What makes a user want to buy digital content?

As you can learn from a cursory glance at this site, I am a professional computer programmer. I also have side projects that I would like to one day monetize. One such side project is my planned Android app remind@home. On the other hand, I am a content consumer in the digital age, using the internet to acquire new content, sometimes in ways the content creator might not find appealing. Sometimes I pay for content (such as my recent Steam purchase of Dragon Age: Origins) and sometimes I do not pay for content (such as all apps I’ve installed on my Droid, except my podcast app BeyondPod).

Do I acquire content for free because I am cheap? Absolutely not. I buy when the content creator has provided sufficient incentives to buying. As a content creator, I strive to understand those reasons, both within myself and within others. For this reason, I have begun asking friends what a content creator can do to encourage a purchase. I am not concerned with preventing unauthorized downloads or free software that is asking for donations. I am only concerned with finding out what a content creator can do to encourage users to pay for their content. After my discussions with other techies, here are some of the ways a content creator can encourage users to pay:

Release a sample

Release a free sample that can be easily upgraded to the full version. This allows me to find out if I like your content before I commit money. iTunes and Amazon MP3 Store are examples of this from a music perspective, and game demos accomplish the same thing for game developers. If I am unsure of the quality of your product, I am unlikely to blindly commit money. Through Amazon MP3, I can sample every song on an album before I decide to buy. If you do not provide an easy to locate sample, I will still find a free way to sample the content. The alternative is an unauthorized acquisition of your content, and in that scenario I am unlikely to pay if I like the content. After all, why pay for what I already have? By placing barriers to sampling, you aren’t hindering my ability to sample, you are just putting yourself in a bad place if I like what I’ve sampled.

For PC game developers, this is even more critical. Unlike console games, PC games are not always playable on every PC. A demo not only lets me find out if I like the game, but it lets me find out if I can even run the game. There is nothing worse than paying $50 to find out my video card can’t handle your game. Just like in the music sampling example above, instead I can just acquire the game through other channels. If it doesn’t work, I still have my $50. If it does work, where does that leave you?

Continuously update your content

This rule applies more to software than any other form of content, but it is an important rule nonetheless. If I purchase software that is constantly updated, and only authorized copies can be updated directly from the developer, I have an incentive to pay. Fear not, all of the updates will be leaked through unauthorized channels, but the convenience of a built in updater cannot be understated. Imagine downloading a program to manage a database of clients and receiving a weekly update with bug fixes and occasional new features. These updates can come through two channels – an authorized update system that came with the purchase of the software, or a weekly hunt through P2P networks for the newest version. The convenience of a built in updater is easily worth the $50, assuming the updates are worthwhile. Releasing your software and then abandoning it gives me no incentive to purchase a copy. That just guarantees that the version available on a P2P network is the same as a legitimate copy, permanently.

Be easy to acquire

I’ve purchased over a dozen games from Steam simply because it is easy to pay for and acquire my game. The user interface for acquiring your content needs to be easy to use. If I am having trouble locating your content digitally through authorized channels, I’ll simply start looking through unauthorized channels. Make it easy enough that I never consider looking for alternate methods to get your content. Sometimes the issue isn’t how much your content costs, but how much of a hassle it is to locate and acquire.

As a content provider, make use of services like Amazon MP3 store, Audible and Steam. You don’t have to create your own system of distribution, but use a reliable distribution system. Users want convenience above all else when it comes to acquiring new content. The more convenient your distribution system is, the less likely a person is to seek alternate methods. There will always be those that simply don’t want to pay. There is almost nothing you can do about that crowd. Instead, focus on the crowd that is willing to pay. Find out what barriers are in their way and remove those barriers.

Offer your content digitally

This should go without saying. If you want people to pay you for your digital content, then offer that digital content. Rather than offer an explanation, I will just provide one of the conversations I had about this subject:

Steve: How often do you acquire unauthorized digital content?

Anonymous: Maybe twice a month, it really depends if theres an HBO or Showtime show I want to watch.

Steve: What could a content creator do to encourage you to buy?

Anonymous: Offer a place to buy it online. Just make it possible. Do it the day after not months later. I mean, I pay to torrent now, since I use usegroups. It’s access thats the issue, not price.

Steve: So the only reason HBO and Showtime aren’t getting your money is because they aren’t giving you a way to give it to them? Someone is getting the money, and if HBO or Showtime set up a good system, they’d have it. But, they are making it impossible for you to get, through them, what you can certainly get elsewhere.

Anonymous: Yeah.

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