Cafe Witness

Monday, August 18, 2008

Social Media: The Problem With Being Free

One of the endless questions surrounding social media is: "How do I monetize?" Meaning: how does one person convince other people -- whether it's that person's actual audience, or advertisers eager to reach that person's audience -- to pay that person to do what he / she actually wants to do for a living?

Common Cents

In most cases, a person simply seeks out a job that other people already publicly admit is worth being paid for. Garbage collectors, graphic designers and accountants are all worth paying for a job well done, or so we believe. So why not bloggers, podcasters and other social media creators?

The catch: people have long been used to paying garbage collectors, graphic designers and accountants. They're also used to paying for records, movies and live entertainment. And they'll sit through commercials on TV as long as they get their shows for free.

But no one is used to paying for web content, because the web has always been "free."

"Free" Is in the Eye of the Beholder

In truth, we all know the web was never "free," so much as it was "subsidized." People were willing to spend their time and effort creating a network of information and entertainment, often for no financial gain, simply because they enjoyed it or saw value in the existence of such a network.

But no one can do that indefinitely, and people capable of producing professional quality work (or at least work that resonates with audiences of a size similar to those of the professionals) are not going to produce their work for free forever.

Parking Is Like Sex...

... or so goes the Seinfeld joke: Why should we pay for something that, with a little effort, we can get for free?

But that logic applies to everything in life. Why pay for CDs when you can download them for free on filesharing sites? Why pay a landscaper traditional wages when you can employ day laborers for far less?

No one is exploiting web content creators (yet) by *not* paying for their work, since few web content creators are currently charging a reasonable fee -- or any rate, for that matter -- to engage with their work. In that regard, web content creators are exploiting themselves by not attempting to charge for their work in the first place.

Having grown up using the internet, the concept of charging for information that's always been free could be seen as the death of the very ideals that the internet was founded on.

Or it could be seen as a very necessary step in the maturation of thousands of prospective artists and business owners, to realize that what we do is worth getting paid for.

If I Don't Like You, and YOU Don't Like You...

The bigger question -- WHO will pay for it -- can't be asked until each of us admits that what we're doing is worth something to someone, somewhere. Since most of us create content for free, we're used to it. We have the POV that even making a few hundred bucks a month is probably "more than we deserve," all things considered. After all, we know the cost involved in our work, and we've been willing to shoulder it ourselves for so long, it's become part of the process.

Wouldn't getting paid for what we do be equal to "selling out"?

How can we compare our work to the work of Hollywood, Madison Avenue, etc.?

What's our work actually *worth*?

The Short Stick Economy

Advertisers are leaving print publications in droves, leading to magazines and newspapers cutting costs and closing doors. But that ad revenue isn't being reassigned to the web, because the web doesn't charge the same amount for ads that print publications do.

That's because the web still prices itself as an inferior product, across the board, compared to every other mass medium.

As a result, those of us who create content for the web have horrible benchmarks to judge ourselves against. We can't aspire to earn as much as content creators in other media because our own medium gives itself the short end of the stick at all times.

Asking a web content creator to evaluate the value of his / her work is an impossible task, because we're trained to think that:

A) What we're doing MUST be free to be online,
B) What we're doing is online, and therefore amateur, and
C) What we're doing is being created for a medium that has yet to create a sustainable economy in the creative sector.

Therefore, all aspirations to get paid are pipe dreams until each of those realities changes.

And guess what: the sustainable economy that will provide realistic benchmarks for individual financial success among web content creators CAN'T be created until we get past those first two roadblocks -- and those are roadblocks we set up for ourselves.

Photo by Emdot

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  • In the end... it's all about leveraging something that is finite and in limited supply. If something is free, and plentiful... it's hard to monazite it.

    Because of social media I've realized that it's all about finding something you can create, grow the demand of, and keep the supply tight.

    In my case... I've realized the solution is situation / event based. Users either pay online or at the venue, and the results are not offered online in its entirety .

    Take what you're already creating and promoting within the social media sphere... and make a live event that people will want to see, take it on a tour.

