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Free Is Not A Business Model, Especially For Your Book.

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A group of Product Managers just co-authored what sounds like an interesting book, called ‘Launch’. But I doubt it will get the readership it may deserve. It certainly won’t get a mass of critical reviews.

Why? Because it’s free.

Free isn’t a business model. Charging isn’t only about making money (gasp!),it’s about creating the perception of value — and people use things they value.

Conferences that charge for tickets have a much higher attendance rate than those that let you register for free. Most people I talk to aren’t surprised by this — if you can have the option of attending by registering and it costs you nothing, all you are really doing is declaring interest, not commitment. On the other hand, if you pay for a ticket, you are likely to make a real effort to turn up (even if your company paid for it).

People are surprised when I say giving a book away for free (or nominally free) is a strategy to reduce engagement, not magnify reach as they intend.

Reading a book is a commitment — it’s (for most people) a multi-day or multi-week project over numerous hours to complete. Any time you ask someone for a commitment, you will increase their perceived value of it, and the likelihood of engagement, by putting a value on it.

Charging also creates a little bit of scarcity — not because of limited volume — but because there’s a barrier to entry. If you pay to pass, you’re not only more likely to read the book, but also to comment on it and recommend to others — a little bit of the status enhancing “did you read this great book that I just did?”.

For some reason the exception to this rule, at the current time, is news and short-form content. It’s possible to get a lot of high quality journalism online for free. The unfortunate thing here is there is also incredible content that is paid, and missed by the masses, precisely because free is ‘good enough’. I’m not convinced free (ad supported) high-quality content is a long-term business model though, so this might just be an Internet-created blip in the long run.

Free is not a business model. It’s a marketing tactic, and certainly not always most effective one. Use with care.

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