Articles / Realising commercial benefits from open content

Over the years, I have worked with a number of organisations who’s primary business model is focussed on creating and selling ideas. In the past they would have sold the ideas as content – usually books and videos. It was a highly scaleable model which has its roots in the invention of the printing press. The process of production was so complex and specialised that people were prepared to pay for the outputs, as they couldn’t get them any other way.

Now, however, it is so easy for anyone to create, distribute and copy digital content that it brings into question a business model which is based on selling such content.

In this post, I discuss an approach to business which is based on giving away your generic ideas and selling the specific and the hard to get. It’s designed to be a discussion starter, as I know that this approach will not work in every situation…

The benefits

“So the strategy comes down to this: Give away the content that benefits many; sell the stuff that appeals to the niche.”[v]

Making your generic, digital content freely available brings the following benefits:

  • It builds your reputation and trust in your services[i]
  • It enables you to reach a far wider potential market
  • It is the best way to increase your ranking in search engine results[ii]
  • It enables you to charge higher prices for the paid-for services that you offer[iii]
  • It reduces the effort of dealing with enquiries for information/resources
  • It reduces the amount of legal input required through adoption of existing licences (particularly if you use Creative Commons licensing)
  • It reduces the cost and effort involved in Digital Rights Management – which, in most cases, doesn’t work anyway[iv]
  • It reduces the barriers to entry for your potential clients
  • It reduces the number of people who are leaving your website and going to other places that provide the information they need

Realising the benefits

There are a number of things you can do that will help you to still receive an income from your ideas:

  • Provide specific, bespoke services, eg. Consultancy, workshops, training
  • Provide additional services as a wrapper to the generic, digital content, eg. Print versions, bespoke branding, bespoke content, aggregated content in mobile apps or ebooks
  • By commercially licensing your content when it is to be used by commercial organisations
  • By accrediting qualifications based around your particular area of knowledge
  • By providing high-quality events focussed on putting your content into practice

Case studies

Case study: TED Talks

“Sharing online was a very controversial decision. People feared it would capsize my business, discourage people from paying for my conference, and be rejected by speakers.

“The first year after releasing videos of talks for free, I raised the cost of the conference by 50 percent and sold out in one week with a 1,000 person waiting list,” Cohen says. “Not only do speakers lobby for the talks to be posted as soon as possible, but paying conference participants are anxious to share talks they just heard with family, friends and colleagues.” [vi]

Case study: Manager Tools

Go to the Manager Tools website[vii] and you will find a growing library of high-quality management development resources available in the English-speaking world. Most of that is given for free, without even requiring any sort of registration. With about 150,000 downloads per week, you get an indication of how useful their materials are.

The content is generic, in that it can be applied to the widest audience possible.

But people are prepared to pay for the stuff that is bespoke to them. And, if they know it’s going to be high-quality, they’ll pay a lot of money.

By giving away their content, Manager Tools have demonstrated their capability. You know what you’re going to get from them.

More than that, the team have built up a community of over 67,000 people who have chosen to register and actively engage in their open forums.

Having built up a reputation for good, useful advice, the Manager Tools team have been able to realise its value in three ways:

  1. By hosting expensive, high quality, medium-scale, conferences where participants are able to practice the guidance in the materials whilst being observed by experienced coaches.
  2. By providing bespoke consultancy services for organisations wishing to improve their management practices.
  3. By creating bundles of materials that can be purchased to support the free materials.


[i] Why reputation and trust are essential for marketing:

[ii] How free content will improve your search engine ranking:

[iii] The impact of free content on the music industry:

[iv] How DRM hasn’t worked for the games industry:

[v] A sales strategy based on free content:

[vi] Case study of TED talks:

[vii] Manager Tools:

Posted: 01 April 2015

Tags: Business