When do you want free content?

The content conundrum: 1. Companies want content; 2. Content costs money. 3. Most companies don’t have a ton of money to spend on content.

But wait, there’s millions of people around the world posting photos and blogging and tweeting and creating bajillions of bytes of content for free – can’t companies just use some of that? Aren’t there hordes of people willing to write just for exposure?

Obviously, it’s not quite that easy, despite the fact that many companies still haven’t learned this lesson. Stepping back, should companies even want free content to begin with? Does it actually provide the value they think it does? It depends on who you ask.

When should companies want free content?

The company perspective: Always. Why pay for something that you can get for free or next to nothing? Everyone is a content creator these days.

The creative perspective: Never. Pay the writer. Pay the photographer. Pay the illustrator. Pay the videographer. This is skilled labor, jackass.

As a writer, I have a bias toward paying professional creatives. It’s hard work, it takes years of practice to do well, and paying your dues never really ends. Owning a wrench doesn’t make you a plumber. I also support paying people on time – crazy, I know.

As an editor, I’ve commissioned articles, photography and video from professionals, and I’ve run a number of user-generated content (UGC) programs for the same, and the general rule is this: you get what you pay for. But I’ve also had some success with UGC and I’m willing to concede that there are a few rare occasions when free content is practical, desirable, and not shockingly insulting to highly skilled creatives. I don’t think I’m supposed to admit this, but there are even a few things that the crowd can do that paid professionals can’t.

When you might want free content:

1) When you’re more interested in the value provided by scale

Services like Trip Advisor and Yelp could never exist without vast armies of willing volunteers providing reviews and photos. “But,” I hear you say, “the reviews are mostly crap, written by amateurs, sometimes blatantly fake, often people with axes to grind, so it borders on useless.” All true, to a point. With sufficient volume, useful patterns emerge: the overall rating for a hotel among 2000 reviews, the most frequently mentioned dishes at a restaurant, the concentration of highly rated venues in one city versus another.

All of these patterns not only hold value for readers, they provide information that a few highly trusted individuals could never produce. How people act on this information is up to them: some may use it to follow the herd, others may use it to do the exact opposite. Individual reviews may be of limited use, but even here there’s hope: with trust graphs that upweight content from verified and trusted contributors, individual reviews – even from strangers – can become more useful.

2) When people are already willingly creating the content you need

UGC’s history is littered with the corpses of programs (and entire companies) that banked on getting people to do things for free that they weren’t already doing. You can incentivize new behaviors to a degree (e.g. check in at a restaurant, get a deal), but following existing patterns of behavior and motivation will always prove more successful.

In my time at Lonely Planet, we ran dozens of small photo contests to varying degrees of success. Submit your best picture of food, get a guidebook, and things of that nature. But the biggest success came from something we didn’t even ask for. We started noticing that travelers were posting photos of themselves with their Lonely Planet guidebooks in the destination, sometimes in hilarious ways, other times even tracking down the exact spot that the cover photo was taken from. This led to Lonely Planet in the Wild, a program that is still running along nicely today. Recreating this with professional photographers would be cost-prohibitive and, more importantly, miss the point entirely. These aren’t professionals on a photo shoot, they’re people like you and me on an adventure.

Tourism Australia has a simple and elegant approach to Instagram. Australia is a popular tourist destination, travel photos are one of the most shared types of content on any social platform, and tourists in Australia are naturally using the hashtag #australia when they share their photos. While Tourism Australia encourages the use of the hashtag (and now they’re asking people to tag @australia to follow Instagram’s clarified rules for reposting), people were already using it en masse, so they’re simply reinforcing an existing behavior not trying to create a new one. And the results speak for themselves, in an analysis from last year by Skift, of the 200 most popular travel photos on Instagram, 197 of them came from Tourism Australia.

3) When you have a reasonable expectation of quality

The second advantage to Tourism Australia’s Instagram strategy is that they can reliably get content of sufficient quality. They have a high volume from which to curate, they have a fantastically photogenic subject in Australia, and they have Instagram, which, as everyone knows, instantly turns any mobile phone owner into Ansel Adams. Well, maybe not, but it’s at least very good at making meh photos look better than meh. The stars align for Tourism Australia, but this is a rare example and it won’t work so neatly for most companies.

4) When free is actually a better value

Free content is never free. Free content is sometimes but very, very rarely a better value than paid content from professionals when you factor in all of the true costs: curation, moderation, legal fees, privacy issues, quality control, effect on brand perception, general admin, development costs, etc. If you do the math honestly, most UGC programs will not prove worth the time and money.

5) When you’re more interested in collecting data about your customers and their friends than you are in creating a valuable content offering

Strike this. Please don’t do this. There are better ways that won’t risk the fate of your immortal soul.

So, this leaves us with a few simple rules:

5 Simple Rules for Free Content

  1. Never ask a creative professional for free labor unless you’re their mom and it can be used to offset the rent they owe you for living in your basement.
  2. Free content isn’t inherently bad, but it’s very rarely worth your while. Always model the true costs of a UGC program before you start. Is it significantly more cost-effective and will it affect my brand in a positive/neutral way? If the answer to either question is “No” or “Dunno” then do not proceed.
  3. Never conflate a swarm of drones with a community. That takes a separate piece of work.
  4. Don’t try to scale something that can’t be scaled. A hastily written 50-word review of a donut shop and a thoughtful 1500-word essay are not the same thing.
  5. Do consider the emergent properties of content at scale. There are select services that the crowd can provide that creative professionals cannot.
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