A Business Model for Content? Talk to Businesses.

Who will pay for content?

If you're a writer, a reporter, a film producer or some other sort of information artist, that's the billion-dollar question on your mind. The monetization schemes we've grown up with are deteriorating, and it's unclear where the next decade of pay checks will come from.

Lots of ideas are on the table (Jeff Jarvis recently summarized many), but most media makers are ignoring one strategy that is actually working: creating content for businesses.

I'm not talking about infomercials. I'm talking about content used as inbound marketing — high-quality blogs, research and video that is useful and interesting to a business' customers. Businesses are finding that this type of media is an effective way of attracting potential customers to their web sites.

Consider the world of inside sales content. Ten years ago, the best way to monetize inside sales content was to publish it in a print magazine with advertising next to it. Today, companies that operate in this world have a huge incentive to create and publish content on their own. That's why some of the best sales content you'll find is on the blog of The Bridge Group, an inside sales services business.

This type of content has real business value. The HubSpot blog is currently generating about 400 or 500 leads a week for HubSpot's paid software package. Assuming we pay $10/lead for blog leads (and that's low, because the blog leads are very, very high quality), the blog is generating $4,000 to $5,000 in value for us a week. That's a model that works.

Of course, traditional media turns its nose up at content produced by business. Business content is biased and low quality, they assume.

But that's no longer true. Businesses now have an incentive to create high-quality content where bias is minimized and transparent. Businesses like HubSpot and The Bridge Group can generate lots of leads and traffic from content — but only if readers embrace their content by linking and sharing.

I see this firsthand editing the HubSpot blog. The posts I'm not happy about (the ones I know will be less useful to our target customers) generate less traffic, links, leads and — ultimately — customers. That gives me a strong incentive to keep quality high.

Content produced by businesses isn't going to fill the gap left when newspapers disappear, but it will be part of the solution. If you're a content consumer, businesses will become an increasingly reliable source of information. If you're a content producer, businesses will become an increasingly reliable source of income.

Not a Growth Business

Terry Heaton (via Scott Rafer): "The problem is that the distribution of content isn’t the real problem
for media companies; it’s the growing ability of advertisers to reach
people without media companies. Advertising is the disruption that
should trouble media companies, not what’s happening to their content.
Ad-supported content is simply not a growth business anymore; it cannot
provide sustainable growth, because the disruption isn’t about content."

And Noah Brier: "Put another way, it's the ability of brands to be their own media companies."

Don’t Ask How to Save the Globe, Ask How to Replace It

This morning the Boston Business Journal reported that the Boston
Foundation is discussing
ways to help finance The Globe if it is shut
down by The New York Times
. It's a little unclear what the nature of
the conversations are, but they seem to reflect the gist of
conversations
happening in public on the web: "Quick — the sky is
falling! How can we save the Globe?!?"

This is the wrong approach.

We shouldn't be asking how to save The Globe, we should be asking how we'll build its replacement.

The Globe has served us for years, but its financial dysfunction is staggering. It doesn't work any more. Period.

Instead of trying to prop up this dying system, our community needs to
come up with new ways to make information public, share it and discuss
it.

We're already seeing online substitutes for some pieces of The Globe.
Red Sox commentary is ubiquitous, sites like Blue Mass Group have rich
political discourse and there is a fair amount of local arts coverage
on the web. Of course, it's not clear what will replace The Globe's
hard news and investigative journalism. I believe there will be less
need for original hard news reporting as primary sources do the
reporting themselves
, but there will still be a big hole, without a
clear way to fill it.

There is one thing we can do: Experiment.

Instead of pouring one huge
chunk of money into The Globe, The Boston Foundation should fund
community news experiments. They should fund people like Adam Gaffin
who are highlighting local blogs, sites like Somerville Voices that are organizing community discussions and local versions of the Sunlight Foundation that are helping make government data public.

The Knight Foundation's News Challenge is a great model for this approach. If the Boston
Foundation started giving away grants to creative
local news experiments, their inboxes would be stuffed with great
ideas.

We're in the midst of a revolution. Blood is being shed. It's nasty out there.

The
good news is that once we get through this rough patch, we're going to
have an information ecosystem that is far richer, more diverse and
more truthful than the one we have now. I'm looking forward to it.

P.S. If this issue is important to you, these recent posts by Clay Shirky and Steven Johnson are required reading.