Content is no longer king. Here are 5 things that are.

This is a guest post by Nick Robinson. Nick has worked in ELT publishing since 2004 and in 2012 he founded the world’s first ELT author representation agency. He is the Co-founder of the IATEFL Materials Writing Special Interest Group (MaWSIG) and ELTjam.

Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting.

— Bill Gates, Content is King, 1996

1996 was a long time ago.

In 1996, the first iPhone was still almost a decade away. In 1996, Mark Zuckerberg was 12. In 1996, Ask Jeeves was making waves.

In 1996, Bill Gates was probably right. It looked like content was going to be king. And, for a while, it probably was. But in 2015, things look different. In 2015, we’re drinking from a firehose of content. In 2015, supply of content has outstripped demand – there’s too much to read, too much to watch, too much to listen to. When supply goes up and demand goes down, the result is a drop in value. The result, in the case of content, is commoditisation.

In 2015, content is no longer king. At best, it’s a minor royal. So in the era of content as a commodity, what’s taken its place on the throne? What do users value instead?

1. UX is king

The problem with UX (user experience) is that customers only really notice its absence. If you absolutely nail the UX of your digital product, the only people who will congratulate you are UX nerds like me. If you mess it up, though, you’ll know about it soon enough. You’ll notice the complaints. You’ll notice the attrition. You’ll notice the churn.

The result of bad UX is bad feelings: frustration, anger, boredom, confusion. Anyone who’s ever tried to learn something will recognise those feelings. To many, they definelearning. As an industry, we have the chance – and the responsibility – to fix the user experience of learning. Yet I can count on far less than one hand the learning organisations who hire or regularly contract UX Designers (or even Instructional Designers) for their digital products, and I’d struggle to think of any who regularly employ User-centered Design (UCD) as a product development technique.

Developing UX isn’t a black art; it can be learned and applied with ease. And, in 2015, it isn’t a bonus feature. As one Product Manager recently told me: it’s basic product hygiene.

2. & 3. Access and choice are king

No two businesses better highlight the victory of access and choice over content than Spotify and Netflix. Which is strange, because they’re both platforms for delivering content – vast amounts of high-quality, relevant content. But it’s a mistake to think of Spotify and Netflix as content businesses; they’re content access businesses.

In the Blockbuster video era, the monetary value of a film was clear and transparent: it cost a set amount of money (around £3) to rent a film for a set amount of time, usually 24 hours. A monthly subscription to Netflix costs me £9.99 and gives me access to 4756 films (source). So is the value of a film on Netflix £9.99 divided by 4756 (0.00210050462574p)?

This is an example of faulty, content-led thinking. The value Netflix offers its 60 million subscribers is not the content itself – not specific films, that is. The value is in the easy access to so many films, with no caps on usage and a recommendation system to help you navigate the impossible amount of choice.

Netflix helps us to understand the consumer relationship with content in 2015: don’t make me pay for the specific pieces of content I need; help me access and navigate the content I want (even if I don’t know I want it yet).

In digital learning products specifically, freemium business models that charge users for access to ‘content packs’, extra exercises, tests, etc. are all examples of faulty, content-led thinking. The true value for users isn’t in unlocking extra batches of your content. The true value for users lies elsewhere: in the freedom to choose what they’re interested in, in seeing their progress, in interacting with other users, in gaining access to experts, in having their questions answered. The challenge for content providers is figuring out which of those things to focus on, and how.

4. Cost is king

Learn a language for free. Forever.

— Home page,

Free as a business model. Five words to strike fear into the hearts of almost any commercial organisation, especially one used to making a very healthy margin from selling content. It may, however, be the only option left, now that we know that no one wants to pay for education on the internet. An open secret in EdTech is that nearly everyone is struggling to monetise their businesses, not just traditional ELT content providers. And if 10s of millions of users or $100s of millions in venture capital can’t turn you into a profitable business, then what can?

Duolingo is often cited as the shining example of successful monetisation in EdTech, but have they actually managed it? Their original business model was to make money from translations which were created as a by-product of language learning (a ‘two-sided business model’ in which the users are the product rather than the customer, much like how Google works). This has now been supplemented by a move into assessment, with the launch of the Test Center (which aims to take on the likes of TOEFL and IELTS) and a platform for schools. Their key principle remains the same – that users will never pay for language learning – but how the company will seek to successfully monetise its huge user-base remains an open question.

So where does that leave the rest of us? There is undoubtedly the potential in EdTech to grow large audiences. Thinking only about ELT for a second, with 1 billion people learning English how could there not be? It’s also telling that the largest MOOC of all time – run by FutureLearn and with over 400,000 sign ups – was on an ELT topic (Understanding IELTS: Techniques for English Language Test). The key seems to be to offer all of the learning content for free and to monetise elsewhere. One useful thought experiment is to think about what language learners will happily pay lots of money for: classes and exams. With that in mind, it’s inevitable that we’ll see other publishers follow Pearson’s moves into the assessment and PLS markets soon enough.

5. Data is king

When did the word data change connotation? At some point, we stopped associating it with information and started associating it with my information. It might have been Facebook, it might have been Edward Snowden, but at some point data – its use or misuse, its ready availability, its value – became a hot topic.

Big data refers to sets of data larger, more varied and more complex than we could ever have imagined capturing. On 27 August 2015, for example, 1 billion people logged into Facebook. That’s a lot of data. Big data evangelists argue that, with that amount of information, the accuracy and quality of analysis we can carry out might be transformational. Naysayers wonder just what those data nerds are really up to.

What does big data mean for learning? Well, for a start, it’s the first time we’ve ever really had data to look at. It’s hard to extract user stats from a print book, and so much publisher-led research around the use of learning content has therefore tended to be qualitative – focus groups, surveys, etc. We’ve had sales figures to look at, but sales figures don’t really tell you anything about how engaging or effective your content is; they tell you how good your sales force is. In the era of LMSs and apps, publishers should be drowning in learner data. Whether they’re yet able to analyse it and put it to use is another question. In the future competitive landscape, it’s likely that the ability to capture data and act on it (or sell it) will be a defining characteristic of successful businesses. If your organisation doesn’t already have a Director or VP of Data, now would be the time to hire one.

The post-content era

If you’re reading this as a writer, content developer or designer, you might be asking yourself what’s next.

A huge amount of what we’ve traditionally called ‘content’ in learning is actually instructional design: the pacing and variety of activities, the flow, the challenge of zeroing in on the best and most enjoyable way to help someone master a particular skill.

This post originally appeared on the ELTjam blog.


  1. thebrutalkremlin

    Don’t think of Netflix as ‘content’ businesses? *cough* wrong. They are setting the pace, standard and future for the entertainment industry. See: Orange is the New Black, Breaking Bad, & House of Cards. Content is the driving force behind successful businesses.

    1. Mackay Bell

      Yes, the more content there is, the “firehose” he talks about, the more important, and valuable, superior content becomes. People pay HBO so they can watch Game of Thrones. This despite the fact they can find tons of free content everywhere. And people will only pay for Netflix as long as it creates (and purchases for lots of money) compelling new material. No one is going to pay for a ton of old movies and TV shows alone.

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  5. Eric Roth

    Thank you for sharing this provocative, even disturbing, primer on the challenges for ELT professionals, authors, and publishers. I will have to mull over its implications, but my first impression is that other folks are struggling to make money while helping English language learners too. Consider me surprised, but glad to not be alone.

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