Why free does not equal worthless online

Free can make you money

Free can make you money

An older teacher told my husband that people put no value on services you give away for free, but if you charge even a nominal amount, it suddenly has value. He has a point, specifically in the services industry. Many people familiar with that concept are suspicious of internet services offered for free. “What’s the catch?” I am asked, when I recommend a free service for a client.

The truth is, the Internet is different. It was designed from the beginning as a means of distributing, sharing and providing easy, redundant, and broad access to information. It depends upon a confluence of donated hardware and software technologies even to function, and has enjoyed a dedicated community of user-supporters who have helped it develop, grow, and reach out to users all over the world.

These users have re-discovered an amazing truth – giving away useful information can be beneficial not just to the recipient, but to the giver. In other words, “it’s better to give than to receive.” While I personally believe this is a precept that can be proven in all areas of life, our society is very distrustful of others and tends to acknowledge only motivations that start with dollar signs.

You Get What You Don’t Pay For

Online, there are many services provided to users for free which derive their monetization in other areas. The biggest success story is Google’s search service, reportedly the largest index of Internet content provided for free to users. Obviously, for Google the funding has come from advertising and other services, and few users balk from using Google just because it’s free. The Google model is similar to the old broadcast television or radio model. The content is provided for free and supported by advertising. Some new services depend upon building a following large enough to move to an advertising model for support. A win-win solution for everyone as long as the advertising is unobtrusive enough.

A second arena for “free” services is Open Source software or services. Open Source is a model of software development that allows anyone to contribute to expanding or modifying a software package. In turn, these “volunteer” developers can donate their creations back to the user community for others to implement, expand or modify. Examples of Open Source software gone mainstream are the Linux operating system, Joomla and Drupal Content Management Systems, SugarCRM contact management and even office productivity software like OpenOffice.

Some of these Open Source projects are backed by non-profits, who have an ideal in mind behind sharing the core software. Others are monetized when you purchase support, enhanced services or advanced levels of the software. Others are educational initiatives. Some corporations offer Open Source as one of several offerings in their portfolio. Even Microsoft is getting into the Open Source interoperability arena.

The source of the money isn’t the first reason to dismiss or even to choose Open Source products. Suitability, support, total cost to operate, and security should all be examined. The point is, there is no reason not to include Open Source in the offerings you compare. The fact that you get the code for free doesn’t mean it’s worthless. It also doesn’t mean you won’t have to pay somewhere down the line.

Better to Give

There is a second aspect to this concept, the giving part. I have experienced over and over the benefits of giving away content online. On the Internet, content really is king. Some people use that idea to lock away their content and sell access. And there is definitely a place for that. But giving away content (some or all) can also be very rewarding.

Firstly, search engines love content. Content is what they are about and the more you have, the more they can provide to searchers. Vast amounts of content build traffic, page rank, and visibility. Search engines value a comprehensive, expansive site as a source of information to users and so ranks it higher. Unique content, in particular, is treasured. When you have a good site that provides a good service to the user, the search engine will reward you. So will other sites, whose links to your site also help with search engine placement.

You need to remember, that your site is not about you or your company. It’s about what you provide to users. Users will not cherish or return frequently to a billboard. They will bookmark, link to, and share an information source or a useful service. In order to have a wildly successful web site, both with users and search engines, you must provide information or services or both. If you answer the user’s questions, the engine will rank you highly.

In addition, comprehensive information, as long as it is true, not copyrighted by others, and presented in a usable fashion, will improve your reputation both online and off. People now view Wikipedia as a reference source, much to the dismay of librarians everywhere, primarily because it is comprehensive, easy to browse, and ranks well online. Even contributing your expertise as a commentator, blogger or forum participant can boost links, reputation and general visibility online for your company.

But providing this information takes time and effort. It’s probably not your main line of work. If it is, you are likely very resistant to giving it away. So what’s to gain from providing services or information for free? High-traffic, or high-ranking sites online are the TV equivalent of hit shows. Advertisers pay good money for visibility to the right audience at the right time. Advertising can support or become a profit source from a comprehensive and popular site. Partnerships can also develop with similar sites where you can provide links to or cross-advertising with a related site. Like how airlines and hotels team up on travel sites to benefit each other.

Another direction is to sell product or information at the same site. The free content can provide a terrifically targeted audience for physical products you sell, either produced by you or through affiliate sales, where you get a commission for referred customers. To do this however, you can’t just provide one free sample or page. You have to develop a lot of content.

A third benefit is in leads. Many service companies provide free white papers, even online services in exchange for an e-mail address and a name. The targeted lead alone has value, and can provide a sale or partnership later on.  Just remember, you can’t give away something worthless and expect a valid e-mail address in return. People are much more protective of their e-mail addresses than their physical addresses, by far.

Many sites develop forums to assist in generating keyword laden content, utilizing the masses to provide the content with a moderator or blogger keeping the conversation going. This can be a useful way to aggregate content and feedback if you have a user community. Done well, it can become a destination of its own where your users can be exposed to your company over and over again.

So there are benefits to giving away information or services online. To determine how to benefit most, think like your customer. What information do they need about your industry? What questions do they call with? What service can you offer them online? Then prioritize and begin to offer this information. One of the greatest things about the Internet is that you can build over time. Quit stalling and get started today!

Kim Dailey is a webmaster with Papyrus Document & Design, LLC, which designs and maintains web sites for small businesses, non-profits and individuals.

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