/To Free or not to Free

To Free or not to Free

freeI don’t believe in free things. Even on the digital era. It’s a marketing strategy, which should not be confused with a business model, as Chris Anderson has done in his last book, which Seth Godin is also defending. You give something for free because you expect users to come and later offer them some ads or some products to buy.

Many bloggers are saying this same thing: Mark Cuban, Jason Falls, Chris Brogan and Malcolm Gladwell. Nevertheless, this philosophical debate does not solve the question of whether you should offer your content for free or not. To free or not to free, that’s the question. And there is not one answer. It depends.

If you think you can make money out of ads, it is great to give content for free. If you think your business model is about catching people’s attention, then you should definitely not charge them. So these are what I consider the criteria you should take into account when taking a decision on this respect:

1. Getting paid only via ads does only make sense if you are not creating exclusive (= no competitors) content and most of the content is created by (non paid) users or has a low-cost. This is why business newspapers should definitely charge for some of its content (for example, access to archives). In fact, The Financial Times editor, Lionel Barber, has predicted that “almost all” news organisations will be charging for online content within a year. And this is also why many media are going to disappear: because their content is not exclusive but is too expensive as to give it for free. For general news information that is easy to recreate and has a large audience, publishers can’t expect to continue to charge the fees they once did. In the US many people are already looking towards the government or filantropic organizations to pay the bill of this content. “While it is not clear that Journalism is commercially viable, it is clear that Journalism provides an important public good”, explains Brad Rourke.

2. People will pay for some content, so why say not to this source of revenues. This is the case of unique and very exclusive content, specially the one that gives value. Whether or not it makes total sense depends mainly on the number of people who would pay for it. So it’s a question of masses. Having 1,000 users paying 9 euros per year makes no sense from a business point of view, as it is not enough to feed somebody (at least, in Europe). But 20 euros could be enough for a freelancer… So it depends on the value proposition!

3. There are many business models different than advertising. For example, consulting. Most consultants blog for free because this is a way to attract new customers and keep the existant ones. They give away general ideas (some times, what I call Silicon Valley’s bullshit) and sell customized consultancy or books. The problem with these business models is that they are always indirect and hard to see. For example, how many books is Amazon selling because of its editorial efforts? It’s not clear. Be aware of this: it’s more about managing communities than about creating content. User Generated Content is good, because it does not cost money. But don’t think about creating it yourself for ever. That will only work for very few people (the influencers).

4. There is also a business model in ideas. This is what explains open source and many political blogs. The people who code or report for free normally have a different job and just want to change the world. This is perfect. But once again, it’s not a business model, provided you are not doing it to attract people who will buy something else, which takes us to point 3.