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Why people will no longer pay for access to content
This post was originally written for the Bookseller, and appeared in the supplement for the Futurebook Conference on 5th December 2011. It is accompanied by the presentation that I gave at the event.
My three-year-old son Alasdair is a fan of The Octonauts, the animated children’s television series that follows eight anthropomorphic animal aquanauts who explore, rescue and protect the creatures who live under the oceans.
If it were up to Alasdair, he would watch the entire series every day, possibly several times. In a previous era, maybe two years ago, Alasdair would have owned a DVD of The Octonauts to enable him to watch episodes whenever he fancied, or more accurately, whenever we let him.
In this era, we don’t own a DVD, because between the iPlayer and a digital video recorder, we have access to every Octonauts episode whenever we want them for free.
If Alasdair asks me for an Octonauts DVD for Christmas, I would give him one, though. He wouldn’t be asking for it in order to watch the show whenever he wants, because he can already do that. He would be doing it to demonstrate to the world that he is an Octonauts fan. To have the joy of ownership. To see the DVD on the shelf and get a little frisson of enjoyment just from seeing it. To show it to his friends and family as something that is, unlike the digital version, unequivocally his. I would give an Octonauts DVD to Alasdair because doing so would make him happy.
All of these reasons are social, interpersonal or emotional. None of them have anything to do with getting access to content.
The value of a dead tree book or a shiny DVD is partly in the way it lets you access the content whenever you want. It is also in the social, emotional, personal or status benefits it confers. These vary from person to person and product to product. You might like to own the entire catalogue of Lee Child’s books or like the visual allure of shelves of books in the distinctive livery of Picador, Faber or Penguin Classics. You might want to demonstrate your erudition, or your love of Dan Brown. You might remember a book or a DVD as a gift from a friend or as a treat for yourself.
As content migrates to a digital world, the cost of making one more copy becomes as close to zero as makes no odds. When that happens, the price of digital content will trend to free, and consumers will no longer pay for basic access to content. So how are you going to offer them something that they will pay for at an emotional, personal or social level? And how will you make up the revenue that you have lost when consumers no longer pay to access?