When you have scarcity you have price control. But the web makes most forms of scarcity a farce. That is why so many marketers place arbitrary limits on their offerings (like sales price ends today or we are only letting in x more customers), to make it seem as though their information is bound by some limits. Just about every idea worth selling is accessible for free if you spend enough time to sort through it all, and just about everything ends up bootlegged on eBay and Limewire.
If everything is available for free then how can we sell anything?
Is Anything Really Free?
The truth is nothing is free. The stuff that is pitched as free is usually an ad, or wrapped in ads. You don't know if someone is getting paid for their words, you don't know their qualifications or motives, and you don't know if they have philosophical interests setting their goals for how your opinions and worldviews should be shaped.
How Good Information Stays Hidden
Beyond that unknown ad / bias / other influence, the other problem with free information is that it is often hard to find the best parts.
- Some sectors of the web are entirely invisible. A friend has published a great blog for months now, which has 0 traction because without marketing nobody can find her site or subscribe to it.
- Sometimes garbage information is easily accessible because of high affiliate payout schemes, manipulative public relations budgets, authoritative websites cashing in publishing junk content, or because the self reinforcing nature of authority (especially on the web).
- As forums grow in popularity they become a sea of noise. How do you rate the best threads? How do you keep them separate from the noise and make them easy to find?
- Old blogs do the same as their information ages AND much of the information becomes inaccessible due to depth and breadth of information coupled with poor information architecture and comment systems that place great comments next to junk. It sometimes takes me a half hour to find stuff I posted, and I am a good searcher with a great memory.
The link graph solves part of this problem by making it easy to locate what is popular, but popularity and quality are not one and the same. Popularity is more aligned with brand strength, marketing budget, who came to market early, and who is controversial than it is with information quality.
Onsite vs Offsite Marketing Spend Mismatch
Given that many people are selling the same ideas and similar products, packaging and formatting are key to maintaining profit margins.
How much does Google make? We spend a near endless sum of money bring people to our sites, but how much do we spend on ensuring our sites are easy to use and convert well? Usually there is a big miss-match between onsite and offsite spending. If we optimize the on site experience we have a higher visitor value and can afford to pay more for advertising, thus gaining a larger marketshare or allowing us to raise our rates to filter out the low end of the market.
Optimizing On Site User Experience
Imagine if someone recommends my site to a friend. That friend comes to the homepage and immediately jumps into the latest post. Is that an optimal experience for people new to my brand? Most likely not. It was a good idea for building the authority and mindshare of this blog in 2003, but I have done that about as well as I can with this format, and most likely there is a better way to introduce people to this site.
For over a year my tools page was worthless from a usability perspective. It was imposing, unorganized, and cluttered. Pathetic on just about every level possible. Compare the old to the new. Which looks more appealing to you? Which is more intuitive to use? Which do you trust more?
The old version put everything on one page and used headers to separate topics, whereas the new version uses category pages to separate topics. The new version also offers a brief intro at the top of each category, and many of the tool category pages also have embedded videos that further explain why the topic is important and/or offer free tips about the topic.
I still need to place breadcrumb navigation on the individual tool pages, consolidate some of the tools, and clean up some of their formatting issues, but just fixing the top level is a start. It makes it easier to access everything else.
Why is is so Important to Make Your Site Easily Usable to New People?
I recently had a search engineer tell me that they bound my book up and made it required reading for their team (which felt cool to hear), but for every person like that (who has been in the industry for many years) there are 1,000+ people just entering the field who need much more guidance.
Navigation is a form of guidance. It can scare people away or help them convert. If my site's navigation assumes everyone else knows what I know or thinks about the web the ways I do, then what could I be justified selling them, and how can I justify selling them anything?
Profitability is at the Edges of the Customer Curve
Not only is there that 1,000 to 1 ratio mentioned in the above section, but new people are also more likely to spend money than people who already feel they know everything.
Who is more likely to buy my book? A person who has been doing SEO twice as long as I have, or a person using my keyword density analyzer? Many brand managers would like consumers to believe the former, but in most cases the latter is more likely. Most of the money for information products comes from people new to the field, with some amount coming on the backend if you sell high end services.
Content Selection vs Community Growth & User Participation
Not only are new people more likely to buy, but they are also far more likely to participate in a community. Many of my friends read this blog daily, but most of them rarely leave comments. Back when I was more naive about search my topic selection naturally drew many newer readers who felt more empathy with what I was writing about, and were more likely to comment, which made my site look much larger than it was. Now that I blog about many more abstract or higher level topics I get far fewer comments, in spite of increasing site traffic month over month and year over year.
Eventually the growing traffic trend will turn the other way unless I focus more on the beginner portion of the market, and help create more brand evangelists participating on and promoting this site.
Content Targeting & Conversion
It doesn't matter how much value you create or offer if the format is bad, or fails to display the value of the product. If the communication sucks so does the product. Then if you are unwilling to change you may get bitter as you watch inferior products outsell your product without realizing that you forgot to talk to your customers using their language.
A friend of mine showed me a listing service of his that focused the homepage on sellers with little to no communication for prospective consumers. What kind of seller is going to think that site is a legitimate listing service? Google has advertising programs in the footer of their homepage in a small text link. Both of those are extremes, but you have to figure out who your customers are and gather enough attention to be able to monetize it.
Information Format & Perceived Value
Others have resold the information in my ebook in other formats for over 5 times the price (some even asked for my latest copy before their launch, telling me about it). Good on them for formatting information in a way that allows them to deliver value. It does not matter who creates the most value. What matters is who is best at formatting it and sharing it in a way that makes people happy when they consume it. People are likely to gravitate toward channels that are positive because the market for something to believe in is infinite.
The one scarcity that will continue to grow scarcer as markets saturate is attention. If you have the attention of people at the beginning of the sales cycle likely you will have it at the other end as well, but you have to keep marketing to keep people talking about you and help your business grow.
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