How much are you comfortable giving away for nothing?

In all the discussion swirling around paid versus free content, this simple question can help shape your strategy.

Did we ask this question of ourselves, back when the decision was made to go with a hybrid signature web site?

Well, no, as a matter of fact we did not.

Would we be better off now if we had?

Maybe, maybe not.

Our approach is prompting some creative conversations and planning around premium content that are sure to deliver some appealing and sellable items that might not have happened with a more black-and-white approach.

However, in a recent conference call between Shaun Higgins, our director of sales & marketing and representatives from a newspaper just now deciding what is free versus paid on their site, he described what might have worked better – or cleaner, anyway.

If we were starting from scratch today, we likely would have done the following: lead with all free content (news summary, radio-type headlines only) clicked through to paid content (the full story, photos, comments).

Done this way, it is more possible to quickly determine exactly what constitutes premium content. It also moves away from editorial time spent deciding what goes in front of versus behind the subscription wall, though our newsroom has this down to a science.

Ryan Pitts, The Spokesman-Review’s senior editor/digital media, knows there is no point putting non-local stories behind the pay wall. These are typically wire stories available in many places for free. Editorial also does not put news briefs (house fires, petty crimes) behind the wall as our local television competitors post them free on their respective sites. What this means, then, is that any local bylined story is a candidate for placement behind the pay wall, and editors determine this story by story.

In retrospect and as a marketer, I can see examples of what I might have considered “behind the pay wall” content. For example when former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig got into hot water in 2007 over an incident in a Minneapolis airport restroom, our irreverent columnist Doug Clark wrote and recorded a song about it. Sung to the tune of Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Knock Three Times,” it was downloaded hundreds of times.

I’d have featured the song free on the web site after that day’s newspaper was published, and left it up for 24 hours. After that, boom, behind the pay wall it would have gone (and ideally, though technologically impossible at the time, it also would have been available to buy as a single purchase, say for $5). To hear the song – still for free! – click here.

Even on our main news sites are opportunities to explore and test, to play and create.

We can’t be afraid, even in that sacred space, to do so.

If a customer is keenly interested in a topic, might he or she pay for something more than the basic? Our reporters, photographers, columnists and editors are highly skilled, inventive individuals – even their basics boast high value. But ask them for something special, and they can deliver like nobody’s business.

Enter those of us on the business side to package, price, promote, in essence to do our “marketing thing.” Together we’re sitting on a gold mine of talent and ideas, on the brink of intelligently inviting readers and other customers to sample our offerings, free and basic or get the upgraded offerings, at a fair price.