Since the Internet began, some 40 years ago, most of its content has been free to access.
Today, that is still the case.
However, paid content is one of the fastest-growing areas of Internet business, generating more than $15 billion in revenues in 2009 in the US alone.
The question that thousands of experts, bloggers, publishers, and content creators want answered is, "If there is so much free content on the Web, what content will people actually pay for?"
Having been involved with launching more than 1,000 paid-content websites over the last few years, many of which are now very profitable businesses, I've concluded that the following are attributes that enable them to charge for their content.
1. They offer unique and exclusive information
The No. 1 reason that people pay for content is because they can't get the information they need elsewhere for free. Successful membership websites tend to be run by people deeply immersed in their subject, and they have access to certain sources, background knowledge, and informed opinion that creates sustainable advantage and value.
- B2B: BeerNet (www.beernet.com) provides news, rumors, and job listings targeted at the ultra-niche US beer distributors. The target audience is less than 2,500 individuals, yet the site, through subscriptions and ancillary revenues (selling reports, running events, etc.), generates a seven-figure income.
- B2C: HerbMentor (www.herbmentor.com) is a site about—you guessed it—herbs. The thousands of members from around the world learn and share information about herbs that can be used for health, nutrition, and cooking.
2. They "promise" wealth and success
Many of the most successful paid-content websites provide advice on how to make money. That includes investing, gambling, and business opportunities.
- B2C: BlogSuccess (www.blogsuccess.com) is targeted at people who want to make money from blogging. Jack Humphrey, who runs the site, has prospered as a blogger, and members want to learn how he has done it.
- B2C: The Motley Fool (www.fool.com) is one of the oldest investment- research and investment-advice websites. It offers a choice of seven different paid-membership investment services, ranging from $149to$299 per year.
3. They provide the truth in a confusing world
Filtering free Web content for accurate data is very time-consuming and often difficult. Individuals and businesses that need accurate data in a timely way are happy to pay for access to a credible source.
- B2B: MarketingProfs (www.marketingprofs.com) has 352,000 registered subscribers who rely on the site for up-to-date marketing data, educational information, and research.
- B2C: ConsumerReports (www.consumerreports.org) is the most trusted resource for independent product reviews and consumer research in the US. Millions of people are happy to get access to advice and recommendations they trust.
4. They save time
Searching for information on the Internet is time-consuming. People will pay for information that makes their lives easier and saves them time. Businesspeople will pay for the right information available at the right time, particularly if their company is picking up the bill.
- B2B: getAbstract (www.getabstract.org) provides professionally written summaries of more than 5,000 business books. That enables busy people to get the key messages from any book in a few minutes, rather than having to spend hours reading the complete text.
- B2C: MacJournals.com (www.macjournals.com) provides a single destination for Macintosh users and professionals. Most of the information is available on the Web, but MacJournals.com provides a one-stop shop that saves Mac lovers a lot of time and effort.
5. They save money or reduce risk
Information that saves people money or time, or reduces risk, has real quantifiable value. The accuracy of such data is critical, so people will pay to access it from credible sources.
- B2B: HRhero.com (www.hrhero.com) is a wide-ranging human-resource website. Much of its general content is free, but it charges for news about changes to state legislation, which companies within each state have to comply with.
- B2C: The Sovereign Society (www.sovereignsociety.com) provides information to help individuals protect and grow their wealth. It looks at changes in government regulation, tax laws, offshore tax havens, etc.
6. They aggregate data
Similar to saving time, people will pay to have a lot of disparate data brought together in one place. Many offline directories are moving online as paid-search resources.
- B2B: BRAD Insight (www.bradinsight.com) is a UK database of advertising rates from thousands of magazines and newspapers. All the rates in the directory are available from the individual magazines, but the database brings them together in one place, making them easy to search and compare. Paying£1,430 ($2K) a year for a subscription, clients must feel it offers valuable data.
- B2C: Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com) has aggregated dozens of information sourcesthat help people research their family trees. Most of the information is in the public domain, but, for many, the convenience of having it all in one pace is worth the investment of $10-$20 per month.
7. They provide support to small businesses
Small businesses can greatly benefit from accessing very practical information from people in the same situation as themselves. They can learn from others' experiences, saving both time and money—the two most-valuable resources an entrepreneur has. The information is usually far more practical than thatprovided by associations and societies.
- B2C: MyMusicSuccess (www.mymusicsuccess.com) helps independent musicians make money without getting a record contract.
- B2B: RestaurantOwner.com (www.restaurantowner.com) offers practical, usable advice for independent restaurant owners.
8. They provide a library of resources
Libraries of prepared resources can have great value to teachers, businesspeople, and hobbyists. They can be templates, plans, or documents.
- B2C: PreachingToday.com (www.preachingtoday.com) has thousands of sermons that vicars, preachers, and Christian teachers can download to save them the time and effort of writing the sermons themselves.
- B2B: Lesson Planet (www.lessonplanet.com) has more than 150K prepared lesson plans and resources to save teachers time. Teachers subscribe and download the resources as they need them.
9. They offer a niche community
Traditional publishers that move online underestimate the value that people place on being part of a community. People who are passionate about a subject like to talk, interact, and share their knowledge with other people who share a similar passion. They will pay to be part of a community of peers and fellow enthusiasts.
