When Is "Free" Too Much of a Good Thing?

I’ve been thinking about the idea of “free,” and not in the context of freemium business models and tangible products or services being given away, as explored by Chris Anderson in his book “Free: The Future of a Radical Price.” I’ve been thinking about how many of us spend a lot of our time giving “stuff” away for free. By “stuff,” however, I mean the intangible: our ideas and advice.

With the advent of blogging in business, many of us feel compelled to showcase our knowledge and expertise in our blog posts; this often means giving free advice. My favorite blog posts to write are the ones that contain some concrete, how-to information that readers can take away and act on immediately to fix or improve something.

On Twitter, this “free advice mentality” is rampant as a way to make our Twitterstream more valuable by building the number of followers we have. Many of us who do business and use Twitter in more business-oriented ways cannot deny that we hope people will also recognize our smarts and make the move to hire us.

But at what point is “free” too much?

I recently had one follower ask for my advice on how to do something on Twitter. Easy enough to answer, and I was happy to do so. That same follower, however, continued to pose more questions to me. “How do I do this?” “How do I do that?” Suddenly, the very thing I’m happy to do anytime for anyone began to bother me.

“But I get paid a lot of money to help people figure this stuff out. This is my business.” I thought.

I tried to craft something to that effect in 140 characters that didn’t sound offensive or whiny in a tweet but finally gave up. I didn’t want to seem selfish. After all, I’m one of the people who constantly talks about the need to be generous on Twitter and in social networks in general.

Why did I reach my breaking point and feel put upon by requests for advice? I began to examine my own expectations from Twitter and social networks as a marketing tool. Was it possible I was being too generous?

What I came up with as a way to analyze when free is too much is to first understand that what happens in social networks and blogs is a two-way street. It isn’t simply about your own generosity in terms of sharing ideas, advice and instruction. It is also about how others take that information, or if they take advantage of your giving that information.

Finding the right balance of “free” means:

  1. You need to decide where you draw your own lines in terms of what you will share and when you should start charging;
  2. We all need to understand that when someone is paid to be a consultant yet they are providing ideas, advice and instruction for free in certain forums, we should value their contribution and show our gratitude by offering to pay them for additional interactions.

It boils down to mutual respect: Respecting your readers, audience, followers, peers, friends, and wanting to teach and share information as a service to your communities.

But also your readers, audience, followers, peers,and friends need to respect that you do this stuff for a living. It is your job to define where your lines are and make this fact clear to those who read your blog, fan you on Facebook and follow you on Twitter. And when someone crosses the line, you should call them on it without hesitation.

When and how do you draw the lines between “giving it away for free” and putting your foot down and naming your price?

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