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"But Would You Pay For It? Free Versus Paid Content Online"
[July 31, 2006]

"But Would You Pay For It? Free Versus Paid Content Online"


Editorial Director,
Customer Inter@ction Solutions magazine
 
A friend of mine turns 40 today. She lives across the country, and we haven't been in touch often, but 40 merits some recognition, so I went in search of an e-card for her.

Now, if you've searched for or sent an e-card in recent years, you'll have noticed a little pattern. E-cards, when they first became popular, were generally free. They were the new "next best thing," and people flocked to sites like Hallmark.com and BlueMountain.com for cards for everything from St. Patrick's Day to International Talk Like A Pirate Day (a real holiday that happens in September, but that's not important right now).


 
As e-cards became more popular, many of the sites that had formerly provided them for free decided to begin charging for them. But they didn't tell you that…they let you create the card in the standard fashion, and then, just when you pressed "send card," you got a message informing you that you could send this great card to your friend if you bought the company's premium membership. These companies figured that you were so invested in sending your "Happy Cheese Weasel Day" (another very important holiday) that you would splash out for the $9.99 or $14.99 membership. They were wrong. Most people abandoned the transaction and opted to send a holiday e-mail, perhaps with a family photo attached.

 
The next great stage of e-cards came when the cards became "free" again. Free, but when you opened the Web site, you were barraged with no fewer than 15 trashy pop-up ads, you had to create a "free" membership that quizzed you on everything from your household income to your favorite brand of laundry detergent. You realized that by becoming a member, you had just upped your future daily intake of spam by nine thousand percent.
 
Most people were content to stick with the "Happy Lobster Liberation Day" e-mails with the family photo attached, thank you.
 
It was with trepidation that I approached Hallmark.com again. I was pleasantly surprised to find that all was required of me to send an e-card was a very brief registration that allowed me to opt-out of any future marketing e-mails.
 
It seems that many online businesses have had to learn the hard way what Internet users will pay for and what they won't.
 
News content? That's generally been a "no." Many sites, including the New York Times, began by charging surfers to access most articles. These same sites, the NY Times included, have backed off on that, no doubt alarmed by the decline in online readership and, by definition, online advertising revenue.
 
Music and television shows? When sites like Napster (News - Alert) and Kazaa ran rampant with illegal downloading, the conventional wisdom was that no one would ever pay for songs or entertainment. Tell that to the millionaires behind iTunes, who have unequivocally proved that Internet users will, in fact, pay 99 cents for each song they download.
 
It's not only money that surfers withhold for certain services. When many realty companies went online, they decided that potential home buyers would be happy to submit the kind of information normally required to pre-qualify for a mortgage just to look at house listings online. Wrong. Realty sites now let you surf without registering.
 
What's the moral of the story? There isn't one, except that when it comes to content, there are certain things that Internet users are willing to pay for in either money or information, and certain things they aren't. The trick for finding which is which lies solely in trial and error.
 
But trial and error has ever been the path to most e-commerce successes. It's what makes e-business so damn scary and exhilarating at the same time.
 
The author may be contacted at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

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