't stupid. He recognizes the power of free on the web, but he's also a savvy business man and a great marketer and he believes that there is a difference between the cost and controlling distribution of the underlying content.

Who is right?

We live in a world where you can get your content from a variety of sources. I wrote recently in a DaniWeb TechTreasures post called Old Media's Last Stand. It quoted "Content Nation" author John Blossom: "We live in an age in which publishing technology is vastly more efficient than it used to be, creating a vast amount of content that acts oftentimes as acceptable substitutes for traditional forms of media. Business models for publishers must adjust accordingly."

Blossom's point is that with so much free content, traditional content publishers must find a way to play in a world where they don't control content or distribution. It's not an easy challenge, but with free content freely available and tools available that give everyone the power to publish, publishers need to find a way to differentiate themselves while building a new model that provides the means to make a profit. For smart marketers this is a dream come true. For traditional publishers like newspapers, it's their worst nightmare. The question remains how the two can be reconciled, or if the market has simply, irrevocably changed, forcing us to get the information we used to get from newspapers in a different fashion. - Ron