A fairy tale: ‘Giving your content away for free’ is not the problem – giving your audience away for free is

handful of sweets

A grocer doesn’t give away content – they sell packages of content. Image by Agel Alcantara

Are publishers ‘giving away the grocery’? That’s the argument Richard Coulter, publisher of the hyperlocal paper and website Filton Voice, made In the lead up to yesterday’s BBC event on ‘The Revival of Local Journalism‘. His analogy, published on the BBC’s Academy site, described a grocer’s which opened a second shop ‘at the bottom of the hill’:

“This shop offered the same goods as the original shop but gave them away for free. Its staff were a little cold and none of the townsfolk knew much about them.

“Over time the townsfolk realised that, with money being tight, although they wanted to support the shop at the top of the hill, it seemed a bit daft when they could get the same things at the bottom of the hill for free, and without having to make that difficult journey. There was a delivery van but it only serviced certain streets.

Not surprisingly, over time customers chose to use the outlet selling the free grocery, rather than the friendlier but more costly original.

The analogy is a common one in the news industry. But Coulter admits it is “Not the best, and maybe simplistic.”

So here’s a longer, less simplistic version of this tale. Let me know what you think.

There was once a town which had a successful grocery shop – well-established and situated at the top of the hill.

The grocer’s inventory was well packaged, but limited: whether you liked ginger beer or broccoli, you had to buy a hamper of pre-selected tinned goods to get it. So although in recent years it had seen some decline, it was still profitable. This was a boutique business.

Some time later she opened a shop at the bottom of the hill that was within easy reach of the houses. But at this outlet, produce was displayed without packaging: customers had to buy their own boxes and bags and bring them to the shop.

Because it was free, the customers were prepared to make the investment in containers. (The box industry was a growth area!)

This made the shop popular – which was the gamble it was making. As the crowds built up, other businesses wanted to be there too. So the grocer’s charged them to display posters on its walls. Then it rented out neighbouring land. It allowed businesses to sell to its customers, and took a cut.

Far from being cold, the shop staff developed close relationships with the customers, and used the opportunity to show off their other skills. Customers would commission the staff to use those skills to produce things, or to teach them those skills. The grocer’s, of course, took a cut too.

Because of the close relationships, staff would hear about things that their customers needed. They began to organise events, festivals – even dating. Their particular brand of humour inspired t-shirts and other merchandise.

And what of the original grocery store? They continued to sell hampers to people who wanted it neatly packaged and pre-selected. But to the fast-increasing numbers of people who only liked beans, or vegetables, or sweets, there was the other outlet.

In fact, there were many such outlets: indeed, the grocer had opened a second shop because she had heard rumours about similar shops in other towns, and the changing behaviour of these strange customers who brought their own boxes.

Many startup grocers had gone out of business – unable to find ways to make money out of their customers. But many old fashioned grocers had gone out of business for the same reasons too: and they were only charging enough to cover the cost of the hampers. (Some blamed the box industry: “They’re stealing our grocery!” they protested.)

For some time the grocery industry was a stressful place to work. Grocers advised their children to learn about boxes. But for those who loved grocery whether it came in hampers or boxes, they stuck with it and were happier for it.

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One thought on “A fairy tale: ‘Giving your content away for free’ is not the problem – giving your audience away for free is

  1. Pingback: The hook on which we are caught | Headlines and Deadlines

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