There is still ongoing debate about free versus paid content since the release of Chris Anderson’s latest book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Companies, bloggers and authors are not giving away free content, they are buying attention. That is what social media marketing is, free content. Free blog posts, free Youtube videos, free tweets on Twitter, free images on Flikr, free comments on other blogs. People give away content online because that is the only way to develop relationships.
Try charging a subscription to a new blog. The only thing worse than zero profits, is having no one visit your website. A large and loyal audience can be sold something. Try profiting when no one cares who you are. “FREE” is the new advertising. Instead of paying for TV commercials, radio spots and print ads, forward thinking companies are investing that money into free content. The trick is to have something that some of those free readers are going to want to buy.
Your local pizza shop isn’t giving away free flyers. The flyers are advertising to get you to buy pizzas. Bloggers and other online content providers are not giving away free content, they are trying to get your attention so that maybe you will buy their products and services in the future.
It is happening in virtually every industry, but online the changes are coming much faster. Graphic designers used to be able to charge a lot more money. Now with cheap wordpress themes, inexpensive overseas artists and crowdsourcing sites, design got a lot cheaper. Sure great designers will always be able to make decent money, however everyone in the middle is competing for a shrinking piece of the pie. That drives prices down.
Look at the costs of virtually anything over the last two decades. Blank CD-ROMs used to cost more than $20 now they are under a dollar. Email accounts used to cost more than $10 per month, now they are free. Online storage is so ubiquitous as to be free. Even our food and clothing have become ridiculously cheap.
The key point in this debate is not about free versus paid. Creative and talented artists and entrepreneurs will always be inventing new products and art that people will be willing to pay for. The way this argument should be phrased is, “Anything that has a marginal cost of production of zero and is being sold now will tend to be offered for free over time.”
Every big marketer is offering free ebooks, videos or both to gain attention in an increasingly competitive world. What is important is that the quality of the free offerings keep increasing. Many of the same resources would have been sold in the past. Sean d’Souza’s calls it the bikini concept. Give away 90% of what you have for free but make sure the last 10% has a strong enough pull so that some of your readers will pay for it.
If I had a band, I would be giving away CDs and songs on every online platform I could find. Musicians should be ecstatic if new listeners give their music a listen. Trying to charge money is just another barrier to building a relationship with future customers. The way to make money is by doing concerts and selling merchandise.
If I was an author. I would be looking at publishing a free ‘unbook.’ If it was SEO optimized, then internet users would find my content and hopefully find some value in what I offered and would tell others. I would make money by charging for consulting, seminars or specialized follow up content.
If I was a magazine, I would be giving all the content away for free and develop an online community of active readers. There could be premium membership areas for the most serious fans. I would have seminars, conferences and meets ups regularly traveling the world to solidify the relationships of the community. I would have corporate sponsors that would value the highly targeted and deep connections with fans.
If you try to charge for everything from the beginning it is unlikely that you will ever get any sort of following. Even trying to charge a few pennies puts too much friction into the process and people will not be bothered to check out your offering. The real secret is to constantly increase the quality of your free products so that the world is continually astounded at the value your provide. This is what successful bloggers do, mainstream companies won’t be too far behind.