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 Problogger.com 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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  • http://www.AHAMEDIA.ca April Smith

    Thank you very much for writing this! :) I agree in the concept ” Free-lance is NOT free” coined recently by Raul Pacheo – ( One of my mentors )

    Thanks again :)

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  • Anonymous

    I don’t do free. The least I’ll do is expenses and that’s only if the speaking engagement is local.
    In my experience, the worst offenders to ask for free are government and 501.c.3 employees. When I’ve pointed out to them they are being paid to be there so why should I do it for free, the return look is a blank stare.
    A few years ago a farmer in the next county called me and asked if I would “look over his farm and give him some ideas”. I told him a minimum of two eight hour days resulting in a written report would cost $400. His response, “I can get the extension service to do it for free”. I told him to call the extension service. It’s true he didn’t hire me but it’s also true he’s not using tourism on his farm to increase farm income.
    I make $500 in one morning conducting farm tours; that experience and information is worth a lot more than the $400 I charge.
    Those with eyes to see…see. Those with ears to hear…hear.
    The rest whine about how they aren’t getting anywhere…fast.
    My husband tells me, frequently, if I’m not getting as many jobs as I want…raise my prices. People’s perception of free is “it’s worthless”; their perception of expensive is “it must be really good”.

    Your post is excellent and timely, especially in this economy.

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    I like what you said.

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    I like what you said.

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  • http://www.ElevatingYourBusiness.com elevatingyourbusinesss

    I do pro bono for two clients — I barter their services for mine; but only services I really need. Why not “get something in return”?

    When I do “free” it costs the NFP advertising space, newsletter ads, BOR sales, a hotel room, etc.

    We have to put a price on free when it comes to business.

    I do volunteer personally — but NOT for business. And everytime I go against my own rule, even giving deep discounts to folks, I end up with “clients from hell” — not worth it.

  • http://www.CoachMaria.com elevatingyourbusinesss

    Hip hip to you. Great article, I passed it along as the tip of the day to my clients.

    I say “stamp out freebie seekers!” Wrote this article when I got tired of folks asking me if they can pick my brain. Well, my brain pays my bills and gives me the life I want to lead….

    Now I say — you have 5 mintues, then we’re on the clock.

    Wrote an article on the 10 ways to say no to freebie seekers; if you want the other 13 ways and additional information on pricing…. you guessed it — You have to pay for it!

    http://www.coachmaria.com/articles/sayno.html

  • http://meltzerlaw.com Stephen Meltzer

    I guess you've made my point a bit. Pro bono is not “in exchange” for anything. You should not have any expectation of remuneration for pro bono work other than the benefit you bring to others. Make the gift – you pay the price to bring your service to the non-profit – the “gain” needs to be measured differently in a give of this nature. Don't try to put a price on this type of free and you may find it is more worth it.

  • http://www.CoachMaria.com elevatingyourbusinesss

    I do pro bono for two clients — I barter their services for mine; but only services I really need. Why not “get something in return”?

    When I do “free” it costs the NFP advertising space, newsletter ads, BOR sales, a hotel room, etc.

    We have to put a price on free when it comes to business.

    I do volunteer personally — but NOT for business. And everytime I go against my own rule, even giving deep discounts to folks, I end up with “clients from hell” — not worth it.

  • http://privacyregulation.com Stephen Meltzer

    I guess you've made my point a bit. Pro bono is not “in exchange” for anything. You should not have any expectation of remuneration for pro bono work other than the benefit you bring to others. Make the gift – you pay the price to bring your service to the non-profit – the “gain” needs to be measured differently in a give of this nature. Don't try to put a price on this type of free and you may find it is more worth it.

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  • terryreagan

    In Chile, where I live, there is a saying : “that which costs nothing is worth nothing.” Take note

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  • http://twitter.com/LesleyinNZ Lesley

    I get where you are coming from, but I do know there is a growing interest in free. from where it comes I haven't a clue. However, where someone is trying to make their mark, free has its place. A young graduate looking to gain expereince in an industry that doesnt do graduates, may use the concept of free to market what they offer the world.

