In a world where everything’s available somewhere for free, and nothing’s new under the sun, what’s the value of paid content?

A question was raised in an online group I belong to regarding the price of information products: courses, books, membership programs, tutorials, etc.

Her question (highly paraphrased) went something like this:

I learned how to set up and maintain my own WordPress site from free information I found online. I learned how to create and sell online products with information I found for free on Pat Flynn‘s site. So when I see people selling courses for a few hundred or a few thousand dollars covering the very things I learned to do with information I found for free, I wonder, where’s the value in paying for that?

Why would someone pay for information they could just get somewhere else for free?

This is such a common question. Creators wonder how they can be justified in charging for their work if their customers could, conceivably, find it elsewhere for free. Customers wonder why creators charge for material that they could, conceivably, find elsewhere for free.

Here’s my answer.

Information moves at the speed of the internet.

Which is to say, by the time any of us puts ANY information into a book, ebook, course, or product, that information already exists somewhere in some other blog post, video, podcast, Facebook post, Medium article, email, newsletter, meme, etc.

Here’s either the most terrifying or most liberating thing you’ll ever have to come to grips with as a creator:

You will never, ever create something that will pass the “I couldn’t find this ANYWHERE else” test.

Ever.

EVER.

No really – let that sink in.

No matter how hard you work, how experienced you become, how well you know your craft… everything you do will be derivative of, or similar to, or a compilation of, stuff that can be found somewhere else.

And that’s okay.

That’s been true since before Pat Flynn wrote his first article. Since before Youtube. Since before Facebook. And so on.

Were it a prerequisite for getting paid that our content passed the “I can’t find this anywhere else” test, all of us would go out of business.

Fortunately, originality isn’t the necessity you might believe it to be:

Just about every successful initiative and project starts from a place of replication. The chances of being fundamentally out of the box over the top omg original are close to being zero.

A better question to ask is, “have you ever done this before?” Or perhaps, “are the people you are seeking to serve going to be bored by this?

…[N]o one is asking you to be original… Sure, it’s been done before. But not by you. And not for us.

-Seth Godin, Of Course It’s Been Done Before

So if everything we want to know is available to us if we only spend enough time searching, watching, listening to, and reading, why would we ever buy anything?

Well… exactly for that reason:

Because everything is available to us if we spend enough time exhaustively searching, watching, listening to, and reading.

Which means there’s value in NOT having to spend your time searching, watching, listening to, and reading every resource on a particular topic every time you want to learn something, when someone else has already done it.

Someone else has gained the experience and expertise in that area, evaluated what works well and what doesn’t, synthesized the wealth of information they’ve collected, and then distilled it into digestible, pertinent, actionable chunks.

They did it, so you don’t have to.

THAT’s the value. That’s why it’s worth it.

(Whether that value is worth it to you personally relative to the price being charged by the vendor is a separate question you have to determine on a case by case basis.)

And then there’s the hidden expense of not knowing what you don’t know…

The further I get in business, the more I value expertise.

I’ve learned that the mistakes I make when I attempt to do things without the guidance of someone who’s had more experience than I in that area, always end up costing me way more than what I would have paid if I’d just hired someone for an hour’s session (or bought the damn course, or paid for the tutorial, or whatever).

As the saying goes, if you think the expert costs a lot, wait until you find out how expensive an amateur is.

Because the downfall of the amateur is that you don’t know what you don’t know.

And that’s also the downfall of searching for free information.

You believe you’ve covered all the necessary info, but you can’t really know if you have the pitfalls and gaps covered, because you don’t actually know where those pitfalls and gaps are. You’re pretty sure you’ve got the solution you need, but you don’t know if you’re at the end of the solution, because you don’t actually know where that end is.

You can only see as far as you’ve learned… but the extent of your learning may not cover the extent of the subject or problem you’re facing.

Bottom line: That the information exists for free, or that someone chooses to use the free information, doesn’t necessarily affect the value of the content for sale to someone else.

One person’s ability and willingness to get from Point A to Point B via free content and resources doesn’t affect how able or willing someone else is to pay for a curated or synthesized or packaged set of content and resources. It’s two different needs, two different levels of ability and willingnesses.

Which is a relief for both sides, because at some point, everyone who creates and sells information products and services will overlap with information that is available for free, should their customers choose to invest enough time and effort searching for it.