Yes, there truly is such a thing as a free lunch. As a matter of fact, it's right there on your computer.
"Free" has evolved. In the late 20th Century, it was all about giving away something in order to sell something else. Think cell phones and cell phone plans. Or printers and the ink they use.
Real costs were involved. That cell phone cost something. But the provider expected to make it up over your three-year calling plan.
Today, in this increasingly digital economy, "free" really means free. Maybe somebody has to pay, but it's seldom you. You won't see Yahoo! or Wikipedia showing up on your credit card bill.
So how do you pay? With your time and attention. (For instance, to receive something free from the author, read to the end of this column.)
Digital goods and services, because they can be duplicated and distributed at virtually no cost, are being given away. And people are making money doing it. Not giving away everything, but giving away something, or part of something. Giving away enough that we're willing to then pay for more.
The Big Shoes Network (www.BigShoesNetwork.com) began as an e-mail bulletin board for jobs in the Wisconsin advertising, marketing, public relations, communications and graphic design industries. Twice a week, starting in 2003, the husband-and-wife team of Martha and Jeff Carrigan posted jobs sent to them by area companies. And it was free!
The Carrigans' mailing list soon grew to 3,000 subscribers. When they launched their official Website in 2006, they began charging companies to post jobs. Today, BSN remains free to its more than 7,000 subscribers, and the site has posted more than 3,000 jobs for more than 1,000 companies.
Jeff and Martha Carrigan found a way to give something away for free long enough that it became their living.
Here's another way to make money from "free":
The surviving members of Monty Python, tired of seeing fuzzy rip-offs of their most famous sketches posted on YouTube, posted the following:
"No more of those crap quality videos you've been posting. We're giving you the real thing—HQ videos delivered straight from our vault. And what's even more, we're letting you see absolutely everything for free. So there!
"But we want something in return.
"None of your driveling, mindless comments. Instead, we want you to click on the links, buy our movies and TV shows, and soften our pain and disgust at being ripped off all these years."
Give away the "Ministry of Silly Walks" in order to sell the "Life of Brian?" Yes! Sales of Monty Python DVDs have skyrocketed.
All well and good, you say, but what about those of us who aren't British comedy legends? Well, accounting firms can give away free tax advice, law firms free legal advice, engineers free conversion tables or mathematical statistics…I think you get the point.
Free becomes the new economic motivator. Unlike sampling, where a company gives away a trial product to encourage purchase, the digital world makes that giveaway easier, with virtually no cost to the giver.
All that is asked in return is a prospect's time and attention. And perhaps that implied contract that she will, one day, consider buying.
People are making money charging nothing. Not nothing for everything. But nothing for enough—just enough—to whet the appetite to want more.
Me, too. If you have read this far to receive something free, as promised in the fifth paragraph, here it is:
Send me an e-mail: rg@TheGredeCompany.com. Put "Tips" in the subject line. I will send you "30-Second Marketing Tips" via e-mail, free, every week…a few pithy words of wisdom compiled from my columns and books.
Each Tip is 100 words or fewer. Yet each makes a powerful point, poses a thoughtful insight, or suggests ways to save money while building your business.
You will learn:
• Tested techniques for creating more sales in a down economy.
— Money-saving media buying tips.
— What makes an advertisement memorable.
— How to turn a complaint into your most loyal customer.
My hope is that you will find the "30-Second Marketing Tips" interesting and want to buy my books.
Robert Grede is the author of "Naked Marketing—The Bare Essentials" and president of The Grede Company, a marketing and strategic planning consultancy.