Je Suis Content

“Je Suis Content!” read the invitation to the reception opening the 2001 Content Summit in Zurich.

Disregarding that Zurich is in the German-speaking region of Switzerland and the official language of the Content Summit is English, every attendee understood the French pun.

In several European languages, the word “content” has two meanings: subject matter and satisfied. I know one director of content development who jokes his real job is to make his company’s developers happy.

Why not combine the meanings? Subject matter that satisfies. People will pay for satisfaction but won’t hand over a dime (or centime) for content that doesn’t make them content.

The real reason most consumers won’t pay for most online content nowadays isn’t that they’ve grown used to not paying. It isn’t that consumers somehow have to be educated or habituated into paying. The solution isn’t that online publishers should band together and start charging so consumers don’t have any other choice but to pay. Nor is the problem really the lack of workable micropayment transaction systems.

The real reason consumers won’t pay for most content online is the content. Current online subject matter doesn’t satisfy them.

This is a problem most online publishers fail to see. Figuratively, they can’t see the forest for the trees.

A few readers of this column inadvertently provided me with examples of this when, in August, I criticized the Online Publishers Association’s (OPA’s) report about a purported increase in consumer willingness to pay for online content.

The OPA, whose membership consists almost entirely of traditional news publishers, reported consumer spending on “paid online content” increased 92 percent since last year. The OPA reached that conclusion by conflating its definition of paid online consumer content to include not only what’s obviously not consumer content (such as professional and business-to-business research reports) but also online revenues from dating services, downloadable greeting cards, classmate finders, and online gaming sites.

A few readers disagreed. A typical reaction: “To say that ‘content’ means only feature articles and news stories is completely blinkered.” And, “What does it matter what you label content if it adds to an online publisher’s bottom line? Isn’t that what this is all about: creating viable revenues streams?” Some said I’m not open to “new thinking about content.”

The online paid content solution for OPA member companies (such as The New York Times, Forbes, MSNBC, and The Washington Post) isn’t to offer online dating services, greeting cards, classmate finders, and gaming sites. The solution is for those companies to perform their core missions in ways uniquely suited to this new medium, which most aren’t yet doing.

Those few of my readers were right. I’m not open to new thinking about content. I’m only open to radical thinking about content.

Many people talk about new thinking, but hardly any content is new. Like “new and improved,” it’s mainly a way of putting old products in new packages, a shibboleth for finding new ways of doing the old things. If a newspaper business model isn’t working online, the new-thinking answer is to use a TV, cable, direct mail, or directory industry business model online. New thinking for online newspapers is to charge for crossword puzzle hints.

Sure, some traditional forms of content do suit this new medium: dating services, greeting cards, classmate finders, restaurant guides, and games, to name a few. For most traditional publishers, whose current content is created for the characteristics of traditional media and might not necessarily be salable when provided on a new and different medium, the solution isn’t to simply offer dating services, greeting cards, classmate finders, restaurant guides, and games or even to switch to a different traditional medium’s business model. That’s old thinking in a new box.

The radical solution is for traditional publishers to provide content that performs their core missions in ways uniquely suite this new medium, rather than simply shoveling print or broadcast media content online. Too few publishers bother to engage in radical thinking to solve the problem of a radical new medium. Ditto for advertisers, who also resort to the same old new thinking, shoveling traditional ad practices online rather than engaging in the type of radical thinking led by pioneers such as Seth Godin.

Too many traditional publishers are still too stunned by continuing revenue problems to think radically about new media. The Content Summit in Zurich was cancelled this year, to be replaced next year by a much smaller gathering of European and American media companies’ CEOs with radical viewpoints.

Ils veulent etre content. They want to be content.

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