The Culture of Free and Why it Needs to Change

I have to get something off my chest. I’m going to try not to sound too ranty, and I really do want to know what you think (especially if you don’t agree).

We live in a culture of Free. Free is not bad. But, in order for social business to be successful, many attitudes are going to need to change.

What I love most about new media is that the barrier to entry is extremely low. Anyone with an Internet connection, a keyboard and an idea is welcome to the party. Anyone can create, share and be brilliant, in their own way. What people build out here has enriched my life and continues to blow my mind on a daily basis. I love that I have access to all of this brilliance for free. I absorb it like a sponge, and share it like it’s candy. You should be doing the same. After all, it’s free.

It’s wonderful that all of this amazing content is free, but we’re starting to develop some bad habits. Unfortunately, our beautiful Culture of Free has started to become an Expectation of Free. And that’s a problem. A big problem.

There’s life beyond free. Every morning, I grab a cup of coffee, and dive head first into my Google Reader (or in my case, Feedly, which, if you’re not using yet, you really should be). Inside this space, I’m blessed with the most incredible content from some of the smartest people I know. I get to read, watch, listen and learn new ideas, concepts, and wisdom, all for free. More than that, I get to freely share it with my friends. I can’t say enough good things about it.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing sense of entitlement in some camps, that those who share for free, should continue to do so in all aspects of their work. I see evidence of this on a daily basis, and it’s alarming.

I write this blog for free. I contribute to other blogs for free. I tweet for free. I share stuff on Facebook for free too. I do it because I enjoy sharing what’s in my brain, and because some of you seem to enjoy receiving it. The thing is, even though no money is changing hands, each day when you come to my content, you’re performing a transaction with me. I’m delivering content. You are using it. For some reason, what I’m providing is worth something to you. In this case, it’s your time. And that’s totally fine. We are both getting something out of our transaction with each other.

Where the line begins to blur is when I move over into the world of the “not free”. You see, all of this is my job. This blog, my other online presences, my company, my teaching, my consulting work, my speaking engagements…they all take work. I tend to not make a distinction between what I get paid to do and what I don’t. I think many of us who work in this business (for money) do much the same.

What I’m observing is, somewhat with myself and more often with other people who do the same things I do, that lots of people are misunderstanding where the boundary of free vs. not free is. And I totally get why it’s confusing. We’re pushing all this free content out. Then suddenly, when we start asking for money, people start to wonder what we’re doing differently to no longer be just giving it away. They scrutinize our motives, and dig harder to find the value.

I have cats to feed. So where is the line? Well, that’s even more tricky. It’s different for everyone. Some people have massive volumes of traffic to their blogs and Twitter and subsequently to their email inboxes. I’m not really one of those people. I get plenty of requests, but certainly not to the scale of some people I know. Scalability aside, it’s important to understand personally where the line between free and paid is. I have absolutely no issue with responding to questions on Twitter, comments on my blog, the occasional email, or even going for a quick coffee and chat (which I love to do). I love people, and it makes me happy when I can provide a bit of info that is helpful.  But for me, free ends once a certain amount of my time is being used. If someone is asking for a significant amount of my time, whether it’s through back and forth emails, incessant Direct Messages on Twitter, or coffee after coffee pick-your-brain sessions with no real goal in sight, then things start to change. (I have, by the way, had all of these things happen at one time or another, as I’m sure many of you have.) At that point, it has to become more than just a transaction of time. After all, I have cats to feed. So please, please PLEASE…don’t be taken aback when I let you know politely that in order for us to continue our transaction, you’ll need to pay me. Remember, this is my job.

But…(and there’s always a but), there are exceptions to this, as with everything. There are certain times when the transaction of free stands. These are my personal reasons (yours, and others’, may be different):

1) You’re one of my students. As your teacher, it’s my responsibility to be there to help you learn. So ask away. Invite me for coffee. Find me on Skype. But if you’re not my student? Please don’t ask me to record my lectures and make them available to you online for free. My students pay their own hard earned money to be in that classroom. Many of them sacrifice a lot to be there. They are paying for the content, so it’s not fair if you ask to have it for free.

2) You’re involved in doing good work that I believe in. I am honoured that I get asked to speak at events. I get to share things,  improve my public speaking skills, and meet some great new people. I often get to talk about causes I’m involved with, like 12for12k. I get to share with young people, businesswomen, and amazing non-profits. This work I often do for free, because I believe in what these folks are doing, and if I can in any small way make a contribution that’s valuable, then I’m thrilled to help. But I have a line there too. This one’s always case by case basis.

