Troubled times have fallen on the media and advertising industrial complex. In an effort to gain "eyeballs" and traffic, media companies have given content away for free.
The explosive, disruptive growth of our digital/mobile world has ushered in heavy social media usage, transformed the advertising landscape and driven the self publishing movement. These factors and other macro-level variables (hey economy!) have set a precedent: audiences expect that all content, from news to recipes to exercise videos- can be discovered and consumed for free.
Most of the time, they are right. And on the business side, increased integration of advertising and content is muddying the user experience (and spawned industries such as ad blocking). In this evolving scramble to drive engagement with content, we've forgotten something important: No one wants to work for free! Everyone (including me), needs to make a living.
It's easy to see how it happened. Those of us who grew up in the good old days of marketing knew the power of free.
The word free triggers the same part of the brain that get's a thrill out of gambling. It's a rush! I see it in my kids playing out in real time- if it's free THEY MUST HAVE IT. Even though minutes later it's tossed to the floor, whatever it is. It's the great let down. The Pavlovian sugar rush that leaves us as quickly as it arrived.
Because the truth is: Nothing really good is ever free (unless you are talking about the important things in life, like gratitude, love or happiness and I'm sure that if we could figure out how to sell them we would. Fortunately we cannot, and that's why they are the things we cherish most).
But back to "free"--I think we've blown it. We've hit rock bottom. People and businesses are not likely to survive forever on a free content-driven business model.
Giving things away for free creates a downward spiral that reduces resources for everyone-resources that include jobs as well as allocations to invest in business growth opportunities. So we have to understand what the real issue is, and address it at the root so we can develop new revenue models that mean health for businesses, and in turn a better user experience for audiences.
We are never going to change people, or re-wire their hard-wired brains to stop wanting things for free. It's human nature. However, we do know people will pay for things that matter to them: content that entertains and caters to escapism urges (travel, comedy, fantasy, luxury, etc...); devices and the movies, music and shows that play on them.
And some people are starting to pay for content based on its quality, authenticity and integrity. Content that fulfills, stimulates and inspires: Online newspapers. Books! Real books! People are still buying books! The paper kind.
When the "free for all" hangover is waning and we wake up and ask ourselves where do we go from here? - the answer lies in having to value ourselves and our work. We need to provide solutions and answer needs that people have--modern real people--whether it's the need to be in the know, the need to escape, or the need to figure out how to live a healthier, happier life.
And then we need to have the courage to charge for it. Because a media that is supported by advertising alone is one that can not financially afford to maintain the level of trust and truth in journalism that a democracy needs to survive. And when it's all said and done, and our devices are turned off for the night, that freedom is the only thing that really matters.