Free Content, Expectations and Monetization

Vieux Port

Good free content attracts people. If successful, it builds an expectation of more free content and time. This creates problems for small businesses and individual content creators (bloggers, photographers, etc.).

First, once people get free stuff, they want more. More content, more time, even services and goods for free. They ask for it, and voice dissatisfaction when told they must pay. When told that some offerings are paid, communities and customers even get angry.

Many small online brands and individuals struggle with how to monetize and scale at this point. As both a blogger and a photographer in the distant past I have expressed frustration at community members about free expectations. I know others have, too, and others feel a great sense of anger about the free mafia.

My anger — while perhaps justified or based in the perceived statement that my time is not valuable — was misplaced and should not have been expressed. The expectation of free was built by me with my inbound content marketing. And people have a right to ask for more when conditioned to think free blog posts, photos, and links are the norm.

Instead, it’s better to take steps to address the issue. Specifically, put forth clear boundaries that set an expectation for customers and those that simply enjoy a free ride alike. `

Fort St. Jean en Marseilles

Here are four suggested steps to address this problem:

1) Throttle Free Offerings

Look at free content as a pure marketing activity to attract people to your more valuable offering. Treat intellectual property as inventory, and understand exactly how much you have to give to attract the right amount of customers. Then throttle down your content offering to this level. Clearly state this is your free offering, and what is paid.

Honor your own boundary. If you or your company doesn’t respect its own content and time, why would anyone else?

2) Kind Firm Nos

If you offer anything that is well received for free, people will ask for more no matter what you do. When they do, don’t get visibly angry, say rude things, or anything else to alienate potential customers. Just say no. Even say thank you.

Most companies brands would be thrilled to here customers asking for more. Your issue is that of inventory (time and capacity to fulfill), and the need to monetize. Realize the ask for more free goods is a quality problem resulting from success. Kind polite nos can convert more people to paying customers.

3) Say Good Bye to the Disgruntled

A vocal minority doesn’t like the polite no. You want to make everyone happy, but have to make money. They get down right nasty. This is a recipe for disaster. This situation produces the “Haters Going to Hate” statement that bloggers in particular use to dismiss angry community members.

It doesn’t pay to piss off good customers who see you engaging in negative conversations with bad ones. Instead, just acknowledge the customer has a right to voice their anger, but you’re not going to offer more for free. Perhaps offer a list of additional free resources they can find.

Personally, when it comes to my consulting time, I wish these folks well, and tell them if they change their mind, I’d welcome them back as a paying customer. This latter approach can yield later business if the person finds other free offerings don’t meet their needs. I’ve gotten several customers after the fact.

4) Recalibrate

Understand that your original determination of what should be free, and what is paid might result in an overvaluation of time and content. Make a business decision about this. Look at inventory and recalibrate. Offer more for free, lower prices, and even re-evaluate whether the business model works at all. As the old adage goes, fail fast.

Struggling to monetize as many others have is a normal experience in the current online world of content (or inbound) marketing. Just look at how the New York Times has struggled with paywalls and other solutions over the years. At least they have a chance, most newspapers have to bite the free bullet, and rely on Internet advertising.

How do you handle demands for free?

  • This is a tough one for me, because I love giving away free content and advice. But it certainly has hindered my business. I’ve drawn lines with certain levels of friends as to what I will give, but sometimes I have to remind myself to hold firm. Thanks for this, Geoff.

    Oh, and…No! But thank you. 

  • Nice write up. I’ve struggled with this also as an author launching my first self-published book. I send out tons of free content via my email list but have found that most loyal readers actually ask for more information and are will to pay for it.

  • dan jeffers

    Geoff, good points, but I think there’s another side. The quality of the free stuff needs to be as advertised. If I offer something for free, but then make it less valuable without some paid component, I’ve broken trust with the user. I think this goes well with your boundary discussion–the key is to make both sides of the boundary clear. The free stuff is X and the paid stuff is Y.

    • geofflivingston

      Not sure I agree with that. A blog post lacks the information in a book. Have I broken trust by blogging?

      • dan jeffers

        No, not unless your blog post is pretending to have all the information in the book. If the title is “all you need to know” but then ends with “you need to buy the book,” then it might. If a personal trainer lets me download a free workout schedule–I should understand it doesn’t come with an invitation to consult for free. But it should be complete in terms of how it’s advertised.

        • geofflivingston

          Ah, then I do agree! Thank you for clarifying and the extra insight.

  • Really good points Geoff, I’ve been giving away content as a daily blogger for free for over 3 years now and am slowly making steps to monetize.  The main reason I’m going so slowly is fear of the backlash!  I need to get over it and just try it and handle issues as gracefully/graciously as possible.  :-)  Thanks for the tips. 

    •  It’s a hard road because you get push back the whole way, but it is the only way to make it a business as opposed to hobby. There is nothing wrong with great hobbies, BTW!