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Profiting from free, online content

There isn't a compelling business argument today that would suggest that giving away our content is a good idea. (more)

What tangible benefit does the New York Times get in return for being a world news library to us? It's neat to be revered by all as a repository of information, but without a visible associated profit, I can certainly understand why it could be rejected by higher-ups. In the interests of simplifying things, I'm going to make a gross generalization of this and call it: "How do I make money while giving everything away for free?":

Advertising
I'll award a $25 Amazon.com gift certificate to the person who emails me a screenshot of their Google toolbar having blocked the most pop-up ads. I ask only one thing: take the screenshot against the NYTimes.com site (more)
The scourge of optic nerves everywhere can still be useful when done tactfully. Loud, garish ads can send people into seizures, drive people to distraction, inspire thousands to write code to block them — all for the sake of making a buck. I prefer not to build my business by preying on humans, so I don't recommend this route. That said, it is actually desired in certain places. Optimizing for advertising profit results in cults of people whose sole purpose is to see your business crumble to dust, so use it as sparingly as possible.
Commission
products sold through the Amazon Recommends service earn a 4% referral fee for Classic plans and 5% for Tiered plans. (more)
While I'm reading the content, there may be various items for sale that I'd be interested in, that are related to what's being talked about. If I'm reading a New York Times article about "quantum dots", I'd very much like to have a link to a manufacturer's product catalog for them; the commission off of those sales could enormous, and that commission could be structured with every business linked from the content. Prints of the content, links to artists' galleries (5-digit commissions possible, here); there's hundreds of ways to make a percentage, with just a bit of effort.
Services
Entering your ZIP Code will provide you with a number of benefits, including articles, links, and attorney listings that are relevant for your state or locality. (more)
Provide a questions and answers service that handles incoming queries from the public, and work out special deals for libraries and schools and such so they can pay a sliding scale fee for research access. Put all those archives to good use, by hiring a staff of archivists and librarians and researchers, and then charge the world a fee to answer their questions. Many would rather pay to have a question answered (I've offered up to $50 before) than do the legwork themselves.
Donations
If you like TorrentFlux and you use it, please help support it. Thanks. Or buy something on my Wish List. (more)
Some people like to give back something in return for content; money, gifts, or comments. Be direct, but don't wave it around any more than is necessary to keep it in mind. If a user comes back more than once, or spends a few minutes on the site, show a donation blurb on the side of the page. One futuristic way to collect a donation that most users are unaware they have (and that most people do not need, but many do) is many seconds of computer work: complete computational tasks for a fee, using the processing power of the visitors. Resell visitors' processor time and show a counter on the page showing how much money they've made at your site, so that many users click on the long-term, "set this as my home page" button. I often walk away from my computer with web pages open, but intermittent visitors would still contribute a little.
Model
Advanced Search allows you to generate millions of customized search reports from our database of 7.5 million credits. (more)
By providing a high-quality, open-content, profitable business model, the NYT becomes the shining star for all data repositories; a sort of profitable library, that gives away everything yet still makes money doing it. Prices may drop when competition begins, but do not be afraid: an experienced hand doing competent work is unlikely to fail, and I respect that far more than a low price.

The various angles described above (examples at best, themselves) can scale to any sort of content repository, be it an image gallery or a newspaper. As a blogger, I'd be thrilled to provide a Q&A service on my blog; the default price would be free, but if someone wants to paypal me for answer, that option will be available. Some blog comments are more valuable than the post they're attached to, an unusual side effect that I'm not sure was anticipated. Selling idle computational power has the most dramatic possible potential, as the only business successfully harnessing the idle processing power of the world is spamming.

Martin Nisenholtz, are you listening? I miss seeing the NYT clean, easy-to-read page layout whenever I search for news on current (or past) events. I miss the simple links, the easy-to-look-at URLs. You have so many possible ways to make money off of that archive without hiding its content, and by doing so, you allow the entire industry to hold back political, economical, and social research.

Please reconsider closing your archives by fees; for every person who pays a fee, a thousand are turned away, unable to afford it, and a growing number each day find their way in through partner links, BugMeNot, and so on. Some people will develop whatever tools they can to circumvent locks you place on content, now that they've seen what free content is like; if you choose a business model that offers content for free, then those same people will build tools with your content.

Edit: Added quotes, fixed Nesenholtz typo (no disrespect intended).

Edit: Nick Douglas noted an inconsistency in the donation paragraph. Revised the paragraph in several places.

Comments

For businesses that stress customer service and quality products, a web site that offers good information -- more than just huckster advertising -- can lure in potential customers. The more unique and specific your information, the more likely the customers are a good fit for your company. When you come close to giving away your trade secrets, people will listen. In the research business, the market is small and specialized and the best trade secret may be valuable to only 100 customers in the world. Not much of a reason for a competitor to grab it up and reinvent the wheel, but a good reason for those 100 customers to seek you out and eventually buy your product. The more you CAN give away, the richer you and the the whole community will be. If you sell your creativity - you are always a step ahead of the competition, and you can afford to give away your secrets if it attracts customers who are looking for your solutions.

The above comment has a great sentence; "When you come close to giving away your trade secrets, people will listen" This is so true and I recently discovered how powerful that statement is. When I truly try to help people by giving them free advice they begin to listen. I have found the actually GIVING away my trade secrets is even better. As long you don't give them you markets, then why not give them all the tools, tips, and information they need.

I find that when provide real, fresh, and informative content for my readers, they respond in a profound way. The internet is littered with crap, so when you give people answers to their questions and problems, you can't help but grow a base.

For instance, this little post is no-where to be found on the internet, because I just thought it and typed it. This is a value to the blog owner. Of course when I partake in an honest discussion on this blog/site or any other blog/site, I possibly can be given an inbound link. A fair trade. I monitor the posts on my blogs like a hawk, and if a spammer tries to put on a lame post....I WHACK IT and the IP it rode in on!

Quality content is king. The hard part is finding king quality amongst the surf spam!

Brent

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