Some "Free" Advice

I'm becoming more and more enamored with the ruminations of The Ad ContrarianBob Hoffman. His blog is always interesting and thought-provoking. And his recent piece on "Free is the New Stupid" is no exception.

The post takes on the concepts of "Free" and "The Long Tail," both promoted by author Chris Anderson in his books of the corresponding names. Bob Hoffman's argument is that the obsession with the "free" idea devalues content and is actually killing art.

While I would argue that market forces are just as much to blame for newspapers being unable to sell subscriptions online as the free model, he makes some really good points about the value side of the equation. Which led me to harp on the fact (yes, once again) that free only works if there's still a value exchange of some kind. Giving away free stuff without leading the recipient intentionally down a path of purchase is just throwing good money after bad.

Here's my response on Bob's blog:

"First, I need to say I mostly agree w/ Bob. But I think it bears saying that the backlash against 'free' is a real shame. The concept was oversold (and sold millions, I'm sure), but that doesn't make the concept trash.
The only way 'free' works is when there's a value exchange of something. We give a free item to get a lead or a name (like a direct mail offer or a tradeshow contest). We provide free content to make money on advertising (which did pretty well for TV until recently). Or in my case, I provide a free podcast in exchange for the credibility it brings me with clients and prospects (kind of like what I'm sure you get from this blog, Bob.)
Where the free concept becomes problematic is when the free part and the value exchange part become separated or just plain too nebulous. The idea of my music having no value, but my concerts will make me money is good in theory. But only if done intentionally with a clear call to action. For instance, the music is free, but getting that music requires the downloader to a page selling tickets to shows or some such thing. (Heavy handed example, but I'm just proving a point.)
We can't forget that 'free' is still the most motivating word in all of marketing, no matter the over-hyping."

By the way, I'm thinking Bob Hoffman needs to be a BeanCast guest.

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