Why Brands Should Produce Content They Can Sell for Actual Money

I’m going to throw down a gauntlet here: The measure of great branded content is whether the audience will pay for it.

Most of the time these days, brands looking to create content dive right into the free model. They believe they have to foot the bill to create a web news site, a magazine, a book. And then they give it away.

Brands in some way have been doing this forever, from airline magazines to Mayo Clinic’s web site and everything in between. The web has especially fueled the era of free content — Wired magazine shouted that to the world in 2008 with its cover story, Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business.

But there’s also always been another side to that story. Merck created its Merck Manual more than 100 years ago, and first gave the drug guides away to doctors — but later sold them to consumers. Now you can buy one in a bookstore or on Amazon — or buy one of its spin-offs, like the Merck Manual Home Health Handbook.

Weber, the grill company, pumps out a whole series of grilling cookbooks — and people buy them, at as much as $40 a pop. When I co-wrote the book The Two-Second Advantage with TIBCO CEO Vivek Ranadive, the idea from the start was to write a book good enough to sell to a mainstream publisher and make the bestseller list.

Bike apparel company Rapha publishes a literary cycling magazine, Rouleur, that it sells for $20 dollars an issue. Twenty dollars!

Harvard Business Review is a great branded content success. It is, actually, Harvard Business School’s branded content play — and it’s become a stand-alone business. These days, it’s available online, as an iPad app, and in the traditional magazine format. Buy an all-access pass for $99 a year.

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I can’t think of a brand that has created a new, digital content offering, and charged for it. (Let me know if I’m missing something.) But — why not? If it’s good enough — especially if it’s useful — people will pay for it.

Why should a brand even try to create content it can sell?

Well, for one, if you get the audience to pay, you’ll get a better audience. The audience will be invested in your content, so it will be more loyal, more likely to actually consume the content, more likely to buy into the brand.

And if we’re honest, free also lowers the expectations of greatness. If a brand is creating give-away content — it’s not charging the audience and it’s not charging advertisers — nobody expects the content to be truly, consistently great. The brand doesn’t have to lure the best talent or design a beautiful product. The burden is only to put out something that’s OK. So making a decision to sell content is making a decision to produce great content — and that can only be good for the brand.

It’s not about the money, by the way. As any media company knows, content can be a tough business to try to make a profit on. But, hey, if paying customers offset some of the cost while the content is benefitting the brand — what’s not to like?

Yes, sure, in a lot of situations, free probably makes sense. It lowers the barrier to getting an audience, especially when starting from scratch. Heck, this blog is free. If I charged for it at this point, I’d be lucky if my dog Louie subscribed.

But free isn’t always the answer. And when it comes to content, free may be the enemy of great.

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