    Obviously, there are many situations you have covered that I agree with. But I would not use the concept of charging for everything as a blanket philosophy myself.

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  • webspider20

    It is really true how much less crap would be on craigslist if they charged $1. I love the site but there is too much spamming and scams going on right now. I love this post, thanks for the great read

  • debbiemahler

    I really don't think Seth meant that CL should charge, I think it was an analogy. If CL charged $1 per ad, that would stop the spammers because they don't want to spam for a fee! I think that was the point.

    And for the person who said we are in a gift economy, if I had to depend on that for my living, I'd be on the street and out of business. In 14 years I received a $2 tip in my blog tip jar. I ended up taking it down and putting up Google ads. At least I get a check every year or so from them!

    Thanks for the great post Chris!

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  • http://scottgould.me/ Scott Gould

    Re reading this. Good stuff.

  • http://mettaonline.net Metta Zetty

    Charles Gupton wrote: “I seldom ever hear a speaker or writer present a profoundly new idea. But I'm often amazed at how new an old idea is shaped so that I can understand and apply it in a new way. That holds great value.'

    Point well taken. Reminds me of a similar insight (quotation) I heard recently on NPR:

    “Genius is not a new idea. It is an idea used for a new purpose.” ~ Unknown.

  • http://mettaonline.net Metta Zetty

    Charles Gupton wrote: “I seldom ever hear a speaker or writer present a profoundly new idea. But I'm often amazed at how new an old idea is shaped so that I can understand and apply it in a new way. That holds great value.'

    Point well taken, Charles. Reminds me of a similar insight (quotation)I heard recently on NPR:

    “Genius is not a new idea. It is an idea used for a new purpose.” ~ Unknown.

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    Welcome to the gift economy. With the emergence of social media, business has become interested in the gift economy because of scale it's suddenly monetizable. Non profits have been working in the gift economy for many years and understand exactly that events and other things of value don't come for free. Be great if this debate moves on to discuss full cost recovery, value and the art of giving.

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    Thanks, Chris. I’m just getting my presentation coaching business off the ground and have been going back and forth about providing “gratis” work for initial exposure

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  • http://www.redheadwriting.com The Redhead

    Bottom line: you get what you pay for. Do you walk into your doctor’s office and haggle? Do you tell your CPA that Turbo Tax is only $59.99?

    No. Professionals charge for their services. We also charge our friends. We also understand when and how to ask to bend someone’s ear. We also know when people are bending the shit out of us and soon enough, we break.

    Pay the man. Woman. Hamster. Doctor. Lawyer. Indian Chief. If the economy sucks so bad that you can’t afford it, then you wait until you can. You don’t ask someone else to make THEIR business suffer.

    Hat tip, Chris. *and thanks to Dave Peck for RTing this and putting it back on my radar

  • Tammy Collins

    Free is so difficult for exactly the reasons mentioned. I have had potential tax clients tell me they can do their taxes online for free. I smile and tell them to go ahead. When they receive the inevitable letter from the IRS, they call me to fix it, which I do for much more than their initial tax return would have cost them had I prepared it. Ah well, live and learn. Free is never really free at all. Great post!

  • http://www.theincslingers.com/blog Simon Salt

    Chris, I was actually working on a similar post with a couple of others as the result of experiences we have had recently with people asking for “Free”. I was asked to MC a conference for two days, expected to travel there on my own dime and get nothing for it. The conference ticket was selling for $600, even if everyone who attended (approx 200) got the discounted ticket of $400 that is still a gross profit of $80,000. Because it was a brand new conference I didnt ask for a speaker fee, just travel and accommodation. Instead of negotiating with me the conference organizers got very mad at me for asking, and told me “good luck” and then walked away. That was when I decided Free is not Me. My time, my content and my contribution is worth something, even if its only a plane ticket and a hotel room. As always great post.

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