    Live theatre, concerts, readings, lectures... whatever your zone. Keep everything else that can be cached free.. but make everything that can't be cached a commodity.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:11 AM  

  • Vergel: I agree with the value inherent in scarcity. A live event is much more "rare" and has more limited access than a perpetually-available web video.

    But people are also willing to pay for perpetual access, if *that's* what's rare. They'll buy seasons of TV shows on DVD because they want perpetual access to those videos, as opposed to being stuck at home every Tuesday night to catch a new episode.

    The internet destroyed scarcity via search, and destroyed access control via perpetual availability, and now we wonder why we have to create offline properties to make a living because our online properties have no inherent value? Hmm...

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 10:16 AM  

  • Exactly.

    That's the evolution of moving from free to pay. If there is a demand from your audience to take their appreciation of an online product offline, we "as content creators" need to find a way to make that happen.

    There also need to be the realization that a paying audience *might not exist*.

    For those who want to generate an income via their social media endeavors the requirement is to:

    1. have an engaged and motivated audience
    2. create "non-caching" products for them to consume

    Some ppl balk at DVD or T-Shirt sales... but if motivated fans wants to own their piece of the brand, the opportunity to move from free to pay is a simple one.

    For those who don't have either motivated fans, or "non-caching" products. They're stuck with free till they answer those 2 requirements.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:29 AM  

  • Hi Justin,

    Excellent post that really gets you to think what the future of the internet could be if all the so called "free services" suddenly are not free anymore.

    Do you think as many people would use all the services if they had to pay for them? I don't.

    If less people used them would the ones that remain increase the quality of the content and get rid of the junk or would it be the beginning of a downward spiral for the entire internet?

    John Whitcomb
    Social Media Coordinator

    By Blogger SocialTicks, at 1:02 PM  

  • Hey Justin - Interesting post.

    The value of creative expression has become increasingly difficult to determine ever since we entered the "age of mechanical reproduction," as Walter Benjamin dubbed it. The value of the Mona Lisa lay in its uniqueness - the value-less-ness of a postcard of the Mona Lisa lies in its ubiquity (or, to use web terms, its accessible findability).

    Controlling access to, like controlling reproducibility of, content on the web will always be an uphill battle. I agree with the other commenters who suggest that you look to monetize that which is not easily reproduced, like a live concert or an on-site consultation.

    Just because we would like to make money from doing what we wanna do - write, play music, paint, etc. - doesn't mean that we will be able to. Likewise, just because we were able to make money from doing something in the past, such as selling records, doesn't mean that we'll be able to do so indefinitely.

    In a strange way, it's almost like we're moving into a new middle ages when it comes to creativity. Back then, of course, there was no open market for the arts. You either had a patron or you worked for the church (in Europe anyway). Nowadays, you will either have a corporate patron (as I do, writing a corporate blog, among other things), or, potentially, you will work for the state producing work as a teacher or grant-funded artist.

    The devil's bargain of the web is clear: anyone can publish anything that can be accessed from anywhere - an historically unprecedented fact. On the other hand, the proliferation of producers and the inherent infinite reproduceability of their work makes any individual product "worthless" (if value is determined by demand vs. scarcity).

    If you want to create value on-line, I think you either have to provide a service (like filtering or search), or you have to provide the platform that allows people to create and distribute. If you want money for your specific creations, or your creativity, it has to take a form that cannot be copied and circulated without limit.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:38 PM  

  • Social Media 101 3 Keys To Social Media Profits.

    1) The Market Pays For Value:
    Social Media while it has been free for the most part by content providers, big business understands the three pillars of good business. Pricing, Quality, and Speed! You can have two but you cannot have all three. When push comes to shove people who are need to have high quality work quickly are willing to pay for it because they understand the value to the market place.

    2) Know Your Worth:
    The market place has come to expect high quality work and often that quality produces billions in profits. Do you really think Compass Bank or Bank of America would thrive with a horrible social presence on line. No way...that's why they invest millions in doing it right. They understand the value of paying for quality. Remember you don't look for a discount surgeon when you have to go through brain surgery. As a content provider, web developer, and social media expert you need to understand that so you can stand strong to command fair pay.

