I'm a big believer of giving content away for free - all of the material on experienced-people.co.uk is free as is information on most other sites I own.
But free has its problems. There is a cost to producing quality material. For many businesses, giving too much away for free puts the business's very survival at risk. Take newspapers. Giving free access to all the latest news on their sites (usually) means lower sales for their printed offerings and lower ad revenue. Sure, newspapers show ads on their websites. In fact, the medium allows a greater number of ads, more targeted ads and ads that can be easily changed at the flick of a switch. However, all said and done, these online ads don't generate as much per reader as the printed ads do especially when the content is read in feeds or read offsite via syndication, apps and news aggregation sites. Rupert Murdoch, for one, is a big believer in the paid model. James Murdoch's position is that "Free online content cannot be monetised efficiently." They started putting up paid walls a couple of years ago at some of their properties. And it ain't doing too badly. The FT has a quarter of a million subscribers paying £250 per year!
However, that doesn't gel with online culture. Like it or hate it, people expect things free online. Subs may work for niches like the Financial Times and the Economist - and for local news - but it doesn't translate well into other niches which lack the immediacy advantage of news or the exclusivity of access to high level expertise.
The Vice President of media at Yahoo wrote an article in 2009, How To Make The Free Model Work, in which he discusses where free works best and how to make it work. He advises that while UGC has its advantages, it's the quality that a specialist adds that attracts users. He also emphasises how important it is to cooperate with other publishers to drive traffic even if that means a revenue share and explains that the publisher needs to be "laser focused" on monetising - understanding what advertisers want and responding to their needs.
That's all very well, but how much of it can be implemented by smaller publishers? Most rely on posting the content and simply sticking Adsense code on their sites. There isn't the economic justification for partnering with other publishers on a revenue share or hiring marketing staff to keep a close tab on advertiser requirements or responding to those changing needs.
How can small publishers increase monetising of their free content? Are there tools to personalise the delivery of targeted content that could justify charging advertisers a premium to reach the audience? Is it via using free tools to create automated reports on user behaviour? Is it via audience engagement? Can the small publisher create value by delivering content in the right context at the right time to each user? By building trust? By providing some content for free to tempt users into paying for premium? By re-purposing content into new forms, formats and platforms?
What has worked for you? How do you make your content work harder?