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Why You Should Give Content Away For Free

I keep an eye on what Justin is working on. He’s not just talking about how media is changing, he is getting his hands dirty, watching it change around him. The beauty of this is that he may see some fame in the next few years and some speaking gigs, but because of the hands-on experience he has it wouldn’t surprise me to see him in 10 years working on whatever passes for big time Television then, or making movies a la Kevin Smith if that’s what he wants to do.

This week he was thinking about media being free. It’s actually far worse than that. Media is less than free. It costs you money and time to produce, and often the people consuming it are not going to pay for it. This came to me in a flash in New York City after touring NBC studios. A few blocks away I saw a subway sign for the TV Show “Heroes”. Here’s one of the biggest shows going, from one of the biggest entertainment conglomerates in the world, and they buy space on a bus to make sure it stays one of the biggest shows.

How can a lame podcast like The M Show compare to that? One easy answer is to change and go more niche. The M Show isn’t really different from talk radio, but Marketing Over Coffee is audio that you can’t find on the radio, or anywhere else.

It kind of makes you wonder how musicians can complain about the death of CD sales, while TV has dealt with end users getting the stuff for free from day one.

The problem with trying to find a way to charge for content is that it ends up throttling the only marketing the majority of content producers do – the giving away of great content for free, one of the oldest marketing stunts in the book. If it’s no longer free, now you need to find another way to make it spread. I’d like to be able to say that you can succeed on the strength of your content, but classical marketing says that you need to be anywhere from 5-10 times better to dislodge a competitor. Have you ever read a book that you felt was 10x better than everything else out there? Or better than the average? For me that’s happened maybe once.

So unless you have some budget to make people aware of your content, you are going to have to stick with free. There are some ways to make it work, you have two paths – one is to come up with a business model right away. For someone like Justin that could be having to say “70% of my time will be producing videos for others”, basically doing commercial jobs to fund the more entrepreneurial project. The  other option is to ignore the cash and go hungry and spend every waking hour gathering an audience.

Once you have a fans, scarcity enters the equation once again – everyone’s audience is unique, and odds are they have characteristics that can’t be found everywhere else. When you reach a critical mass of people this can fuel a business model. Another method that I see as the wave of the future is product placement. There’s only x minutes of time within a story, and if people are clamoring to watch the story you can limit the supply by having only 30 seconds to sell out of the whole story. Let the bidding begin.

Gather a crowd and go from there.