My take: If you want to know what people will pay for, ask them why they start hitting the # or 0 buttons the second they hear a recorded voice when they call customer support.

Interesting thesis by Gerd Leonhard about what the viable models for monetizing content
online are going to have to look like – he falls firmly on the side of “Freemium” in this presentation to Tokyo 2.0. I kinda wish there was some kind of audio accompanying these slides (some of them are rather cryptic without what is obviously necessary verbal expansion & explanation). I’ve embedded it below as well, if you don’t want to have to click away to see it.

Regardless, this is a real Web 2.0 story. Gerd added me to his follow list on Twitter this morning, and when I saw the sheer weight of followers + number of Tweets, I figured it’d at least be interesting to see who this person was, so I clicked through.  This is rare for me these days. I’ve been getting a lot of porno Tweetspam lately, and I’m at about bandwidth capacity with the people I already follow, so I’ve been very, very picky about adding anyone to my Tweetlist.

Anyway, upon clicking through I found that Gerd works out of Basel, Switzerland, and writes about the same issues that I’ve been researching, writing, obsessing, gritting my teeth, banging my head against the wall, slitting my wrists in a warm bathtub, etc. etc.

The presentation above makes a point that I’ve been trying to make to my clients:

It’s not that you can’t charge for content online.  I am not saying that. I don’t believe that to be true.

What I do believe with all my heart & soul is that you can’t charge for the same old content just shoveled onto the internet in the same old ways that you always have.

The question I asked in bold, at the beginning of this piece is, I think, key to what people will be willing to pay for. Why do we all immediately start punching the pound (#) or zero (0) keys when we hit one of those damned obtuse voicemail trees? And what does that mean? (Hint: the link goes to a site that should set some bells dinging in your heads.)

Well, we hit the button because the computer isn’t yet at the point where it can understand what it is that we really want.  The computer can’t solve our problem right now. Anyone who’s had to do an extended “Google Hunt” on a complex issue to try to find the information you need knows that – you want to know how to rip video off a DVD, edit out the parts you need, and re-compress it for a client (to use a recent quandary of mine).  

Pose that question to a video expert, and you will get an explanation of what VOBs are, how they differ from uncompressed video, how you can convert VOBs to AVIs that a video editing program like Premiere or Final Cut can ingest, and what your export settings have to be so that you don’t get awful artifacts, soundtrack buzzing or moire patterns.

Post that question to the web, and you get spam, ads, and links to dozens of video forums where the moderators and participants are all arguing about minutia that you can’t understand.  And when you try to join in the discussion, you find that it either took place years ago and there is no decent answer (what is it with 2007 timesstamps? was that when everyone last participated in a forum chat or what? I keep seeing that all over the place…) – or that the forum denizens jump all over you for being a “n00b” and don’t answer your question.

What’s this got to do with paid content?

Plenty, as it turns out.

When we go to the web for answers, we are looking first for a free and easy solution. If that is not available, or if we find a lot of people arguing about how bad the solution is, we progress to the next level, which is having to engage our critical thinking apparatus (insert joke here about bad educational systems + lazy internet users).  And it’s at this point, that we start getting willing to pay for something that will actually solve our problem.

Because we also mash down on the buttons to talk to a human operator because we JUST DON’T HAVE TIME. Remember that point. Machines were supposed to make things quicker & easier. But the contrary effect of the web has been to make information acquisition longer & more complicated. We don’t have the time to wait on the phone for 5, 10, 20 minutes, listening to the canned voice drone on and on about how pushing 4 in this menu will then take you to the next menu where you have to push the right button to hear the next speech that really doesn’t have anything to do with your problem … when you KNOW you could just explain things in about 5 seconds to a human to get the result you need.

That interaction? That experience? That contact with a business/expert/publication that solves your problem when & how you need it?

That you can sell.

Bundle up services that allow you to filter & make sense of the relentless information flow, and the audience will choose that over spending all kinds of wasted time plowing through the info-overload SERPs — as long as the price is reasonable & proportional to the task at hand. There are rules for how you must prepare the ground for when the people come to you, looking for an answer, but this post is getting long, and I’ll have to address that later.