More on Free – Seth Godin steps in

With reference to my post yesterday on the subject of Free – here's Seth Godin stepping in to take sides. You can read it for yourselves. He adds the delicious point that if you really want to find out what Chris Anderson is saying about everything is going free then you have to buy his book. Um. Yup.

I want to unpick a couple of aspects of this very fat word FREE. Because I strongly suspect it is being used in different ways and people are talking at crosspurposes.

Free is a promotional tool. It is a tipover offer. Where something which has a perceived market value suddenly costs me nothing.  In which circumstances a lot of people (but by no means all) will accept the offer.  But this aspect of free is linked to the psychological reward of getting something for nothing. The value doesn't necessarily extend beyond the transaction. If I offer you a free book, you will probably say yes. But it doesn't mean you will read it. All the arguments about getting attention ought to be arguments about getting people to do something with what they are being offered. It is pointless offering whitepapers which get accepted but never read. At one point one of my published articles was being downloaded from my site 200 times a month for a couple of years. The alternative was being a subscriber to WARC where it was avaialable. So it was a freebie. But I don't believe all of those who downloaded the article ever got around to reading it.

The reason why I read Gladwell's review of Anderson's book was not because I was trying to avoid reading the book. It was to find out if the book was worth reading. If Gladwell tried to charge for the review then he wouldn't get many takers. But unless some people were willing to go and buy the book there's not a lot of point in writing the review. Someone has got to want to spend some money somewhere. But we can kid ourselves with the tipover version of free that there has been great takeup. Buy one get one free offers are problematic because the retailer wants high stock turnover but doesn't have to worry about whether the product gets used. The manufacturer does. The feeding frenzy of the free offer is all about shopping not using.

The second aspect of free I want to reference is about processes. I don't pay to search Google so the answers appear to be free. Though in reality they are paid for by advertisers – even the free listings.  Amazon let me read the first chapter sometimes but they don't let me read their titles online as an alternative to buying them.  we are strongly habit forming as a species because we are mostly too busy to set up spontanesous processes. I could find an old paper pad round the house or get one off a friend for free. I could go up to the woods nearby and collect firewood. I pay for the convenience of having somebody provide these things because I can't be bothered to do it myself. It seems to me there is a fast track and slow track. If you want to get something done fast then pay for it. Otherwise the price drops. The big problem at present is that so much content is available for free that we may decide to stop paying for anything. Which is taking the slow option. What is needed is new processes which are easy for the customer to participate in which make clear how the content is funded and who is paying for it.  Youtube needs a process by which it gets paid and we still get the content we want off it. Charging me $0.25 per use is an unusable way of getting the funding. Charging me $5 a week may be better but not much better.

Direct Debit has worked fantastically well at getting large amounts of money out of people which they can switch off anytime they wish but making it a hassle to set up and not impulsive to switch if off. Direct Debit is a process for getting payment which the customer accepts and finds cheaper than the alternatives – paying cash for each issue of a magazine for instance. 

The word Techno-utopian is been bandied around. And for good reason. There is more than a whiff that everything ought to be free. Or that changing the business model is in itself progressive. So good. At the other extreme there are others who thing that anything free must be stolen or rubbish.  We need to keep moralising away from the free issue. It isn't helpful.

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