It’s a whole new world. Free is what makes the Internet go round, that’s a fact. But there are lots and lots of people who are working very hard to make a living out here. If you’re here, you’re likely one of them (unless you’re my Mom – she’s retired). No other industry that I can think of has ever offered so much tremendous value for free. And the beauty is, if you want to stay in the free space, you have every right to do so. But, there’s a certain point when your needs and goals may require your transaction with the businesspeople out here to become about more than just that free time and information. Either way, it’s totally okay. But do know that the culture of free is transforming. And also know that it’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s only going to enhance everyone’s experience in the end, as far as I can tell, because we’re attaching a new type of value to what people know and do well out here.

I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

About

Susan Murphy is a writer, professional speaker, television producer, web site maker, teacher, digital media specialist, singer, and pet mom. She shows people how to tell better stories. You can also find her @suzemuse on Twitter.

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Theresa M. Moore
Theresa M. Moore

You are so right! You are where I was several months ago when I blogged about it http://theresammoore.wordpress.com/2009/10/22/free-downloads-will-kill-publishers/. As a self-published author I must balance what I give away with what I want to sell, and too often I have read comments from people who a) don't understand what it costs to create a book [or ebook] and b) are too cheap to buy them. My typical answer is, "if you want a free book, go to your local library." I don't mind giving away free samples. But a baker who gives away too many of his products soon learns that the freeloaders will keep coming until he is driven out of business. That is why people must learn that not everything in life is free.

WTL
WTL

I totally agree with this - but personally have a hard time drawing the line between what I should give away and when I should be charging. One of these days I'll figure it out. Thanks for the post/reminder.

Suze
Suze

Wow - everyone! Thank you so much for all of your comments. I'm thrilled that you're here and that you took the time to be part of this. It's obvious to me that this is a conversation that needs to take place. I believe many people who have been successful in marketing themselves through social media are asking the same question right now - where to draw the line between what one gives for free and what has monetary value attached. I think, based on what I've read here, that the line is really different for everyone. But it's true that as individuals, we need to consider our boundaries and then make it clear where we each stand. I appreciate you all dropping by, and I'm sorry I wasn't able to reply to each of you individually. (Though, you all have pretty much said it all, brilliantly!) Thank you and I look forward to discussing this more.

Owen Blevins
Owen Blevins

Wow, seems like some fime folks are ready to throw in the towel! I'm a guest on this blog and a bit surprised to hear that you folks are having such a hard time getting paid for your amazing talents. Peter Drucker said, "Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business." All of the folks that have made it rely on those two tride and true functions. Don't shoot the messenger. Innovate and Market... Cretehead

Kneale Mann
Kneale Mann

I often say that if you want it for free you have to be willing to give it for free. But all of us have the right to decide when free ends. If there are two people sitting at a coffee shop exchanging free ideas and both are fine with that, order another latte. If it becomes apparent that one is turning the "free exchange of ideas" in to help for their offering then it becomes business. If the person who realizes the other is picking their brain for their betterment and the conversation continues, the fault lies with the person whose brain is being picked - for free. If I told you that the sports store had free bikes this Saturday at 9am, you would line up and feel no guilt for keeping your money in your wallet. As many of us in this ever expanding space continue to explore and learn, meet new people and share ideas, the more the issue of free creeps up like a cloud of regret and concern. We are far more than our offerings. We represent the grand sum total of our life and business experience. And if we feel we're being asked to do free work, we must be careful we aren't doing the same to others. Relationships are not 50-50, they are 100-100 and as soon as the balance is altered, it's up to either side to make a decision to continue. If you are selling paint in a store; you don't let customers take gallons home, paint their bedroom to then decide if it's worth the money. Shorten the ask, keep your intentions clear and walk away when someone is simply picking your brain to help their business without helping yours. If you let it happen, it's accepted behavior and you have no one to blame but yourself. Is that crass? Nope, that's business.

Julie Walraven | Resume Services
Julie Walraven | Resume Services

The free question has been going on for a long time and it seems like people don't realize you have to feed the cats -- or in my case, feed Teddy (and believe me the big German Shepherd eats Alot!) But seriously, I love providing "free" career information on my blog and "free" other information through other ways I communicate but those who read must eventually realize that there is an economic relationship between that free and what we do in our business. Thanks for stepping up to the plate... I applaud you!

