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Should online content be free?

3 min read


This post was written by Mirna Bard, a social media consultant, speaker, author and instructor of social media at the University of California at Irvine.

SmartPulse — our weekly nonscientific reader poll in SmartBrief on Social Media — tracks feedback from leading marketers about social-media practices and issues.

Last week’s poll question: Do you believe media companies and publishers should charge for online content?

  • No — content wants to be free —  48.73%
  • Online content should be based on a “freemium” model — 28.48%
  • Yes — there will be buyers for all kinds of relevant information — 22.78%

Paying for content is nothing new. Newspaper and magazine subscriptions, cable and satellite distribution, webinars and educational lectures are just a few examples that people have paid for — and are still willing to pay for. But as the same time, many individuals are under the impression that online content should be free.

This debate has gone on for quite some time, and I have yet to see a convincing argument as to why all content should be free online. I don’t think there is a person out there who does not love and want to continue to receive free content. On the other hand, we do have to take in account that online content costs money to produce, to distribute and to consume.

In this digital age, consumers have plenty of free resources to choose from, but I don’t believe publishers should be pressured into only providing content at no cost. But, to be fair, why shouldn’t publishers offer both kinds of content? There are plenty of buyers for all kinds of relevant and valuable information on the Web, especially when they are paying for an experience that is compelling and content they can’t get anywhere else.

Sure, I have benefited greatly from all the free content I find online, but I have also paid for all kinds of quality content, such as studies, webinars, membership sites, e-books and podcast downloads. I know I am not alone. If a person is not willing to pay for content — does it really have value?

While it’s great that the social Web has opened up content consumption and distribution to anyone, it has also created the false assumption that all content must be based on a free model. Publishers have to weigh the risks and benefits of charging while bearing in mind that if they do, they will have to provide consumers with considerably better, high-value content then what is currently offered at no cost.

What types of content would you or would not pay for? Do you think more companies will start charging content in the future?