    You also have to be able not to be afraid to walk away from the deal. In other words don't prostitute yourself out just for a meal. Let some one else do that and keep your dignity

    A great tip is to go over to and find out what the going rate is for your position from the employers stand point. Then asses how many hours your job will take and other necessary expenses and you have a good idea what to charge for your work.

    3) Develop Your Negotiation & Sales Skills:
    Lastly you have to remember that we live in a world where we are influencing or being influenced whether you like it or not. With that in mind you might as well arm yourself with the proper equipment. Head on over to and purchase his course on "Investigative Selling" so you know how to sell and negotiate your worth.

    Remember we are all in sales PERIOD. Those who say "I am not a good sales person or I don't like to sell" let me congratulate you on doing the best sales job in the world. You just sold yourself on that fact you don't like or you can't sell.

    Face the truth, we all influence one another just as I am influencing you now as any other media does when you give your attention to it.

    So equip yourself with wisdom, develop your skills and don't sell out and be patient for "a person gifts make room for them to stand before the Kings & Queens of business"
    Your On-Line Success adviser & In-Flight Motivator!

    Roger Gauthier
    CEO, TriVisionGlobal

    By Blogger Your In-flight Coach - Roger Gauthier, at 2:08 PM  

  • John: I doubt most web services would be as highly trafficked as they are now if they charged their users. But isn't that culling of the herd a good thing? There'd be less bloat, faster upload and download times, and a more engaged audience that was getting its money's worth on every site -- or else that site would have to evolve or die.

    If the only lure of the internet is that it's free and ubiquitous, then big businesses (and luddites) are right to be skeptical of its long-term use. If we believe in the power of the web, we should be willing to make the hard choices necessary to make sure it -- and we -- can grow.

    Matthew: Very interesting points. I'm not sure we're headed back to a technological fiefdom just yet, but I do agree with your final analysis: what we make has to be rare or irreplaceable in order to be profitable.

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 2:31 PM  

  • Great post Justin, I like thinking.
    The question I want to put out into the universe is, isn't the idea of getting paid producing content for the web kind of a catch 22? People will pay for quality, but don't view internet content as quality because there is SO much bad stuff (ie cat in sink on youtube. People like the internet because they can get there 15 mins. of fame on youtube or anywhere and feel important. If people are paying, they won't tolerate the horrible quality of men yelling "leave Britney Alone" and then the majority of America will turn away from the internet because they can't collect on their 15mins.
    Not that this is necessarily 100% true. But it is a theory.

    By Blogger TTG, at 3:18 PM  

  • Teresa: That depends on what you expect from the internet.

    Isn't there a wide variety of programming on TV? Radio? Film? Isn't some of it amazing and some of it just amazingly bad?

    Why should the internet be any different? It's a delivery medium, so it's capable of delivering the same highs and lows of any medium -- and therefore it's capable of delivering a profit to creators of in-demand content as well.

    (Don't be fooled into thinking people won't pay for low-budget or low-aesthetic content, either. "Leave Britney Alone" may have succeeded due to its car-wreck topic of the month + ubiquitous availability, but how do you explain the long-term success of Big Brother, Carrot Top or The Ramones? Someone paid to experience them, too -- repeatedly.)

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 3:41 PM  

  • Agree with everything you posted however what was missing was a deep mention of supply & demand. Now there are some who know as much as others, but they package it better. That is a product so the value is not the information at all which is abundant, but the convenience.

    I mean really packaged cut up lettuce and carrots in a bag sitting next to the head of lettuce and whole carrot - and the bags are flying off the shelves?!

    Thanks for the post

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:45 PM  

  • Albert: I agree that packaging can play a key role in making something *more* desirable, but that base desire has to be there in the first place. Marketers may be geniuses at getting people to buy stuff, but people have to have a need or desire for that stuff in the first place.

    Is there a need or desire for GOOD web content yet? Is that need or desire large enough to sustain a market? How do we get there?

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 8:21 PM  

  • This is all just practice for the Gift Economy. The rules of the current economy are rigged against us, in favour of the corporatists. You try to play by those rules it will kill you. Just keep practicing, our time is coming.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:19 PM  

  • This is a wonderfully eloquent post about the problem. What about the solution? How do you monetize without coming off as skeazy?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:47 PM  

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