The alternative to free

Regular readers will know that I have a major problem with the free model. To me, it’s misleading – and the reason why is that it’s based on a false premise: that if you offer goods for free, people will be in time upgrade to the paid model.

I see why people are tempted to go down this track. It’s easy to see free as a simple way to open the jaws of the funnel. Free gets you awareness and therefore volume, the thinking goes. And there is an implication given by some that you can then trust the conversion process to secure enough sales off that added volume to make the give-away worth it.

Easy too to believe, as you look around the social media environment, that with so many people giving away so much, you have little choice but to do the same.

The problem with this reasoning as I see it is that free is not a generator. On the contrary, it is a competitor. And the reason is that giving so much away sets up an expectation that more should be free. Free becomes a right, an entitlement. It actively competes with the willingness to pay.

Don’t get me wrong. I think there are things you can and should share without cost. You should share some thinking, for example, because there is a pay-off, if you do it well. Hubspot gives away lots of great content to entice you to trust them to at least trial their inbound marketing software. And as Seth Godin points out in this thought-provoking piece McKinsey’s consulting philosophy is free, it’s the bespoke work that costs money.

The problem is not that companies offer things for free, but rather what they give away in the pursuit of the freemium model. As Godin puts it, “There’s a growing disconnect between making something worthwhile and getting paid for it. The digital artifact is heading toward free faster and faster, and the inevitable leap to a paid version of the same item is going to get more difficult.”

His closing challenge, whilst directed specifically in his post at digital content, I think applies much more broadly to brands in almost every sector. “Now it’s up to us to wrap those items in such a way that they’re worth paying for again.”

Worth paying for again … That should be the real success metric brands make it their business to chase.

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