- B2C: ProBlogger.Community (www.problogger.com) offers a paid-membership community for bloggers who want to turn their sites into a living and lifestyle.
- B2B: Ecademy (www.ecademy.com) is a business community aimed at entrepreneurs and small-business owners. Basic membership is free, but three levels of paid upgrades give members additional benefits and recognition within the community.
10. They provide multimedia content
Print is limited in the way it can deliver information; the Web provides far more freedom and versatility. Video and audio are perceived as having high value, and many member sites charge for multimedia content while giving articles away for free.
- B2B: StomperNet (www.stompernet.com) promotes itself as a community for serious entrepreneurs. It has created a faculty of well-known Internet marketers who provide hundreds of video lessons. The subscription is $197 per month.
- B2C: FineWoodworking.com (www.finewoodworking.com) is the spinoff site from the magazine of the same name. The $35 annual subscription gives members access to a growing video library of woodworking courses and tips.
11. They give access to or association with a "celebrity"
People value being associated with and having access to the celebrities in their field of interest. Celebrity is a limited and controlled resource, so it is impossible to replicate. The trend is an extension of the traditional fan club, but the Web has extended celebrity to experts in many niches.
- B2C and B2B: JancisRobinson.com (www.jancisrobinson.com) is a subscription website led by leading wine expert Jancis Robinson. Her members get access to her personal views, her wine-tasting notes, and other people who share a passion for fine wines. The site is aimed at both professionals and amateurs.
- B2C: Shakira Fan Club (www.shakira.com), is a new fan club launched by pop diva Shakira. For $40 a year, members get exclusive blog posts, discounts on gig tickets, early access to new songs, and some free merchandise.
12. They provide adult content
Adult content is the biggest paid-content niche, accounting for one-third of all subscription revenues. Despite there being more free adult content on the Web than any person could consume in a lifetime, people still pay to join niche adult sites.
This sector has its own unique trends, customer motivations, and recruitment techniques.
13. They provide course materials
The Internet is the perfect tool for delivering interactive course materials. Lessons can be delivered sequentially over time or made available all at once for students to go through in their own time. Online training is set to grow rapidly.
- B2B: SEO Book.com (www.seobook.com) is a site that offers an online course aimed at people and businesses wishing to learn about search-engine marketing.
- B2B: E-Myth Online (www.e-myth.com/pub/htdocs/e-learning) is a site that offers a systemized process for starting and building a successful business. Its online course runs over six months and costs $1,400.
14. They "promise" good health and fitness
Good health, fitness, and dieting sites continue to attract paying members. Often they are related to branded diet plans such as the Atkins Diet and South Beach Diet. Like gym memberships, people tend to join, have a few enthusiastic months, and then move on to the next fashion.
B2C: SouthBeachDiet.com (www.southbeachdiet.com) is a site that promotes the diet of the same name. In 2002, when The South Beach Diet book was very popular, the site is reported to have had an income of more than $22 million.
15. They offer advice on personal problems and illnesses
People greatly benefit from sharing their problems with others. Many free forums and websites offer support, but often there is suspicion about the advice given and where it is coming from.
That has left an opening in the market for sites run by credible professionals to provide support, advice, and community to people with personal problems and specific illnesses.
B2C: AnxietyTalkNow.com (www.anxietytalknow.com), run by Charles Linden, offers support and advice to people suffering from stress and anxiety.
16. They promise exclusivity
People pay for exclusivity! They get pleasure and value from having access to information and people that other people can't get. It's a phenomenon similar to private-member clubs in the real world.
- B2C: Quintessenially.com (www.quintessentially.com) describes itself as "the world's leading private members' club and concierge service." It is a professional and polished operation, providing content and service that projects an image of wealth and privilege.
- B2B: DNForum.com (www.dnforum.com) is one of the world's leading domain-name forums. For those who don't know, there is a big business based on the buying, selling, and commercialization of domain names. Anyone can read the forums, but paying members get access to exclusive threads where the "most-successful domaineers" hang out.
17. They provide a home for passionate people
A few websites manage to charge for membership by appealing to the conscience of their community. The proposition is usually simple: Either you pay or the site will be financially unviable and will have to close.
A few small benefits may include access to the publishers and member-forum threads, but the main proposition is "if you get value, give something back."
- B2B and B2C: LWN.net (www.lwn.net) is a community for open-source software developers and users. Members pay between $2.50 and $10 per month to support this valuable and passionate community.
- B2B and B2C: WebmasterWorld.com (www.webmasterworld.com) is a site for webmasters and online marketers. It offers paid subscription, but members receive little benefit except the recognition that they are supporting the site and community.
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All content that can be digitized—books, magazine, newspapers, newsletters, music, and video—will end up being distributed over the Internet. That means content creators and owners will have to give very careful thought to how they make their offering more valuable than what it is available for free, if they want to generate revenue from it.
The above guidelines should help you think through what unique value you can offer.
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- Build B2B Marketing Trust With Evidence-Based Content: Melanie Deziel on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]
- Webinar Invitations: Examples and Best-Practices
- The Cost of Poor Business Writing
- 12 Reasons User-Generated Content Is Important for Brands [Infographic]
- Why You Need a Branded Podcast (And How to Create and Brand Yours)