Comedian Louis C.K. has a TV show, performs at sold out theaters around the country and has made several memorable YouTube clips. Late last year, he tried an experiment on his website.
From his site:
The experiment was: if I put out a brand new standup special at a drastically low price ($5) and make it as easy as possible to buy, download and enjoy, free of any restrictions, will everyone just go and steal it? Will they pay for it? And how much money can be made by an individual in this manner?
I’d say it’s worked. Since the launch, Louis C.K. has earned over a million dollars.
Again, from his blog:
The show went on sale at noon on Saturday, December 10th. 12 hours later, we had over 50,000 purchases and had earned $250,000, breaking even on the cost of production and website. As of Today, we’ve sold over 110,000 copies for a total of over $500,000. Minus some money for PayPal charges etc, I have a profit around $200,000 (after taxes $75.58). This is less than I would have been paid by a large company to simply perform the show and let them sell it to you, but they would have charged you about $20 for the video. They would have given you an encrypted and regionally restricted video of limited value, and they would have owned your private information for their own use. They would have withheld international availability indefinitely. This way, you only paid $5, you can use the video any way you want, and you can watch it in Dublin, whatever the city is in Belgium, or Dubai. I got paid nice, and I still own the video (as do you). You never have to join anything, and you never have to hear from us again.
What can we in higher ed marketing learn from Louis C.K.?
Louis has been more than transparent during this process, disclosing his costs to produce this special, how many he’s sold and what he’s made in terms of money. In higher ed, and not just the marketing/communications side, we are bad at transparency. Other than annual reports, we aren’t very transparent about our financials and other data.
Yes, we now all have net price calculators, but how effective are they when every one I’ve tried at different institutions (and I’ve tried dozens) often throw in a big loan at the end to make my net cost $0.00. That’s not helpful.
2. Price your product right
Not a day goes by that there isn’t an article about the cost of college and student loan debt and so on. I know – not only do I work in higher ed, I’m still paying student loans from my undergraduate degree. Personally, I’d love to get a Master’s degree, but frankly can’t afford it.
Stanford is currently running classes online, for free, such as an introduction to databases and a course on AI. That’s really neat. While it’s not feasible for every college to offer free programs, there’s opportunity to rethink our offerings and their various price points. Look at MITx and what they are doing. It’s radical stuff.
For example, I’d gladly pay $2,500 for a structured, certificate program from a place like Stanford. It’s not a full Master’s, but it’s the right price point that makes it easier to justify and pay for compared to a full Master’s program, that may cost upwards of $30,000.
Sidebar: if anyone wants to give me a full-ride Masters in IT Leadership, higher ed leadership or the like, let me know. I’d get a Master’s at my current university, which is a very good one, but they don’t currently have a program for what I want to do, career-wise.
In Louis’s case, $5 was the magical price point. It’s enough to make him money and cover his costs, yet priced right for consumers who were able to bypass the middle man, in this case, the large media corporations.
3. Control is ok, but information wants to be free
We live in a much smaller world today compared to years past. I listen to cloud-stored music all day and can live edit a document with a colleague in England, at the same time. Yet, we are forced to live under archaic rules about where and who can consume digital content. Thanks to today’s increasingly small world, he released his file once in DRM-free format worldwide. No region coding, no geographical lockouts. I believe this type of approach discourages piracy. If its easy to get legally and at a reasonable price, digital distribution can work.
I’ll leave you with one final quote.
I learned that money can be a lot of things. It can be something that is hoarded, fought over, protected, stolen and withheld. Or it can be like an energy, fueled by the desire, will, creative interest, need to laugh, of large groups of people. And it can be shuffled and pushed around and pooled together to fuel a common interest.
Amen, Louis. I paid my 5 bucks and laughed. A lot.