I’ve had a few recent conversations on the topic of marketing digital products, specifically online courses and paid membership sites.
It’s easy to back into an existential crisis when trying to clarify a value proposition for information products (online courses, subscriptions, ebooks) when there are free substitutes, so I’m going to share a clarifying framework.
The elephant in the room:
How would I market an information product if "information wants to be free"?
“Information wants to be free” is an expression coined long ago and describes the gradual movement of information from hidden to available as societies become more transparent, and the cost of information transmission falls.
But the less quoted counter-argument is (paraphrasing): “if information is valuable, it wants to be expensive”. Excluding rent-seeking behavior, higher information prices tend to signal higher acquisition costs, where the seller’s information was difficult to obtain, and has real potential to contribute to the productivity or well-being of the buyer.
Rather than being about theft of valuable intellectual property, I think “Information wants to be free” may be more about a guidepost to opportunity.
A corollary might be:
Free information wants to spread.
I also recently came across comments by two very different personalities who shared their own observations on the topic:
"The problem isn’t piracy…the problem is obscurity. Your ideas aren’t getting heard…you’re not known…you can’t create value. If you’re a creator of ideas, you need your ideas to spread."
- Seth Godin 
"The fact that half the audience doesn’t even know who [the best player] is, is a real big problem for baseball...baseball took the stance a decade ago…that they would monetize every piece of content…they made a lot of money in the short term, but they completely killed the brand of the sport."
- Gary Vaynerchuk 
Seth and Gary are saying the same thing: to grow your business your ideas need to spread. And only free information wants to spread. The unintended consequence of putting valuable information behind a paywall is zero visibility, and no spreading of our ideas to those who need and can use them. If you monetize them, then you’re putting them under lock and key, unable to spread.
This poses a bit of a quandary for the previously mentioned clients wanting to create a paid membership site or course: But this is what you want to sell, isn’t it? Premium information! If it is premium, then it isn’t free and available to spread, right?
Well, think about this. A pile of all the atoms in a human being would be worth about $160. Assembled into the complex biomolecules, biomaterials, tissues and systems comprising a human being, that same collection of atoms would be valued somewhere in the ballpark of $45 million. .
So that’s true for materials, but what about information? Let’s assume 90% of all of the information you’ll ever need is readily available in books and on the internet. And that truly novel information is rarely ever required by anyone outside exploratory research, development or other specialized work.
You still hire an expert — a doctor, an attorney, an accountant, a coach, etc. — to assemble the most relevant information into a timely solution to your problem. It is the hierarchy and priority of information (a framework), and how that hierarchy gets adjusted in different contexts.
As a friend once told me:
"It’s the assembly, stupid!"
What you are selling is not the information; it’s the assembly, for a particular use case. With an information product, you are specifically pricing and marketing that assembly, and the underlying information is simply the raw materials that are freely available (and quite possibly via your own unpaid channels).
So back to the question. It is not so much around whether information should be free, or if it should be closely guarded. The answer is: it’s all free anyway. The real question: how to assemble relevant information for a use case, so that it provides value to someone who has a just a bit more money than time. That assembly is what is proprietary and marketable.
Think of this hierarchy from the perspective of customers at different levels of need (and value derived through use of your product):
|I can spend hours sifting through your blog posts and other websites to figure out what I need to do.||I don’t have enough time to sift through blog posts or other resources, but I can do the work with some direction.||I don’t have time to do it myself or use any assembled products.|
I WANT TO PAY FOR:
Can't pay; will DIY.
I WANT TO PAY FOR:
The ASSEMBLY. I would pay for a self-guided solution that saves me time and headache of doing it wrong, lack of sleep from not knowing, etc.
I WANT TO PAY FOR:
The OUTCOME. I just want you to do it for me.
Your free content: blog, etc.
Your paid content or self-guided training. May be similar to free content but specifically assembled to enable transformation in customers’ use cases.
Your premium, in-person or ‘done-for-you’ services.
Note you could serve all of these different customer types, but each aligns with a type of service and a paid information product would best fit the needs of only one.