The thing about ‘free’

I posted an internship yesterday. The idea was to combine the "you pay to come" model of summer camp with the "we pay you to do low level work" of an internship to create a learning experience for students that was, split the difference, free. I felt like a free program would represent a combination of our effort and the interns.

Free, though, is not the average of paid and paid for. Free is something entirely different.

My friend Joel dropped me a note and asked why I was asking people to post a deposit (to be returned at the end of the summer). It felt wrong to him. I wrote back,

When I do a non profit seminar (they’re always free), the number of people who say, "yes I’m coming" and the number of people who come is not the same.

So, if I have room for ten, do I do a seminar for eight, or do I book 12 seats and play airline seat manager for the day?

I have no doubt, none, that if it were free, at least one person wouldn’t show.

That got me thinking about free music, free samples and other free interactions. They’re different. Paying a dollar for a song isn’t expensive to anyone who pays $3 for a cup of coffee. The dollar isn’t about expense, it’s about selection and choice and commitment.

There is no commitment, one way or the other, for free. If applying to college were free, the number of schools people would apply to would approach infinity–yet the cost of the application is trivial compared to the cost of tuition.

At the TED conference, which costs plenty of money, they had baskets of cool free snacks. Expensive little bags of nuts and stuff, all free. And what you noticed was lots of half-eaten bags of stuff. If the snacks had cost just a quarter, consumption would have been lower and my guess is that satisfaction would have been higher.

The interaction you seek as a marketer often disappears when something is free. The fascinating thing is that it often doesn’t matter if you’re paying or being paid… it’s the transaction either way that changes the posture of the person you’re working with.

So, if I want to be taken seriously, I could charge for the internship or I could pay. We’re going to pay.

As you think about your web service or your newsletter or the sales calls you go on, consider this: could you charge for it? What would happen if you paid for it? Time share folks have been paying people to endure a sales call for years. My guess is that this is because it works. And trade shows charge people to attend what is essentially a large loud sales call show floor. (Important note: ‘charging’ doesn’t always mean cash money. Giving you large amounts of attention or privacy or data counts too).

When you bring money into the equation, everything changes (ask the governor of New York). Chris Anderson is right when he writes about the power of free in marketing… it dramatically increases sampling and earns you the right to attention, at least for a while. I think Google is the exception that proves the rule: the most powerful brands are the ones that earn the right to a transaction.