Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Free thoughts on Free

Nothing like a book about selling everything for free, as a way to make money, to get the whole darned web-o-sphere riled up. Not to mention the old content industries and a few others. Sheesh, come on people, haven’t read a purposely provocative, only half-true article before. Guess you didn’t read that last one about the long-tail either, huh? Like the Long Tail, Free is only partially true, but what it says is nonetheless important to anyone thinking about, well, just about the future of anything.

First, the Long Tail - a lot of people thought this meant (as Anderson kinda said) that previously niche content would suddenly become a lot more popular because of the ability of folks to use the web to push value “down the tail,” so that suddenly videos of old avant-garde movies would make as much money as Spiderman. That’s not quite what happens with the long-tail, and it’s not what Anderson really proposed, but it’s what lots of people believed enough to create crazy businesses upon it. All the long-tail really means is that if you aggregate a lot of the long-tail, then all those itty-bitty revenue streams for niche content can add up to something approximating a financial success.


This is nothing new; the web just amplifies this age-old truth and makes it easier. Of course this is simplifying things, but long-tail-story-short, it’s the rare piece of niche content that gets rediscovered because of the web and suddenly becomes a minor hit. More often than not, the value accrues to the aggregator, and as many sub-aggregators are finding out now, it really only pays when you are an uber-aggregator, like Amazon. That doesn’t mean it’s not great that more of the longest, thinnest parts of the tail are becoming available to consumers. That is great, and I love it, but I don’t expect any of these niches to start making a mint.

Which is good, because now we have to contend with free. I should clarify, however, that once again, this isn’t anything new. Nope, we’ve always had what seems to be free - radio, tv, mix tapes, just plain copied albums, VHS, free toaster at the bank, what have you. People always rush to point out these things weren’t ever really free. Again, duh. Yes, few people make the connection that when they pay for a Coke, a portion of their money underwrites the same advertisement that sold it to them in the first-place. Some people also undoubtedly didn’t realize that broadcast tv and radio weren’t ever free - there are enormous costs, underwritten by advertising so it only “seems free” to consumers. Same with all this internet stuff - the hosting, etc isn’t free, of course, so all you freevocates are wrong. Well, I don’t think anyone who thinks about this stuff ever made these wrong judgements, if ever a consumer did either.

There’s been a lot of writing on all this, but to me, what matters are really a few things -

  1. To the consumer, these things are as good as free, and that’s how they like them;
  2. Certain things that used to be expensive aren’t really anymore. The gig is up, and this means a lot of pain to a lot of people and industries, but tough luck. Them’s the breaks;
  3. Just because something is free, doesn’t mean you can’t still sell it for a buck;
  4. That same info that wants to be free, also wants to be very expensive. Just like Stewart Brand really said, folks;
  5. Yes, some freevocates are wrong, and many businesses built on this will crumble. This neither means that free can’t be good for society nor that it can’t be good for some businesses - if they build a business model (a real one) around it;
  6. Those who stand to gain the most from free want to kill it, or don’t understand it and will contribute to killing it, just because they’re afraid of change and unable to envision anything different than what they know;
  7. It’s better to embrace free and build a plan that accounts for it than have none at all. You know, proactive vs reactive, just like they supposedly taught all these suits in business school;
  8. As many others have pointed out, free can be a darn good marketing tool and it’s one that I think the film world should embrace, especially indies.

So, I gave this little lecture at the Power to the Pixel conference at the Edinburgh Film Festival. The slides are posted here, but the video of my speech is now live. Check it out below, as well as the roundtable that followed - you can find that and all the other Power to the Pixel videos here.



Tony Comstock said...

"Certain things that used to be expensive aren’t really anymore. The gig is up, and this means a lot of pain to a lot of people and industries, but tough luck. Them’s the breaks"

Ouch on this one!

Ellen said...

Hey Brian,

Just wondering if you would be interested in coming to Ireland to be a speaker at one of our events?

My name is Ellen Dudley, and I'm from a company in Galway, Ireland,
meetforeal, www.meetforeal.com. We are involved in real life social
media, and are creating a community of people who are interested in learning, sharing ideas, and meeting like-minded people in real life so we organise events with expert speakers who are passionate about the area they are working in, to engage and inspire the audience, and we then create an environment where people can get to know new people and have interesting conversations.

You can email me at ellen@meetforeal.com, and my website is www.meetforeal.com


Ellen Dudley

Barna, Galway
+353 85 7200 433

Learn, share and meet creative like-minded people in real life at
meetforeal events

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