The Ongoing Struggle of Free vs. Fee, Part Two

How can traditional information industry companies survive in the world of free web content? How can they appeal to “digital natives” who question the value of paying for information? Coverage of the ASIDIC Fall Meeting continues.

A special report from the ASIDIC Fall Meeting, September 10-12, Newport Beach, CA. Part one of this article is The Ongoing Struggle of Free vs. Fee.

Adapting to the online world of free information

Particularly striking during the conference was the level of forward thinking displayed by one company from the premium content publishing world, ThomasNet, who had successfully embraced the field of search engine marketing. Paul Gerbino, a vice president from Thomas Publishing spent a bit of time discussing how his company had embraced the web with the conference host, Frank Bilotto.

The truly surprising synopsis of that discussion is that Thomas shifted their entire business model from subscription to advertising in only the course of a few years. For a very large organization that was over 100 years old, you can imagine how much resistance there had to have been to making this change.

Paul offered some fascinating insights on how this transition was made from “P to E” (print to electronic) in such a short time. There are a few other companies that have come to more fully embrace the web, and their results should be scaring these other companies that choose not to make the jump. The results that were displayed were extraordinary, and the opportunity for future growth was limitless.

Digital immigrants vs. digital natives

One of the other very heavily discussed topics of the conference was the idea of digital natives and digital emigrants presented by Matthew Hong of Thomson Gale publishing, expanding on ideas originally developed by visionary/futurist Mark Prensky.

According to Hong, digital immigrant are individuals who were not born into the digital world, but have emigrated to it. Digital natives, by contrast, were born into technology. These groups of people, including “Generation Y,” “Millennials,” and the “MyPod Generation” are individuals born between 1978 and 1998, and number approximately 76 million in the U.S.

The discussion of transitioning between the two age demographics of digital immigrants vs. natives seemed to be a key component to the strategies of these large publishing companies will use that will ultimately determine whether they will survive or not.

The key takeaway here is that there is a rapidly growing disconnect between traditional information solutions, which tend to cater to digital immigrants, and user behavior of digital natives. While digital immigrants are willing to purchase traditional information services, the internet is clearly the primary research tool of digital natives. Over 71% of students reported using the internet as the major source of information for recent school projects, with 73% reporting using the Internet more frequently than the library.

Is free content “good enough?”

Content may be king, but accessibility to that content and finding new models for the monetization of information will be the only things that keep it from being free. Some content (how to bandage a wound) needs only to be “good enough”, where other content (how to perform open heart surgery) must be very precise. Expertise, credibility, and organization is what separates “good enough” from premium content.

The prevalence of “good enough” information has shaken the premium content industry to its core, but also serves t increase the overall value of expert information and reducing the overall noise level. There is a fundamental need for traditional information providers to shift to more creative revenue models embodied by the new distribution channel of the web as it reaches mass adoption.

To create a new revenue model for premium content providers, there are few key questions that need to be answered by the large publishers as the demand to threats from lower overhead digital media providers becomes stronger. Most critical among these will be: Where should the registration and subscription “walls” be placed? How will we transition digital emigrants to the new models, and how long do we leave our legacy systems in place? What are the actual threats that the new modes create, and how do we overcome them? What opportunities for new revenue models does this new medium provide? How can we effectively track information about our users? How can we better determine what our users want? How do we more effectively monetize those needs?

Elisabeth Osmeloski oversees the day-to-day operations of the Search Engine Watch site in her role as Managing Editor, and Todd Malicoat is an internet marketing consultant for

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