Cafe Witness

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Trouble with "Free"

People can only expect "free" content for so long before nobody wishes to create anything due to lack of incentive.

"Jason," Gosford, Australia -- commenter on an Andrew Keen article

How many blogs do you read? How many podcasts do you listen to / watch?

Would you consume the same amount of web content if it WASN'T free?

Most of the web world is betting "no," which is why so much remains free. But for the people who ARE producing work that, under traditional circumstances (and in traditional media) WOULD be considered "market-worthy," the question remains: how do we monetize?

We created the internet under the guise that all content should be free. Then we bemoan the fact that, since we CAN create market-worthy work there, we SHOULD be paid for it.

But how?

People expect ads on TV and radio because they were ALWAYS there, to ensure the media was delivered for free. Conversely, they expect NO ADS in films because they already paid at the door. (So, when theaters started showing ads, audiences were right to complain.)

People expect everything on the internet to be free, OR TO BE A GATEWAY to something ELSE that costs money.

So how do we, who are creating free content (blogs, audio, video, animation, photos, communities, ideas, experiences) get PAID for what we're doing?

The John C Havens / Eric Rice Method: "Charge SOMETHING"

On a recent interview with's John C Havens, he and I debated the merits of EVERYONE charging SOMETHING, so the world would come to understand that the internet was a viable delivery mechanism.

Meanwhile, Eric Rice also recently blogged about the potential for iTunes to at least enable podcasters who use the service to charge SOMETHING for their work, to retrain the audience into not expecting everything for free.

John and Eric are proponents of the concept; I'm more skeptical (for the reasons listed above), though I do see the need to move away from the "all-you-can-eat-for-free" buffet -- for exactly the reason quoted atop this post.

The Andrew Baron / Chris Brogan / Vergel Evans Method: "Charge for SOMETHING ELSE"

Andrew, Chris and Vergel have recently expressed variations on the same theme: "Give away the content as a gateway to SOMETHING ELSE you monetize." Vergel's podcast is all about electronic music creation -- and then he sells mp3s of his songs.

Chris and Andrew champion the concept of giving away videos for free to get people to buy the DVDs, or subscribe to a site to see extra features / content that's unavailable to the (free) masses.

While I CAN agree with this model, it's flawed in one central way: why would I expend dozens of hours and x amount of $ to create something I'm already passionate about, JUST TO HAVE TO CREATE SOMETHING ELSE I CAN CHARGE FOR?

What IS the Internet?

I think what it all comes down to is: how do WE (the creators) SEE new media?

And, how do WE (the consumers) INTERPRET new media?

And, most importantly: How does EVERYONE SEE the internet?

Is it a delivery mechanism unto itself? A marketing and advertising gateway to someplace else? Or a bastion of all things that shall forever remain free?

(And where does what YOU'RE contributing fall along those lines?)

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  • To answer your last question. Justine is the internet. And we can all get her for free 24/7.

    By Blogger Norm, at 10:57 AM  

  • One model I didn't really think about until just the other day is the "occasionally free" model. A local newsletter/magazine here uses it to, what I'm told, is great success.

    They mail out every Tuesday and usually arrive in time for the weekend and every fourth issue is free. People pay 39.00/yr to get all 52 issues, or they sign up for free and receive 13. In addition, they mail out an index to the issues at the end of the year as a premium only to the paid subscribers. This issue works for them twice because they mail it on a week that would normally be free. Discussion ensues amongst readers and the free crowd realizes what they're missing out on. Sold.

    Now, this publication was, at one point, free 52 weeks/yr and running (barely) on donations. Because of the some-free-some-not model, they seem to have lost very few readers, gained quite a few new ones, and found a way to sustain themselves.

    I think a model like this, or similar, could work quite well for STBD. While a weekly 5-10 minute episode is great, I'd throw a buck a week your way for it if I had to. Especially now that I'm hooked. And if my 1.00 gets me 12min eps instead of 10? Or all 4 eps in a month instead of the 3 free ones (Meaning the non-payees mis story) then you're even MORE likely to get my money.

    ... Not that I haven't given you some already.

    By Blogger Tommy, at 11:27 AM  

  • Well Justin, I'm glad to see that you are coming to terms with what I've been trying to tell you for the last week.

    By Anonymous Michael Bailey, at 11:29 AM  

  • In building a reputation for having good, or meaningful content to your audience, then they "as fans" would definitely be willing to pay. It's all the consumers that we've got to figure out how to handle.

    I think the root of the matter is converting consumers who browse content into motivated fans who want to OWN content or fund content.

    It's a new metaphor IMHO... but one we need to create and develop.

    By Blogger vveerrgg, at 1:11 PM  

  • There's value in free stuff being organized, produced, and managed. We did it with Matthew Ebel's Second Life concerts, turning them from free concerts into a saleable product that has put real greenbacks in Matthew's admittedly very empty pockets. As long as the producer has a strong connection with their audience, the audience will help support the producer as best as they can.

    By Blogger Christopher, at 2:40 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Christopher, at 2:41 PM  

  • I should add that if you'd like a copy of Matthew Ebel's fan-generated bootleg CD, Virtual Hot Wings, you can pick it up at:

    By Blogger Christopher, at 2:42 PM  

  • Penn's right. I paid $20 for free. There's some opportunities for that. Is the content itself a paying matter? Still hard to say. It's just the gateway to the audience for the advertisers, were we to revert to media 1.0. What's the alternative?

    By Blogger Chris Brogan, at 12:42 AM  

  • You do have to give away a sample of your product or service. It helps to build trust and rapport. However, you have to be mindful of what you're giving away for free.

    The model that Baskin Robbins uses is clever. If someone wants a sample of a flavour (it's free), they're given a taste on a teeny, tiny pink spoon. It would be financial suicide for Baskin Robbins to give away a $3 scoop for free as the sample. No one would buy a scoop if they've already gotten it for free.

    I'm afraid that this is what many podcasters in particular and social media enthusiasts in general are doing to hurt our profit margins. We have to learn the art of giving away a "pink spoon" of our content and expertise that creates a demand for our paid products and services.

    By Blogger Leesa Barnes, at 4:23 PM  

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