Jaimie Field
Jaimie Field

A brilliant post, Suze. I wish I had more to add than what everyone else has said, but I echo all of their replies. Jaimie Field

Andrew Moizer
Andrew Moizer

I'm a big believer that the business (monetary) model should be aligned with the business goals, and promotes (reinforces, drives, heck even constrains) the right behaviours of everyone involved (yup that includes the customers ... the one "necessary and sufficient" thing for a successful business). The details of getting this right is a big challenge. This is especially true where "free" is involved, doubly so where it involves "professional service" type "goods" (where it's often perceived to have low or zero incremental "cost" to the provider). Wherever possible I suggest that it's important to highlight the full (normal) cost and then apply a discount (even 100% for free). That way you're establishing the market value early on, and can much more easily adjust the discount as things go forward. It also establishes the appropriate business relationship, rather than having to re-define it to move away from free. Shopify founder Toby Lutka offered this blinding flash of the obvious at a TON event last year, “Twenty four dollars is a slightly more annoying version of free” because “If you have a product and you need to monetize it, charge for it.” By moving away from free the commitment level between them and their users changed dramatically, as did their profitability. (My good friend Francis Moran saved me a lot of typing with this: http://bit.ly/d12XzS ). In the end, all your free work has to be funded. It either comes out of the marketing budget (which can be totally legit if providing good exposure) or is funded by capital dollars (think Twitter, pre-advertising Google, Facebook, etc.). The other class of "free" is volunteer work aimed at making the world a better place. Here the motivations and rewards are different. It's just mighty hard not to get the two confused or intermixed. cheers, Andrew

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

A very wise man once said, "You get what you pay for." Think that's pretty apt here, my friend, and a solid post that I don't think I can add anything to except - amen. :)

Mickey Gomez
Mickey Gomez

Fantastic post! I come from a nonprofit background, where resources are often scarce. However, within the past few years I've had an epiphany about "free". It's okay to ask someone to sponsor your organization, and to offer them something of value in return. It's also okay to ask someone to donate their services or products to support your efforts (and hopefully they get something in return for this, too). It's NOT okay to expect them to do so. I wish I could find the video that helped me see things from a different perspective. It was well done, and related the expectations that consultants deal with to asking a chef for his recipe so you don't have to pay to return to the restaurant to eat your favorite meal again (there was also a great part where the diners tried negotiating to have charges taken off of the check because they didn't finish one of the portions). I budget for items and services. I negotiate when I can, but I do so from the perspective that everyone needs to make a living. I celebrate the fact that our website was created using a free platform, but we paid a professional to design it (and it was money well-spent). I love the fact that Twitter and Facebook and other social media tools are free to use, but I recognize that it takes time and effort to learn how to use and manage them and sometimes you need to pay a professional to share that hard-won knowledge. Thanks again for a great post, one that I'll definitely be sharing with others.

Marilyn Warrender
Marilyn Warrender

Yup. I tweeted this rant last week: Do you work for free? http://bit.ly/7NdWc3 (via @gracedent) /via @erocdrahs Clearly a universal issue. I've always found that sharing info/knowledge/contacts/etc builds 'whuffie'/karma/social capital/etc and it has served me well over the years. I think that thinking long term is the key. Great, thought provoking post.

Chris Servia
Chris Servia

I totally agree. There is a point at which free has to become a paid engagement. After all, this is my career we are talking about. Careers exist in order to support myself and my family. Again, I agree with your points here and understand the view completely. Thanks for putting it into words for the others of us.

Jeff Wardrop
Jeff Wardrop

Thank you so much for this post! I absolutely love what the Internet has done for all of us but business is still business and not everything we do is absolutely for free not should it be! Thanks again for voicing what so many of us feel.

Geoff
Geoff

Another timely example of the conundrum can be found with writer J.C. Hutchins. J.C. used free podcasts and new media to create a large and dedicated fan base. From this he was able to create opportunities with a traditional publishing house to "feed the family". He followed the model that many have espoused as the new path to success - and it didn't work out for him. I was personally affected as I read his latest blog post, as were his thousands of other fans. http://jchutchins.net/site/2010/02/24/an-update-on-the-7th-son-sequels-2010-and-my-creative-plans/

Paul Daigle
Paul Daigle

I think the Kevin Maney book "Trade-Off" provides a very helpful model for thinking about these transactions. He talks about the difference between high-convenience and high fidelity experiences. For instance, musicians make very little money selling recorded music anymore. They now have to make most of their money playing live gigs. Getting a song off the web is now very convenient, but going to a live show is very expensive and inconvenient. Getting a U2 song now costs between $0.00 and $0.99. Seeing U2 in person now cost between $200-$1000. Convenience is cheap to free, while high-fidelity is very expensive. Broadcast experiences, like blogging and tweeting, are high-convenience transactions, and are free. One-to-one transactions are inconvenient transactions, and are costly. The fact is, the high cost of one-to-one help is now very well subsidized by all the free intelligence and help we now acquire through our high-convenience channels like social broadcast. I think if we can make this model better understood, that we'll all have an easier time asking for and getting well paid for any personal requests that doesn't give us back equal value. Here's a link to Trade-Off for anyone interested : http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/038552594X?ie=UTF8&tag=nete00-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=038552594X Thanks for another great post Sue!

