Clay Shirky on our willingness to pay for content in the digital age:

People will pay for content if it is necessary, irreplaceable, and unshareable. Businesses excited about the first five words of that sentence don’t understand how constraining the next seven are.

I agree with Clay. Never met the man, but based on his books and numerous talks he seems a pretty smart fellow. So let’s assume he’s right, that more often than not people won’t pay for content. Especially if it can be digitized (i.e., words, music, photos, videos, etc.), which makes it easily duplicated and highly shareable. How can a modern day digital content creator make a living under such conditions?

Simple. Don’t sell content, sell access.

If you fail to see the distinction, consider a few examples:

Case study #1: Adam Carolla. His primary content is delivered via daily, one-hour podcasts available for free via direct download, RSS or iTunes. He also maintains a website that provides additional photos and videos. All available free of charge. But fans have to pay to access him live and in-person or for shirts with his logo. And advertisers have to pay to access his fan base, either via his website or podcast. And if NBC wants access to him full-time for a sitcom, they’ll have to pay for that as well.

Case study #2: Seth Godin. His primary content is delivered via daily blog posts, available for free via his website or RSS feed.  Seth also publishes eBooks and does audio and video interviews for other blog sites to promote his ideas and marketing concepts. All this is made available free of charge. But to access him live and in-person, fans must pay. If organizations want him to speak at their event, they must pay for access to his time. And if a publisher wants exclusive access to his next big idea, there is a fee for that as well.

Case study #3: OK Go. Their primary content—music—is delivered via numerous channels. Fans can stream OK Go’s entire library of songs for free via their website. Fans can also view music videos on their website or via YouTube. True fans can download the raw footage elements of their latest music video to remix and create their own custom composition. All this, as well as photos, blog posts and a community forum, is made available free of charge. But to access the band’s music directly from an iPod, fans need to pay. To access a live performance of their music in-person or to wear their branded merchandise, fans need to pay. And to access their fan base and brand, State Farm paid to sponsor their recent music video.

See the difference? It’s a simple business model: give away 99% of your content for free (see Chris Anderson: Free!) to attract a following (see Seth Godin: Tribes), then generate revenue by charging for access to…

…the remaining 1% of your content (see Fred Wilson: Freemium);
…your fans (see Darren Rowse: Make Money); and/or
…yourself (see Tom Peters: Brand You).

So if you are a digital content creator (writer, illustrator, filmmaker, motion graphic artist, 3D animator, musician, photographer, etc.) you can either venture on your own or go to work for someone else.  Although working under someone’s employment can provide numerous benefits—such as security, stability, consistency and structure—many creatives will prefer the freedom, autonomy and control enabled by a freelance approach. Thus, if you decide to go it alone you will need to follow these 10 steps:

  1. Create cool, original and remarkable content. If you get stuck here, don’t fret—most people do. It’s a significant barrier to entry. It’s difficult. It’s hard work. It’s understandable. And most people never get past it. So either push your way through, find a partner or go to work for someone else.
  2. Promote and share the content for free. Don’t worry about copyrights, patents, trademarks, contracts, compensation or useless forms of protection—it is a waste of valuable time and energy. Instead, get it out there (blog, podcast, ebook, videos on YouTube, etc.) and promote it. Everywhere. Use your network. Leverage any and all contacts. And if you get a positive response, go to step #3.  If not, go back to step #1 and make the content better, switch to a different subject matter or quit trying and go to work for someone else.
  3. Create more content. Lots of it. Work hard to make it cool, original and remarkable. But don’t let the pursuit of perfection keep you from shipping content out the door. At this point you are much better off quickly producing 10 really good pieces than working painstakingly on one masterpiece. Plus, you ultimately don’t get to decide what is bad, good or great; that is the job of your fans. Just keep producing content. If that troubles you, quit and go to work for someone else.
  4. Build a fan base by promoting and sharing the content for free. There is no hard science here. No doors to break down. No secret sauce or magical formula. If your content resonates, it will draw a crowd asking for more. So don’t bother waiting around for it to “take off”. If the content doesn’t attract a following, then go back to step #3 and make it better, switch to a different subject matter or quit trying and go to work for someone else.
  5. Create more content. Lots of it. Start building an inventory. You’ll need it. To do this, you will likely have to work harder, faster and longer than before. If this proves to be a substantial problem, quit and go to work for someone else.
  6. Grow and identify your true fans by continuing to promote and share the content for free. Enable fans to connect, interact and recruit others on your behalf. IMPORTANT: You must maintain a consistent flow of content relative to other providers. If it isn’t consistent, your fans will go somewhere else and quickly forget you. Therefore, if you can’t keep a steady flow of content going, partner up with other content creators to achieve scale and provide a steady stream of content. If you aren’t up to the task of feeding your fan base, quit or sell out and go to work for someone else.
  7. Start diversifying. If you began with an ebook, start a blog. If you began with blog, add videos. If you began with videos, launch a podcast. But do not—repeat DO NOT—allow the new content to detract from the original form. If your fans are used to a steady diet of blog posts, you need to keep feeding them blog posts. If they came to know you via YouTube, you need to keep a presence on YouTube. You must continue to create, promote and share your content in its original form, add to your inventory and grow your fan base. If you’re too tired or emotionally spent to do so, quit or sell out and go to work for someone else.
  8. Leverage your true fans. Use them to promote and share your content for free to further grow your audience. Make it easy for them to recruit other fans. Give them opportunities to interact with you on a closer level. Empower them to mashup and/or create content themselves. Resist the temptation to make specific requests, as it will stifle creativity and undermine their passion. Instead simply ask for help and welcome any and all ideas. Your fans don’t expect every item or proposal to be implemented, just merely considered. If you are unwilling to embrace you true fans in this manner, quit or sell out and go to work for someone else.
  9. Monetize. You can charge for access to your content, but heed Clay Shirky’s advice and evaluate “if it is necessary, irreplaceable and unshareable.” If it fails to pass this test, you are probably better off keeping it free. You can charge for access to your fans (advertising, referrals, etc.), but be careful as it could alienate and send them off in search of replacement content.  You can charge for access to your brand (affiliation, stamp of approval, endorsement and/or physical goods, such as swag, shirts, hats, etc.), an option that is usually harmless and relatively inexpensive. And finally, you can charge for access to you personally (consulting, appearances, conferences, speaking engagements, etc.), keeping in mind that such opportunities will take time away from content development. Whatever combination you settle on, you must continue to create, promote and share your content in its original and diversified form, add to your inventory, connect with true fans.
  10. Decide. Go bigger, maintain, sell out or quit. While you certainly could go to work for someone else, if you get this far odds are you won’t want to.

You do not have to follow this exact order to achieve success, but I contend the sequence of events would be pretty close to what I’ve outlined above. Create content, give it away, attract a following and charge for access to all things non-digital—especially yourself.