Blending Free & Paid Content To Maximize Visibility And Profit

You only get to launch a product or service or piece of featured content once. Is the best way to maximize economic yield to make it free or paid? If it is free is can spread far and get many links, but it does not produce any revenue directly. If it is paid a much […]

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You only get to launch a product or service or piece of featured content once. Is the best way to maximize economic yield to make it free or paid? If it is free is can spread far and get many links, but it does not produce any revenue directly. If it is paid a much smaller audience will see it, and potentially one of them will be a competitor who will recycle your work and make it public to pull in links (I can’t tell you how common that is). I like the idea of trying to blend the free and paid ideas to get most of the benefits of free while actually being able to profit from your work.

Venture capitalist Fred Wilson recently posted about how he likes the monetization model of the Financial Times, which
allows you to view up to 9 pages a month for free, and then starts charging for the 10th page and beyond if you want to consume that much information.

This model works well because it leaves the content open to the active web for linking and social media exposure while also making the content accessible for search engines to index and rank it to build up a passive latent audience. It is nearly as good as scroll cloaking from a monetization standpoint, but offers a much more credible and brand-friendly user experience.

Some people who are tech savvy will likely get around some pay restrictions. Danny Sullivan demonstrated how to read the Wall Street Journal for free, but most people will pay, just like people pay for billions of dollars of songs on iTunes that they could download for free. Insert a minor obstacle between the content and if it is popular and well-known most people will jump through it.

The loss for not using security is generally quite minimal if you have a good product at a fair price and target the right audience. Back when I sold an ebook it was available via an unencrypted and unsecure page. Over 10,000 people bought it, only about 5 people complained about the lack of security, and more than 5 people emailed me to tell me that they read it off a torrent network and then decided to buy the most current version.

Did the lack of DRM mean that I had to deal with a few dozen people who bought the ebook and then asked for a refund within 3 minutes of their purchase? Absolutely. But very few actually did. The end result of the model was more sales and more satisfied customers. I left the ebook unencrypted because that created a better customer service and I knew that any distribution via theft & sharing would act as free marketing and prevent me from having to deal with many of the worst potential customers.

In search, some people are great at getting lots of traffic, while yet another group of people are great at turning traffic into cash. It is a rare talent to be good at both, and I think many people in the SEO industry put too much focus on traffic and not enough on profits. I was certainly a member of the under-monetizer club, and have just recently started giving up my cool kids badge.

The three ways I have been able to do blend the free and paid models so far have been:

  • Using the link equity from well-linked to pages to subsidize the rankings of pages that are commercially focused
  • Splitting the content in half & making the first half free
  • Launching for free, but erecting a barrier to entry after the content is well-established.

The first method is part of the classic affiliate model. You do something that is remarkable to pull in links, and the rising tide from that effort helps lift the rankings of all other pages on your site. If Google has to chose between ranking 5 approximately equivalent sites then the site which also has some well-linked content published on it will typically win.

When I wrote a post about the Google Vince update I knew it was going to cause a stir. I wanted the exposure, but also wanted it to generate revenues. The solution I came up with was to make the first half free and the second half part of our paid content, and market the premium content at the bottom of the free post with “Want to read the rest of our analysis? If you are a subscriber you can access it here.” The post earned a couple thousand inbound links, a response video from Matt Cutts, and it brought in a couple dozen new subscribers to our site. Not a bad return for about 4 hours of work.

For a while we had a pop up ad on the SEO Book site, but I didn’t much like it, and many visitors complained about it. We instead decided to remove the pop up and shift some of our free Firefox extensions to require registration on the site in order to download them. This was accomplished by adding php if/else statements on the download page that verified the person was logged into a free account on our site before allowing them to download the tools.

The extensions already have tons of inbound links and great rankings, and using this strategy enables us to offer the option of getting our auto-responder to people downloading the tools. The tool download page also markets our paid services and we use our affiliate software to track sales. We have tracked many paid sign-ups through the tool download page, taking our free tools from a loss leader marketing channel to something that can pay for itself while offering free promotion & exposure to the site.

How do you blend free and paid? What have you found that works well for you?

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About the author

Aaron Wall

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