I’ve been involved in a couple interesting scenarios lately involving the idea of paying for digital content.

  • I am a contributor to the awesome Content Marketing Institute but customers told CMI that they don’t have the time or budget to pay for more content. Clients need help in actually doing the marketing, so the CMI business model is rapidly adapting to their needs.
  • As a subscriber to Marketing Profs for two years, I won’t be renewing my subscription. They still do a good job but I don’t have time to participate in their seminars, which are too similar to free content I can access elsewhere.
  • I was approached to work on a project to provide content to a paid forum for small business owners.  I am already giving away a lot of valuable personal advice on my blog every day. Would people pay to read what I write?

So as I’m thinking about these situations, along comes new data from Pew Research stating that 65% of internet users have paid for online content. That headline is getting a lot of airplay. Let’s look at the “content” contained in the report and the percentage of adults who paid for it:

  • Music: 33 percent
  • Software: 33 percent
  • Apps: 21 percent
  • Games: 19 percent
  • A newspaper, magazine, journal article or special report: 18 percent
  • Online videos, movies or TV: 16 percent
  • Ringtones: 15 percent
  • Photos: 12 percent
  • Premium or members-only content on a particular website: 11 percent
  • E-book: 10 percent
  • Podcasts: 7 percent
  • Porn: 2 percent

It seems there are big opportunities represented by these numbers, right?  Let’s get back to this research in a moment but first turn to the always thought-provoking Mitch Joel, who hypothesizes in his Six Pixels blog that people will pay for content under certain conditions:  

  • It must be mobile.
  • It must be asynchronous.
  • It must have added multimedia value (bonus material).
  • It must be easy to access.
  • It must be easy to download/stream.
  • It must do more than simply being a digital version of the traditional platform.
  • It must be able to make itself more shareable, findable and social.

I like this list but would add three other critical conditions which radically change the game for anybody with hopes of making money off their content:

1) It must be entertaining – Less than three years ago the most popular videos on YouTube were of brides falling into swimming pools. Now the list is dominated by slickly-produced mini-movies featuring the best brands and entertainers in the world. Can you compete on that level?  As the web becomes flooded with content it is going to take some element of sizzle to cut through the clutter in a way powerful enough to attract consumer dollars.

2) It must be scarce — This is the lesson of Marketing Profs. When the content was scarce I paid for it, if it isn’t I won’t.  If you write another blog post about the ROI of social media I won’t read it let alone pay for it. But if you write an eBook that offers truly unique advice and insight found nowhere else I might be willing to plunk down a few dineros.

3) It must be targeted to adults – The Pew study was limited to ADULTS who willingly and routinely pay for content. But if the Pew research studied a younger demographic, the results would be vastly different. An example — I have two kids and two step-kids between the ages of 25 and 19. They would not think of paying for content in any form, ever. They’ve shown me how they can access extremely sophisticated and expensive branded software programs for free. This is a generation conditioned to believe that paying for digital content only demonstrates you’re to lazy to figure out how to get it for free.

So while an initial glance at the Pew research might be encouraging and Mitch’s post gushes optimism, these three factors severely limit practical opportunities to scale paid content for most individuals and small businesses. Maybe any business in the long-term.

Of course there are lots of ways to indirectly make money from content through advertising, affiliate marketing and lead generation, but I believe the one hope for making money directly off of content sales resides with micro-payments.

This is an idea that has failed in various forms for 20 years but might finally be taking off with Facebook’s new credit system. It could work like this: Somebody reads a blog post or listens to an original song and is able to click a special “like” button that extracts a few cents from their Paypal account. That would absolutely change the game for monetizing content.

A timely and vital subject for bloggers and marketers is it not? What’s your take on the opportunities? Please contribute your observation or idea in the comment section!