What Gives Your Business Model its Glue?

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This is the third in a series of six articles connected to the research underway by Creative Commons for its Kickstarter-funded book about open business models to be published in 2016. With this work, we’re exploring how creators, businesses, and nonprofits sustain themselves when they are giving their work away for free using CC licensing. Our goal is to help others find ways to build viable models around open content.

We began this project with the vague goal of wanting to understand business models that involve Creative Commons licensing. From the beginning, we intentionally left some open questions. What exactly is a business model for our purposes? What role does CC-licensed content have to play in the business to be relevant to our research? What types of financial sustainability are interesting to others who are seeking to create new open business models?

As we near the halfway point in our research, the answers are emerging.

We are defining business model broadly to include the full design of any endeavor that includes a sustainable source of revenue. We realize the term “business model” is potentially distracting because it has such a corporate connotation and often feels inappropriate when applied to individual artists and even nonprofits. But it still feels like the best shorthand way to capture the focus of our work.

We are interested in business models for which copyrighted works (e.g., music, writing, art) are a core asset and that involve sharing all or a significant portion of those works with the public under Creative Commons licenses. Even within these parameters, there is a wide spectrum of the role copyrighted work plays in a business model. For some, copyrighted work is the main product they provide. For others, it is an important tool to bring people to another product or service they offer. This distinction can be blurry, but I think it has important implications for the way in which a business model around CC licensing is designed.

We have also narrowed our focus to business models that have at least one sustainable revenue stream tied to those who are also the audience or customers for their copyrighted content. Most notably, this excludes endeavors that are 100 percent grant-funded.

Together, these parameters form the basis by which we are deciding who to profile in the book. They intentionally leave us with a vast diversity of endeavors, covering everything from individual artists to formal corporate entities established as for-profit or nonprofit entities. Our goal is to have a mix of these types of profiles in order to highlight similarities and differences in how they approach what they do.

But most importantly, these parameters also help us laser in on what I feel is the essential question within this work: if your copyrighted work is a core part of the value proposition you offer and all or some of that work can be freely copied and distributed elsewhere, what keeps your audience or customers coming back to you?

Lens, by live, available on Flickr, licensed CC BY 2.0.

A Lens Through Which to View Our Research

To help us provide some meaningful answers about how to build sustainable endeavors around CC-licensed content, I am hoping we can develop a new framework to analyze the 24 business models we profile. I’ve started to work on that framework, though it is a work-in-progress and will be until we finish all of our research.

To dissect these business models, I think it comes down to three questions:

  1. Value proposition: What value do you provide your audience or customers? What differentiates you from your competition? This is about drilling down into what makes you successful and what attracts people to what you do.
  2. Revenue streams: How do you monetize the value you provide? As noted above, we are particularly interested in revenue streams derived from the audience or customers for the copyrighted works you share.
  3. Glue: Given that you have made your copyrighted works (or at least a good portion of them) available under a CC license, why can’t someone else copy those works and offer the same value proposition to your audience or customers? What keeps people coming back to you?

The value proposition and revenue questions are critically important, but they are nothing new. You’ll recognize those from the Business Model Generation handbook and nearly every tool designed to help you create or evaluate a business model. I think it is the third question that is the heart of what we are trying to get at with this work.

Glue? By Will Fuller, available on Flickr, licensed CC BY-ND 2.0.

Glue: What it Means and Why It is Important

When I say “glue,” I mean the aspects of what you do that keep people invested in you or your business specifically. I began this article thinking I would use the term “sticky” to describe this concept, but I then discovered stickiness is an existing buzzword in web design and marketing. There are likely some similarities with the things web designers do to keep people on their sites, like focusing on engaging users and encouraging user-generated content. But ultimately I would like to avoid using a term that also connotes the ways websites and apps manipulate our behavior to keep us around. I’m trying to get at something deeper than marketing techniques. Rather, what are the ways you create a connection with your audience or customers that motivates them to consciously and deliberately come back to you? This is the glue within your business model.

Historically, copyright was the essential ingredient to that glue for business models built around copyrighted works. Because ideas, information, and creativity are all embedded in expression that can be easily copied, copyright law was designed to be the stick that prevented people from copying creative works for a limited time. Copyright certainly still plays a role in regulating people’s behavior, but it is undoubtedly less effective than it used to be simply because of how easy it has become to copy and distribute copyrighted material with the click of a button. Simply put, the role of copyright as external motivation to keep people around has diminished.

