We often assume that being useful in business is synonymous to being cut-throat, more aggressive and more prominent than your competition. If you look at mega-sized international companies, it seems that way. To be relevant in business, any business, you need to flex your muscle and outperform your competitors, usually on price.
We see it happening in media and journalism as well. The market seems to be favouring the cheapest provider, ideally free. If you ask where people get their news from nowadays it won’t be dominantly a paid-for magazine or newspaper, it will be a free publication or Facebook and Twitter, which obviously are free as well. There might be whole generations growing up with the expectation that news should be free. Confronted with this conundrum, the need to have the readership to sell ad space and the reality that news organisations still have personnel on their payroll, companies have tried different ways to entice readers to contribute. Either by plain asking (see Wikipedia for example) or by erecting paywalls. Either method does not seem majorly effective, and if helping to alleviate some of the issues, the question is how long?
Some would look at the situation and be quite pessimistic about it. They would argue that the expectation that everything should be free will come with the eventual trade off personal information. If you can’t see how it’s being paid for, then you are effectively the currency being traded. This refers to news sites trading which you are to advertisers (or aggregators), including online behaviour and any other information they can realistically track or infer. There is some backlash to this, especially considering hacking and exposing personal details, and tools to prevent personal tracking have been on the rise. The consequence of this, considering the lack of willingness to pay, will be that companies simply cannot survive.
There doesn’t seem to be an easy or comprehensive fix, at least not what the companies and providers of goods and services can provide. The answer to this situation might be more with end-users themselves. This by no means is a framing of the issue that will make things easier. We are talking about going into (for most) very nature of a human’s desire: ‘wanting more for less’. If you are paying for something that you can get for free, it seems madness to some. In fact, the whole concept of the free market is based on the same principle. If your competitor A offers a cheaper version of the same quality to competitor B, then competitor A will emerge victorious. Competitor B can only either make its product more desirable or cheaper. That’s free market, and the end-user should be the ultimate winner. If a company can offer something for free, that’s where the masses will flock to. And that’s where we are now, we are at free products of questionable quality.
And that realisation, that we are already at the bottom of the barrel or quickly heading there, should really be worrying for all. But it’s not all doom and gloom. There has been a trend of environment and society-aware businesses over the last decade or so. They were around before, but it does seem they are no longer considered an oddity but are now establishing as profoundly solid business concepts. And before you say it, this goes beyond CSR initiatives of big companies. We are talking about businesses where their responsibility towards the environment or their direct community (or sometimes even both) is part of their core business, you can say that this responsibility is part of their DNA and the commercial element a happy coincidence. We are talking about the rise of locally grown and sourced vegetables and meat that help reduce the carbon footprint of transport. We are talking about the booming industry of renewables. We are talking about supermarkets selling wonky vegetables that otherwise would have ended up discarded. We are even talking about printer cartridge refilling businesses. These are all excellent examples of how businesses can be eco-friendly by not performing business as usual.
There is also a lot going on in socially responsible companies. Take disability employment providers ensuring that every human can work if it is feasible for them, showing that disability should not prevent you from fully participating in society. There are whole businesses that proudly advertise their inclusive employment policy. Or what about businesses that will donate products to people and countries in need. I.e. for every shoe, a bottle of water or toothbrush, they will make sure they get an identical item across to those in need.
And that’s the crux of it. These companies are showing that it’s not a given that consumers only care about the cheapest. Consumers are human, and they can make choices altruistically and vote with their wallets. And hopefully, that vote will be increasingly more outward focused to the environment and society.