tmartineau
tmartineau

Hey sue, I know how you don't always like people just blindly agreeing with your posts, but seeing how I fully agree with you I'll try to put some thought into my comments. As someone just coming out of school in a couple weeks I have not had the experience as you or some of your readers, but it is something I have thought of and had some experience with. For me right now the majority of my experience with the free or "devaluing" of my expertise have come in the form of the dreaded Family or Close friends. I have already been asked to do a website for Sarah's (my girlfriend) Uncle's company for free, with her father sitting right there so you can guess I agreed. I mean I realize it was a simple site but it's the fact that this is / will be my lively hood, he wouldn't do a roofing job for free no matter how small. It does seem to spawn from the immense amount of free content on the web, and the tools out there that make certain tasks easier and assessable to anyone. People seem to forget that if they want something done better and more unique then they themselves could do, that you are no longer paying for what you could get for free but what they can't. As stated I don't have the experience that you guys do so I'll stop rambling and I'll end of by saying THANK YOU. Thank you to all of you for being willing to share you experiences and expertise with those who are emerging and will have to face these problems in the future, it is a big help.

Hazel May
Hazel May

You're preaching to the choir. Sing for free. Write my stuff for free. Play my event for free. I have no problem when it's a charity event. That's different, but a workman is worthy of his hire and... you get what you pay for. You want it free? Don't expect me to give you my best. You can have the dross. I'll save my gold for somebody who believes I deserve to eat and have a roof.

pete
pete

Yep, totally agree with all of this from the perspective of music and writing.

Stewart
Stewart

"We want to use your photos in our advertising campaign, but we don't have photos in our budget. We'll give you a photo credit (in tiny, tiny print), it'll be great promotion for you...."

mark
mark

Let's just say, as a formerly employed newspaper journalist, I know what you mean about the challenges of free vs. paid! :)

Don
Don

As always Sue, great blog; very insightful; very realistic. Recently, I was at a food event where my efforts on the food blog I co-own and operate came into question. My dinner companions, two entrepenurial owners of a local catering concern, were incredulous I haven't monetized my blog, especially with the amount of time I spend on producing content. Well, it is a small blog. I have yet to receive significant traffic. And, without sponsors, I can be absolutely objective. Because I follow an ethical food bloggers' code, what I do is already transparent. For the time being, the blog fills a gap in my life that gives me perspective. Time spent documenting my cooking in the kitchen or eating in a restaurant is different from time spent "9 to 5'ing it" in the boardroom. If traffic does build or, in the unlikely event, I am asked to write for an effort that is "for-profit", as opposed to "not-for-profit", things will change. I will have to look at monetizing the blog. I will charge for work. As you so well state, there is a threshold, which I set for pursuing something passionately and freely. In this case, working to highlight why Ottawa is a food destination. Thresholds are something everyone have to set. We are all freelancers in the information economy.

Ian Gordon
Ian Gordon

Hi Suze, Anyone who has ever traded what they know for money, has encountered this. Those if us who put some of what we know out there on Blogs, Podcasts, Youtube, etc., probably encounter it more than others. So where do you draw the line between free and charging for your knowledge and expertise? I don't think it matters. What really matters is that you draw the line. People read your blog, or listen to a podcast etc., because they are getting value from it. They ask for a favor, or advice, or your opinion, because they view you as a knowledgeable person. Never apologize for charging for your expertise. Put whatever you want out there. But if you feel what you are doing is worthy of being paid, by all means charge. If people are actually put off by it, they're not clients, or even prospects. Give then the amount of energy they deserve.

Donna Lehman
Donna Lehman

Suze - Applaud your communication of this often difficult to understand (or discuss) topic. As a PR and marketing consultant myself, I am confronted with this same expectation of 'free' all the time. Particularly from former co-workers or clients who may have moved on to another place of employment. Love to help people out and am honored when they seek my opinion about a new venture or input on market stuff. But in the end, it's my research, experience and knowledge that is of value - and at some point that costs something. Glad you brought this up, and will be sharing it.

Halyma
Halyma

Yep…I go through a lot of the same thing in dance. Come dance for us for free - it will be a "Great advertising opportunity". yeah… And sometimes it is, and sometimes it is simply time outta my day that could have been spent doing paid work. I love to dance and share my love of it. I am happy to organize dancers for events - both fundraisers as well as paid shows. Sometimes the shows are, in fact, good promotional events and if I can make that exchange happen, in an actual and tangible way, I feel great about asking others to contribute their time and energy to come out and show our love of belly dance! I have done some free mini lessons online to help my students in class with moves at home - but I also have two instructional DVDs with loads more info - so doing some 'tidbits of free' to entice folks to buy the "premium package" is a logical step for me - I think… I hope :-) For me, it is about finding the balance between the volunteer, the promotional, and the "I can now pay my rent with this" opportunities, and not giving too much away! Maybe we should start remembering that old adage, "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" and apply it to more than the originally intended aspect of our lives! :-) Thanks for the thought provocation! T/H

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