The Audacity of Free

free sign When you run conferences, everyone wants in for free. It’s understandable. Times are tough and people don’t have as much money. I’m running Inbound Marketing Summit in a few days, and it’s not free. The ticket price is $695 to attend (unless you know @dmscott, @justinlevy, or a few other people, who have codes for VIP discounts).

Otherwise, you’ve gotta shell out to get in.

The venue, Gillette Stadium, is home to the New England Patriots. They charge me money to be there. The food costs me money. The power, the booth construction, all that stuff. This is simple, right? It’s a transaction. I ask people for something, and they tell me how much it will cost. Sometimes, I get a discount if I buy in bulk.

Where things get harder to understand are when they are intangible.

My friend Justin Kownacki wrote about this yesterday.

The sense of walking into somewhere and listening to sage words doesn’t seem like it should cost money. I understand this. It’s just sound moving through the air to your ears, right?

Let’s move the discussion away from what it costs to make a conference, and let’s talk about value overall, and what we need to consider

The Audacity of Free

There Are Costs to Things – Information is write once, repeat forever, but there are costs to things like time, presence, access, etc. Real costs, not just assumed ones.

Some Costs Help Gate – Seth Godin just wrote the other day about what if Craigslist cost $1 a post, and he was spot on. It would cut down annoyance. Darren Rowse just launched for really cheap (too cheap, if you ask me), and there’s a reason for this. Paying something for a service or good helps us value it more. Christopher Penn and Whitney Hoffman and I decided to charge money to attend PodCamp Boston, because that made people commit to showing up. They weren’t willing to walk away from their investment, and that ensured our attendance numbers would be accurate.

Free Makes It Harder to Charge Money Later – There’s a great post in Entrepreneur magazine pitting Chris Anderson (Free) against Jason Fried (37 Signals), and I agreed with what Fried had to say on the matter. Free can cause wild growth, but is that the real goal? See also Raul’s post on free for more ideas.

Free Encourages Waste – Permit me a moment of sour grapes. I volunteered to attend and speak at an event recently. I paid money to book a flight and hotel, so not only didn’t I charge a speaking fee, but I paid for the privilege of helping this event attract an audience. They chose to move the event (hey, I run conferences: this happens), but forgot to contact ME about it. I’m out money because I did something for free. Do you think this makes me feel inclined to do that again? (hint: no).

Charge For Value, for Gating, for Your Needs

I charge what I’m worth to speak and to consult with companies. My agency charges for the work we perform for clients (and we’re less expensive than most). Wiley charges for Trust Agents because they have tons of costs behind it (remember: I make like $1.40 a book).

Don’t ever feel embarrassed to charge for value. Never apologize that something costs money if you’ve determined the value of it.

Sometimes free is a promotional matter, a loss leader, the chance to build some buzz, but sometimes, we get confused on how that works, too. When companies send something for free, they’re hoping that you’re so moved by trying the thing that you’ll be motivated to tell others if it’s worth it. That’s in their marketing budget. They expect that.

I’ve been running a promotion since August that trades values. I made a deal where if someone bought 200 copies of Trust Agents, I’d speak for 1/2 day for free. When those sold out, I made the same deal for 300 copies (still 1 of those deals left). In doing this, I give up my speaking fee (which is much more than the cost of the books), but I do so because it’s a chance that those 200 or 300 books will get into the hands of people who might be able to use the ideas, and also into the hands of a select few who’ll want me to speak professionally or consult or work with my agency.

Free can be a wonderful thing, and there are some really great things that are (and should be) free. But free is a choice, and it’s not your buyers who decide this, no matter what we like to think in social media kumbaya-ville. Free is beautiful, and costs are part of life.

Photo credit Koka Sexton

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