In 1999, Internet guru Esther Dyson made the remarkable prediction that "content (including software) will serve as advertising ... [and] the likely best defense for content providers is to exploit the situation to distribute intellectual property for free in order to sell services and relationships."
Of course in 1999, the venture capital-fueled notion that "information wants to be free" was accepted wisdom, except of course to those of us who created information for a living, who wondered, "So how do we get paid?"
Since then, a lot has changed, and some of us are even still in business. But there are several high-profile examples of companies doing exactly what Dyson predicted, sites like move.com, where you can find a massive free database of homes for sale, produced in cooperation with the National Association of Realtors; or Amazon.com, which acquired Internet Movie Database to become, in essence, a merchandising front-end to its video retailing business.
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The recent acquisition of Peterson's Guides by student loan marketer Nelnet now suggests a larger trend is underway. Yet this new market dynamic that rationalizes owning a site solely to generate traffic in order to move product doesn't sit quite right with me. Why buy when you can rent? I am sure for a lot less than it paid to acquire Peterson's, Nelnet probably could have been the exclusive sponsor of key Peterson sites, getting the exposure and clickthroughs with none of the hassles of owning and operating a business they don't really understand.
Since none of the four finalists bidding for Peterson's were publishers, the thinking that site traffic is so valuable that it's worth the expense and hassle of buying and running content companies in order to have full control of that traffic must be hitting the mainstream. It's an odd and perhaps sad moment when content companies can only realize their maximum value when turned into what is effectively a high tech version of the self-liquidating premium.
What will be interesting to see is if content companies start to flip this emerging paradigm and start acquiring product and service companies. With the growing resurgence of online marketplaces, the industry may slowly be moving in that direction. But is it the right turn, or a dead end?