Giving away what you do – strategically

While looking for new post fodder in my drafts folder, I found this unpublished post from 2009. I hope you enjoy looking back over it, while considering how things have changed with “free” since that time and how those things affect your business today. Note that four years later, the Beacon is bigger and stronger than ever and the news business has continued to react to the things this post talks about. Enjoy. – Mark

Before I got around to listening to Free a few weeks ago, I’d tossed some thoughts together in my Beacon column about ESPNChicago and (soon) ESPNbigcitynearyou.com, partly in response to a local writer’s consternation about ESPN’s entry into the local sports/newspaper scene.

As you might expect, I segued into how that relates directly to what you do, but I had other motives as well.

Those other motives? I wanted to stir the pot at the Beacon a little bit.

In 2007, the Flathead Beacon was the new media darling (news-wise) in Northwest Montana.

Primarily, it had 3 things going for it.

  • A new coherently-designed website, driven by a modern content management system.
  • Up to the minute news and opinion written by news professionals (myself excluded) who were exclusively educated at the U of Montana journalism school (hometown rep), earned their reputations at places like CNN, then became “comebackers” by returning to the Flathead to work for the Beacon
  • Content published in its entirety online, with a subset published in print on a weekly basis.
  • Free. The Beacon is advertiser supported (and 2 years later, solvent).
  • It offered an alternative voice to the media-conglomerate-owned, long-time daily in town, whose site was little more than an afterthought of their business.

2 years later, despite numerous ongoing improvements and definite success, I have concerns that it could slide back into the comfort of old media and compete with the newspapers who don’t get it, such as those publishing news online only after it has gone to press.

Myers’ story about ESPNChicago.com and the ensuing move into NYC, Dallas and LA was the perfect opportunity to talk about it and get a column on the books as well. Two birds.

Meanwhile, as yet unreleased post that uses the newspaper biz as an example while focusing on changes in technology and their impact on your business continues to languish at 4000-5000 words (note: that turns out to be this post).

Seth v. Malcolm

To that end, I recently got around to reading what Seth said about the whole Free thing and particularly what he said about Malcolm Gladwell’s comments about Free (these 3 make an interesting triad of ‘arguing’).

While in the middle of reading the dustup between Malcolm, Chris and Seth, Seth says this: “People will not pay for yesterday’s news, driven to our house, delivered a day late, static, without connection or comments or relevance.”

When you describe a newspaper that way, it sure sounds quaint and outdated. And that’s exactly what many of them have become.

While “people will not pay” might not be 100% true today, that day is rapidly approaching as my parents’ generation ages. Take one look at the financials of the newspapers across the U.S. if you need evidence.

It’s obvious to state that people may not pay for it online either, but figuring out how to make it work is the premise of Chris Anderson’s Free. If you’re asking “Who is Chris?“, there’s your answer. It’s worth doing your homework on this topic, so have a listen (or read) Free and consider how it might reinvent your business.

One thing is certain: When my parents’ generation is gone, the news business is in for yet another shakeup.

Paging Mr. Cialdini

Beyond the financial obviousness, an awful lot of this Free thing goes back to what Robert Cialdini talked about in Influence.

Reciprocity. Guilt. Call it what you will.

Meanwhile, as you read/listen to Free, you almost get the idea that all of this is somewhat new fangled and currently relates primarily if not exclusively to (as Anderson puts it) products “made from pixels rather than atoms”. Obviously that’s not the case.

Who hasn’t accepted a tasty snack-sized nugget from a nice grandmotherly type, enjoyed it and ended up tossing a box of that item in the cart? Sam’s Club and Costco sure didn’t invent that strategy, but they use it.

Meanwhile, how exactly do you get home with a box of deep-fried, fudge-coated wookie bars that you’d never buy intentionally? Reciprocity? Guilt? Or is it about that nice grandmotherly person?

Should you give it away?

If you have trouble with ideas on this, think about what would be most painful if your strongest competitor started giving it away. Likewise, what would pain that competitor the most if you gave it away? It’s a place to start the thought process and might even identify a new value proposition for your business.

All of this is about finding a way to reinvent your business more so than just that Free thing. Not necessarily because your business is broken, but because reinvention forces you to improve strategically rather than being forced into it in an attempt to survive.

That’s what Free (as a tool, rather than book) did to the record companies, some newspapers and many other businesses. Better to act strategically than to react to someone else’s.

It’s interesting that the book “Free” isn’t free.