Simultaneously, this same feature of the internet — ease of distribution — has resulted in an explosion of content online. That means more competition for eyeballs than ever before, with much of it available for free. The result: all content creators, whether or not they use Creative Commons licensing, must have an answer to the question of what they do that keeps people coming back in today’s information-saturated environment. Simply making content people like is a necessary piece of the puzzle, but it is rarely enough because that content can now move around the Web with ease, often with or without your blessing since copyright is less effective than it used to be.

Copyright is still important — and it plays a role even for those who apply CC licenses to their work — but increasingly, there must be other internal motivators that keep people around as well. Of course, these internal motivators are even more important for those who apply CC licenses to their works because those works, by design, have been marked to travel around the Web. In other words, the question of what creates glue in a business model built around CC-licensed work is especially critical.

The Relative Importance of Glue

Here is an obvious but important point: the more important copyrighted content is to your value proposition, the more important it is to ensure your business model has glue made of more than just copyright protection. If copyrighted works are your core product and those works can be freely copied and distributed (illegally in the case of traditional copyright or by design for CC-licensed works), then there must be something else that brings your audience and customers back to you rather than seeking your content elsewhere or replacing it with other content from the nearly infinite pool online. In many (all?) cases, it involves creating a deeper attachment with your audience or customers.

On the other hand, if your copyrighted works are used to attract people to a different product or service you offer, then the glue within your business model is less important because you can compete in other ways. For example, if your value proposition is built around the customized services you offer, another business may copy your content and offer it to the public, but you can differentiate yourself by offering superior customized services for your customers.

These categories are fluid, but the main point is this: the question of what creates glue in a business model is both more difficult to solve and more important where copyrighted work is more central to the value you offer to the public.

What Gives a Business Model its Glue

We are not even quite halfway done with our interviews for the book, so much of this is still yet to be determined. But based on our research so far, I have started to identify some factors I think are important. I’ve written about all of these elements of successful open business models before, but previously I haven’t thought about them using this framing.

Here are some examples of things I think can give a business model glue:

Personal connection — This one is most applicable to individual artists and other creators, though not exclusively so. If people care about and feel connected to you as a person, they will keep coming back even if your content becomes available from other sources. In his interview with us, Cory Doctorow put it this way, “I just want to make sure there are enough people who love me that would kick in for someone to come wipe my ass if it ever came to that. Future proofing your artistic career in many ways means figuring out how to stay connected to those people who have been touched by your work.” Some, like Amanda Palmer, do it by opening up their lives to their fans in a pretty dramatic way. But there is no reason why living your life as an open book should be considered the only way to connect. Doctorow spoke about how he starts by making sure he responds to every email a fan sends him. This isn’t rocket science. As I have written previously, it really comes down to the fundamentals about how human beings connect with one another.

Social mission/goodwill — If people believe you are working toward a goal beyond just maximizing monetary profit, they are more likely to feel invested in you or your business. Doing work that furthers the greater good gives the work a larger purpose. It builds loyalty and trust with your audience or customers. When we interviewed Lumen Learning for the book, they spoke about the importance of establishing their non-negotiable principles up-front and communicating those publicly. They feel this has given them an immense amount of goodwill with the community, transforming Lumen’s customers and interested community members into advocates for their business.

Community — Here is one that overlaps with the concept of stickiness in website and application design, at least to the extent it describes the effort to create meaningful connections among an audience or customer base. If people feel like they are part of a community that exists around your content and/or endeavor, this will draw them back. This can take on nearly infinite shapes, but it is about encouraging interaction and connection between those who consume and engage with your content. In many ways, this concept intersects with the discussion just above about the values behind what you do. Part of feeling like a true community is having a core set of principles to rally around and connect all of you, even when you come at the venture with a variety of individual motivations. This plays out for the Wikimedia Foundation on Wikipedia, where thousands of editors around the world interact daily around a common endeavor with a clearly articulated social mission.

Engagement — While community-building is about creating relationships between your customers or audience members, engagement is about creating a deeper relationship between your customers or audience and your content. When people interact with your content in meaningful ways, they become more invested in it. If you are actively a part of that interaction — for example, by highlighting the things people create with your content or hosting events to encourage remix, this can help create glue between you and your audience. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has embraced this notion with their Rijkstudio concept. Here, online visitors can create customized collections of art, personalize it, and otherwise make it their own in ways the museum often never even imagined. This sort of engagement between the public and the art creates lasting connections that bring people back, both virtually and in person.

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