Imagine walking into your dentist’s office and seeing a flat panel monitor in the waiting room…
The 52-inch beauty rotated a variety of ads on various toothy products while you waited. One showed a really cool new electric toothbrush. Another boasted cool new disposable waterless toothbrush/toothpaste combo kits. You glance at them here and there, then the receptionist calls your name and off you go for a cleaning.
Thirty minutes later to return to the front desk to pay your $50 and be on your way.
Six months later, you return for another cleaning. This time, the dentist’s office has added a second screen to the cleaning room. It’s starting to feel a bit unseemly, but the service is still great, so you deal with it. When you return to the front desk, the receptionist asks you for $25.
Why not $50? You ask.
Because, she says, the advertisers on the TVs are paying us, so now we can charge you less.
Sweet! You proclaim, slapping down $25 and wandering out.
Six more months pass and, upon arriving for your cleaning, you expect to pay $25. Seated in the dental chair, you notice, added to the two screens, the hygienist is wearing scrubs with the logo of a particular toothpaste emblazoned on them. It’s a bit odd, you mention. I thought so, too, she says.
But, now our services are free, because our sponsors are paying the tab.
Something about the whole sponsored dentistry thing bugs you, but it’s the best dentist in town and now it’s free. So, you deal with it.
A few more years pass, you’re still getting premium dental care, without paying a dime. You’ve come to accept the notion that top notch service is and should be free. And, in order to compete, all the other dentists in town have changed to a sponsored model that allows the patients to come free. Actually, not all. Some tried and went out of business, because their practices weren’t large enough to get big ad dollars.
Everywhere you go, it’s on someone else’s dime.
Then, something odd happens…
You show up to the dentist for a cleaning and notice there’s only one screen and the scrubs are back to plain old dentist sea-foam green. Before you go into the office, the receptionist says, Listen, I hope it’s okay, but the whole sponsored dentistry model didn’t really work, so we need to start charging you for visits again.
What?! You proclaim. Why should I pay you, when every other dentist in town is free? How dare you think you have the right to charge ME money for the value you provide?
I’m outta here!
Now, swap your dentist for…The New York Times.
Over a period of decades, the Times became one of the most trusted and valued sources of journalism in the world. So valued, people willingly paid good money every day to enjoy the content.
Then, the internet was born. And, it seemed everyone was doing the free thing. The Times had to make a call and, after a number of experiments, decided to go free. Just like the dentists. Relying solely on ad dollars to survive. And, after years of training their readers to expect to pay, in the blink of an eye, they re-trained them to expect what they offered for free.
But, it didn’t work…
Today, the Times announced that after delivering one of the most valuable online news and journalism resources on the planet for free for years, after causing countless others to go free in a futile attempt to compete, they’re now reverting back to a paid model. Because the sponsorships don’t cover their costs.
Problem is, they’ve spent the last decade meticulously patterning their readers to believe great news SHOULD cost nothing.
They’ve taken a product that took decades to build a monetary value around and in a few short years reprogrammed 3 generations of readers to expect something for nothing. To expect somebody else to foot the bill in exchange for us having to develop the habit of ignoring that somebody else’s ads.
Some might say, The Times made their bed, now they have to lie in it.
Problem is, they DO provide value. Value worth paying for. Value we don’t want to go away.
Their mistake was not in failing to give us something extraordinary, but rather in training us to believe it was economically valueless
Today, they owned up to the fact that the model they created is and always was broken. It’s unsustainable. Somebody always has to pay for great content. The sponsors can’t do it anymore. And, truth be told, they never could. Which puts the value question squarely back in the laps of the readers. The ultimate consumers. Us.
Can they reset our expectations on a mass level?
Can they retrain us to re-associate extraordinary content creation with value we’re willing to pay for?
Because, if they can’t, that content does not inevitably just continue on. It goes away. And, we all lose.
Despite the ballyhoo of the Free Brigade…there is no free.
If I buy a gorgeous painting, I expect to pay. If I order a great book, I expect to pay. If I buy a song on iTunes, I expect to pay. And, the fact that each might also come bundled with an ad or insertion that promotes somebody else’s stuff doesn’t nullify the net value I get from the painting, book or song.
Nor does the fact that the cost of delivery rounds close to zero negate the fact that the cost of creation was great.
Somebody always pays somewhere in the chain.
For a long time, it’s been someone else.
So, when’s our turn?
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