Feeling Not So Free at SXSW

In the last day or two, as I began to gather my thoughts and feelings about my trip to SXSWi and my planned posts, I had a terrible nagging feeling. One nagging feeling that wasn’t allowing me to write, post video, share some stories, or generally gush about what an incredible trip this had been.

So before I can share those posts, I need to share this one…

I’ll start by saying that there are some incredibly smart, talented and creative peopleĀ  in the interactive space. Many of whom were scurrying about the Convention Center and streets of Austin this past week. Seriously, if you think that it’s just a bunch of Star Wars fanatics in black t-shirts trying to get to the next level of World of Warcraft or design the next fart noise app for the iPhone, you are mistaken. OK, there are some…but in general these are people that have not only imagined miraculous systems, applications, and tools but they have built the damn things! Many have poured time, money and energy into wondrous systems and services that help you and I access information and communicate with each other in places and ways never seen before.

Now here’s the thing…we’re asking them to not charge us for it? “Thanks for quitting your job, mortgaging the house and living on Ramen noodles. I’ll use the heck out of this (insert web service or app here) to better my business/life. What? It’s going to cost me $10 a year? Oh. Never mind.”

Such is the model of the business of free. This nagging feeling, this little rain cloud on the horizon of this new
world that I’ve fallen in love with, was precipitated by the final
keynote session featuring entrepreneur and marketer Guy Kawasaki and
Wired editor Chris Anderson, author of the forthcoming book “Free”. The
fire was further stoked by a post forwarded to me by my Minnov8
colleague, Graeme Thickins.

Those of you that have found yourself in this trap…you know who you are (Twitter, Facebook, app developers, bloggers, ME!)…are completely aware of the little challenge that’s been created. The internet is creating a model that dictates we give away hard work in the form of a free service in the hopes that we can make money on even harder work of a premium service or, God willing, a lucrative speaking schedule…so we can get paid to talk about the stuff we worked so hard on that we’re giving away. This is not a good model…except maybe for the Ramen noodle manufacturers.

To be honest since that Tuesday meeting I’ve been mumbling to myself, “How does one feed the family or pay the mortgage on Free?” And frankly, I don’t know yet.

This I do know, we’ll figure it out. We’ll have to. No doubt, free is cool! It is also the one thing that has set the whole Web 2.0 world apart. There is a place for free services to bring people into the tent. But I also think we can expect more from those that enter the tent to see all of the other attractions inside. I think we can ask them to pay. Or should I say “we will be able to” ask them to pay. Remember all of these products we’re so excited about are still not “mainstream.

When they are mainstream, we need to manage their expectations. If the business model call”s for charging the customer, then charge them. But make damn sure the service delivers what it promises. If the model calls for advertising somewhere within the system, tell the customer about the plan. Offering a service with no advertising and then suddenly bombarding them with pop-ups is deadly.

Look, we constantly tell people that the online space, this social medium, is all about transparency. So if there’s going to be a business plan, that requires some form of payment don’t hide it from the consumer that is needed to make it work. If it’s something they really like or really need they will pay for it. Hopefully sooner than later.