Welcome to the land where content is king

In my readings of all the industry hacks writing about the requirements for e-commerce, I’ve encountered an extremely bizarre attitude: that because some sites can’t survive solely by selling banner ads to support their content, maybe content isn’t that important. That’s patently ludicrous, since a content-free site would present a blank browser window: no title, no links, no graphics, no nothing. But perhaps the e-commerce people are onto something after all, since not all content is created equal. In fact, the real issue isn’t the primacy of content, since no user in their right mind will come to stare at a blank screen labelled Me.com; the real issue is what type of content you’re offering.

“Content” comprises a surprisingly large number of categories that go beyond the familiar text, graphics, and multimedia (sound or video). Content includes such less familiar things as links to other pages, services (e.g., purchasing), human interaction (e.g., “communities” joined by e-mail, chat, or message boards), peace of mind (e.g., the weather report that tells you your mid-January drive through the mountains isn’t going to be interrupted by a major blizzard), a computer-supplemented memory (e.g., online calendar and appointment software), and software (e.g., if you’re an application software provider). In fact, pretty much anything that you can do offline has an online equivalent, and that equivalent represents valuable content for those who need it.

The key to success lies in matching the right types of content – and others that have yet to be implemented because nobody’s thought to do so – to your audience’s desires for content. Do that well, and you’ll keep people coming back to your site. Making money’s another matter entirely, and for those of us with families to support, it’s an awfully important other matter.

Part of the problem is that the Internet’s culture has always emphasized the freedom of information, right from its earliest beginnings, and the same culture shock that strikes corporate executives travelling abroad for the first time without doing their homework strikes corporate planners who try to market their wares online without understanding the new culture they’ve entered. The runaway success of Linux undoubtedly owes something to periodic resurgence of anti-Microsoft sentiment, but owes even more to the fact that it’s free, and supported by a community of individuals rather than a seemingly monopolistic corporation. Those who make money selling Linux still give away their product, but sell the accompanying documentation and technical support.

The recent fuss over Napster is also revealing. As a writer, my initial reaction to royalty-free distribution of music was horror, since what can be done with music can be done with my writing. Yet paradoxically, many bands claim that the availability of their music online has actually increased sales. The model being adopted by some book publishers provides reassurance for those of us who make our living with the printed word: provide the first chapters free to hook your readers, then make it easy for them to buy the book. You’ll still have to have the book ready to ship, of course, but that’s another story.

Linux and Napster illustrate that you can make money with content: provide something useful (whether information or entertainment) for free to keep visitors returning, but provide additional value (more detailed information or better-quality entertainment) for a fee. Linux and Napster illustrate that people are fundamentally honest, and are willing to pay for value received. The proof of this particular pudding for those of us involved in the software business is that companies who produce good products still make enormous amounts of money, despite easy availability of pirated copies.

So just maybe we can make a living by providing content. Provided we understand our audience well enough to know what content they want or need, and providing it to them at a reasonable price.

Hart (geoff-h@mtl.feric.ca) is a translator, technical writer, editor and a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication. He lives in Pointe-Claire, Que., where he works for a forestry research institute.