Charging for Digital Content

Waiting their turn for tickets
Flickr Commons - National Library of Scotland -OFFICIAL PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN ON THE BRITISH WESTERN FRONT. Refreshments at a horse show. Waiting their turn for tickets

The Web Science Doctoral Training Centre organised another fantastic talk for us last week, and I thought I’d share a few thoughts that came out of it here.

We spent an engaging afternoon listening to MaryAnn Johanson of FlickFilosopher introduce what she felt were some of the key issues coming out of the increase in popularity of sites that invite bloggers to contribute free content.  Thanks MaryAnn!

MaryAnn had some really interesting points to make about (amongst many other things) the difficulties in making money through maintaining sites such as e-zines, and this prompted some thoughts around the disparities between our feelings around the value of content produced online and the value of content produced offline.

I have been thinking recently about the differences between the expectations that museums have of engagement achieved off line and online and MaryAnn’s visit helped me to clarify some of these thoughts.

Undervaluing digital content

Firstly, I think it’d be useful to try to understand why we undervalue digital content.  Very often we expect digital content to be made available freely that, if compared to its real world counterpart, we would normally expect to pay for.

MaryAnn talked about the fact that the notion of the long tail does not work for many instances: for example, the blogger asked to contribute content to a large online news site, will not be paid, but will instead be offered exposure on that site.  Very few referrals will actually result from that content. Over on one of my favourite comic blogs (Septagon Studios) there is a great discussion of the way that e-comics can attempt to walk the tightrope of the long tail.  There is a lot here that rings true with museums and galleries’ adoption of social media more generally.

So often for those creating content online, the effort expended far outweighs the benefit received.  And yet this artificial model of contributing to reap huge rewards still seems to prevail.

How to revalue content

But, and I suppose this is secondly, I am really very interested in how we judge the worth of the digital content.  If the website asking for the content is gaining benefits, through the means of the long tail, then this is only sustainable whilst the content remains free.  Is there a model that could work where the content is paid for? Is the long tail only useful when sites reach a certain size (like the tipping point that we hear so much about?)?

If digital content is being undervalued, then how can we change this?  Is there a way to modify people’s opinions of very high quality journalistic blogs to understand that they are as valuable as printed papers?

One fellow web science believer mentioned Flattr as a potential alternative for attracting revenue for digital content.  This made me very happy as I have been following this Swedish company for a while and have been very excited about the potential for museums and galleries of this personalised method for funding organisations. I read a real food-for-thought post all about Flattr way back in May (I finally found it after much Googling – other search engines are available) – Flattr and why paying for free stuff is stupid  

The article provides a really interesting perspective (and not one that I share incidentally).  But it does make you think about the reasons that people blog.  The article ends with “The content isn’t the product… it’s free marketing.” Really? Is that why people blog? I am relatively new to blogging, but it seems to me that its a bit of both.

I started this blog to encourage conversation around the topics that I am interested in (and as an outlet for thoughts that I very frequently won’t have time to follow up in my academic life).  Consequently, the network and the contents are of equal importance to me.  Is this article just highlighting the problem; that we are undervaluing the content that is being created online? Or is it just that the kinds of blogs that this article talks about (like mine I think) are so far from the high quality editorials that excellent journalists like MaryAnn share that it is not relevant to this argument?

Museums, Galleries, Blogs and Expectations…

The thing that I am interested in ultimately from all this has to do with expectations.  Are we expecting too much from blogs?  Museums and galleries are starting to use blogs as an additional avenue for engagement, but are we approaching this all wrong? There are so many different types of blogs; this brings to mind the excellent diagram that Beth Kanter posted on her blog ‘What Color is your Non-Profit’s Blog?’, and it is so often that museums and galleries use the wrong model for the outcomes that they are wanting to achieve. Or worse still, they start a blog without any clear outcomes.

Could spending some time thinking a bit deeper about the value of the content that we are putting into our blogs as museums and galleries help to ensure the successful uptake of those blogs by the audiences that we want to engage with, as well as contributing to the design of more realistic targets for those blogs? So many thoughts, sadly, not enough time to pursue them!


One thought on “Charging for Digital Content

  1. Nicole,

    Thanks for linking to my post. Like so many things in life, my position has changed to incorporate a bit of nuance. That’s one of my favorite things about writing on the web – I get challenged and pushed and constantly grow.

    In particular, I stumbled onto a great piece on Information Architects about content worth paying for…

    I can’t see pay walls working out either. But we need to do something before we lose all of our current subscribers. Sure. It’s a tough business environment, but… But the flight industry is a tough environment too, and they found ways. So tell me: Why do people fly Business Class? In the end, an airplane brings me to the same place regardless of whether I fly Economy or Business Class and the massive price-increase I pay doesn’t compare the difference in value.

    People pay for Business Class because they don’t want to be tortured in Economy. They get faster lanes at the terror check. They get an extra glass of champagne. The stewards are more attentive. They get off the plane more quickly. They get the feeling of a higher social status.


    I like that approach. The content is free, but if you want a nice-to-read version without ads and clutter, you pay.

    Content on the web is ubiquitous. A great reading experience is not.


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