Monday, March 10, 2008

The Myth of Free

The newest edition of Wired has a cover story by Chris Anderson on why free is 'the future of business.' In the article, Anderson details not only why free has worked for everyone from Schick to RyanAir, but why it will continue to be more and more of a necessity for any business looking to grow.

The article is well done, and I'm sure the rest of Anderson's forthcoming book dealing with this topic will be as well. Indeed, Seth Godin enjoys the ideas Anderson promotes, and the article has even made some think about what this could mean for the nonprofit sector.

And while Anderson does make a great case, I think that the case for the downside of free must be made as well.

Sure - free is sexy. It's catchy. It gets you noticed and helps stir up business. But free can also very easily be meaningless.

If you don't believe me, take a look at the Internet. How many blogs and other Web sites sit inactive and empty? You know what would happen if Blogger charged just $0.99 a year to activate an account? You'd have fewer empty blogs and better dialog on the Web.

Or if MySpace deleted accounts after a period of inactivity? Or if eBay did the same? Because let's be honest - there's a big difference between users and active users, my friends.

Of course, digital free doesn't really matter than much, because the cost for all of those empty accounts is nearly nothing. Take a look at your house, then.

Chances are, you wear (and love) the clothes you paid for more than the free ones you got at a hockey game or a 5k. Same thing with those beauty product samples. Or things given to you vs. things you bought.

While there's the benefit of no cost when it comes to free, there's also the downside of attention spans. We usually ignore or neglect that which is free. After all, if it didn't cost us anything, why bother taking care of it, maintaining it, or seeing to it that the item, thing, object, blog or profile is used to its full potential?

I'm reminded of the story of a young boy who got a new pair of jeans because he outgrew his last pair. They were a bit dirty as well. The next day, when his mom came to pick him up from school, she noticed grass stains on the knees of his new pants. She asked him why he dirtied his brand new jeans and he replied, "I don’t mind. I didn’t pay for them."

If you stake everything you're trying to become on free, be careful: the speed with which you got that initial buzz and interest today is directly related to the speed at which people might ignore you tomorrow.

The kids who were paying for college themselves always worked harder than those on scholarship.

Comments (4)

Great observation. Everyone has been riding the free model lately and its great to hear about the other side of the bridge.

In the music industry there is a great theory that local bands should give their music away for free. This will get their music in more hands. The problem arises in the people that are given the free CD. They never listen to it. The music costs them nothing so it has no meaning for them. The CD or iTunes tracks they just paid for get regular rotation because it has value to the buyer.

Great post.

You got it, Greg. People thing Radiohead are geniuses for 'giving' their music away, but let's face it, when you're Radiohead, you can do this.

The 'free' CD from a local artist is just like a 'free' T shirt or other swag. It seems like people will get it, wear it and spread the word, but that's rarely the case.

what an interesting debate. I just got done reading the Wired article and now this.

I admit, I'm posting this comment without having spent a lot of brain bytes pondering it, but I think you're asking the right questions...it seems to me that the things we hold most dear in life are the things for which we paid the greatest price...now that doesn't always mean money, but I think the principle remains the same.

Want to think about this more...very good post!

Thanks, Cameron. Obviously, free can and must be a draw in some situations, but my no means is it a panacea to all of our revenue woes. The trick is to find that right spot between free and paid that makes sense and gets the best results.