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You’re not selling content; you are selling emotion

By on September 21, 2011

This post originally appeared in the Digital Content Monetization newsletter and is reproduced by kind permission. You can find further posts under the DCM tag.

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Last month, I argued why, on a ten year view, I don’t believe it will be possible to charge for basic access to content. We will all expect to have access to all the music, all the books, all the television and all the games that we could ever want. Does that mean we should all give up and stop making music, games, books and movies?

Not in the slightest. There has never been a better time to be a content creator. To have the opportunity to motivate the tribes of people who love what you do. To find the super fans for whom spending £100 a month or more on your content feels like great value. To use the power of the Internet to achieve the Holy Grail of marketing: true price discrimination.

The Internet is not all bad

Much of the discussion about the emergence of the Internet as a distribution channel has focused on the impact of free. This is not surprising. It is the most visible change being wrought on the music and other media industries and it is also the most terrifying. If you make a living selling content, the idea that it will inevitably become free is always going to be hard to swallow.

The obsession with free distracts from the other key opportunity afforded by the Internet: the ability to have one-to-one conversations (and individually-tailored price points) with a mass audience. By allowing artists, developers, authors and filmmakers to bypass the inefficient retail channels which require, by their very nature, a one-size-fits-all product priced at the same price from Lands End to John O’Groats, the Internet has created a new model for how we charge for content.

Trent Reznor used the web to give much of his content away for free while also charging $300 for the ultra-deluxe version of his album, Ghosts I-IV. What else would people pay for?

How to sell emotion?

When you buy an album, you are buying much more than access to music. You might be buying a statement about who you are. You might be completing a collection. You might be listening to the album or buying it because everyone else did. The motivations behind the purchase may be internal or external, emotional or simply to satisfy a collector’s itch. But more often than not (I would contend always), there is a stronger emotion than simply wanting to listen to a particular track.

If you want an example, think back to school or student days. When you visited somebody’s room, you checked out their music collection to see what sort of person they were. The albums they listened to, the band T-shirts they wore, the posters on their walls all gave clues to who they were or how they wanted to be seen.

In my April column, I referred to asking a group of game design students in any of them had bought a CD this year. (If you don’t remember the anecdote, they laughed at the suggestion). I followed that question with another one: how many of you have purchased virtual goods. A few hands went up. I added “even buying items to dress your avatars in PlayStation Home or on the Xbox”. Every hand went up.

xbox live avatars

The media you consume is an expression of who you are, consciously or unconsciously. People will spend money:

  • To stand out: “I’ve got a signed edition of Lucky Jim, a Collector’s Edition of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, the ultra-deluxe edition of Trent Reznor’s Ghosts I-IV.
  • To fit in: if you own a copy of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code or REM’s Automatic for the People, you know what I mean.
  • To stand out and fit in: I am no Goth, so may not understand the intricacies of bleak, miserable music, but I am sure that within those communities, your choice of music says a lot about what type of Goth you are.
  • To broadcast their status: which maybe wealth, erudition, niche knowledge or any other attribute about which people might feel proud.
  • To impress the opposite sex.

The end of content?

For the past 500 years, it has been impossible to separate the distribution vector of the content (the book, the album, the DVD) from what consumers actually pay for. Publishers and content creators started believing that the physical medium mattered and had innate value.

It doesn’t. It only matters to the extent that it creates an emotional connection with his audience, and that that connection generates a desire to pay.

As we move beyond the idea of physical media as access devices and see them more as status devices, we have the opportunity to sell our content at a whole range of price points to people ranging from disinterested passers-by to the most ardent super fans.

This is great news. I’m not yet convinced that this will be additive to the total media revenue pie. But at least it will stop it from disappearing as fast as some Internet Cassandras have predicted.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: