Blog Post

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?

28 Responses to “When Is "Free" Too Much of a Good Thing?”

  1. The number of comments on this post indicates that this a hot topic for 2010. It seems the more help and advice to give away, the more people expect. This is the year that I stop giving too much away for free. That’s my Number 1 resolution.

    • @Sherrilynne – Then that should be your Number 2 resolution: Number One should always be to make sure that what you create – given away or not – rises sufficiently above the noise that one can reasonably expect payment. Too much of what’s free is crap (see Sturgeon’s Law); our challenge as writers (of code, of prose, of whatever) is to make our work something more.

  2. There’s another “freedom” that a lot of people on the free-lunch open source software bandwagon just don’t seem to get: the freedom to just get your work (or play or whatever) done without (more than a bare minimum of) hassle/instability/insecurity. I think Apple for one understand this, both on the “traditional computer” and phone fronts. Whereas Windows has gotten to the point where a home user simply CAN’T keep his system safe and secure, and Linux requires (or at least very strongly encourages) lots of fiddling about to make things work (fave example: theguy on who asked how to get his camera to work and was told to recompile his kernel. Huh?), my iMac and MBP, together averaging some 12+ hours of use a day for the last 18 months, have been down a combined total of – wait for it – 11 minutes of unscheduled downtime during that time. (Logs are a wonderful thing.)

    I’ve been using and developing for Windows quite literally as long as there’s *been* a “Windows” – and any day that I was down for “only” 11 minutes, was a very, very good day.

  3. great post and great comments too! Aliza, your experience is similar to one I had a little over a year ago with someone who wanted a little bit of advice re Twitter, or so I thought. In the middle of all the questions which I was later told were for an article, I said “hey, why don’t you just interview me.” The response I got: “oh, no, I’m supposed to be the expert for the article.” And this was someone who now calls herself a social media consultant!!

    Frankly, some social media “consultants” are some of the biggest abusers of the sense of “community” that is supposedly part of social media. Not to sound like an old fogey, but when I came into soc. media and asked for advice, I always gave the people who gave me the advice huge thanks and props on my blog. I never claimed the ideas of others as my own. But that way of thinking seems to have been supplanted by the need to step on others to make oneself look like the “expert” or “guru” or “ninja” or whatever some folks want to call themselves.

    I’m now much more guarded about what I say to whom, and will not give advice to those who are not necessarily peers–as they may not understand the small gracious things like acknowledging who you learned what from. I’m also thinking of putting together “white papers” and charging a hefty little sum for them. From my experiences, I kno w that there are tons of people who’ve been appointed to do social media for web design companies and marketing firms who want that information and don’t want to hire a consultant in any capacity (IMO, it’s an economic/money decision more than anything–but hey, experience isn’t cheap, ya know?) Either way, I’ve gotten very tired of losing $$ because of the “peer-pressure” to be social with hard earned information.

  4. This is a tough one for anyone who has their business inventory in their head. For example, if you sold widgets, you wouldn’t have people asking you for free widgets all the time. But because you have your expertise in your head, people think nothing of asking you for free advice.

    I like Jack’s idea of putting a time limit on it. In my own business, I finally put a price tag on it. Those free coffee dates became “power” consulting hours, and I was surprised by the number of people who actually took me up them. It made me realize that some people have legitimate needs that don’t fall into the realm of services we provide. They don’t know how to ask for the help within our regular service offerings. So you either give them a time limit and dole out free advice here and there or you set up something worthwhile to you that also addresses their needs (ebooks, membership forums, group coaching calls, etc.)

    If you’re getting a lot of questions about a particular thing, it might be wise to consider adding it in some way to your services/products.

    • Betsy – I like the idea of adding something to services/products that addresses FAQs – like an ebook or webinar. Have thought of it often but it is always a “time issue.” Still, it seems like it could take a little time to make some time, right?

  5. Excellent post. I think I would have answered the second question and followed up with “if you want me to sit down and draft a strategy for you, please feel free to email me and I can provide you with an estimate.”

    You would think with the popularity of technology a Google search would be known by all.

  6. Wow. This post and the comments really hit home for me. This is something I’ve struggled with for quite some time, too. There’s definitely a delicate balance between “free,” “favor,” and simple knowledge-sharing. I can usually tell when someone respects my expertise and profession or when they’re just looking for some quick free info. “Quick” being the operative word. After answering some initial questions, follow-up questions related to that line of information are to be expected. Red flags go off for me when the person starts 2-3 new lines of questioning or refuse to read the posts I’ve referred them to (even when they’re not my own). i alos know that I’m sometimes part of the problem. Often, I’m too giving of free info (that’s called “passion”) but know when I’ve crossed my own line. I find that a simple statement like “Let me know if you’d like to talk about some consulting hours. I’d love to learn more about your business and tailor a plan for you.” usually helps draw the boundaries that both parties may need. I look forward to reading more comments on this topic!

  7. Great post!

    This is something I have struggled with for a long time, still do at times but not nearly as much as before!

    I used to feel that if people didn’t have the money to pay for a session I should give them one anyway, just because they ‘needed’ it. I have, however, realised that the people that don’t pay for what they want, either in money or an exchange of some sort, doesn’t really appreciate what they get, and also tend to take you for granted by asking for more ‘freebies’.
    We all need to appreciate our own work and the value we offer, and if people don’t want to pay for our services, then that is not the clients we want.

  8. I don’t answer everyone back on my blog, but I try. I just remember I can’t save the world, but my way of paying it forward to the tech community is to share some of my knowledge for free.

    Even if you have a client that has paid for your services and wants more advice and etc you have to draw the line. I recently had a client upset at me because I would show her how to change her banners on her web site for free after the training contract was over.

  9. Hey Tim
    This is how I would leverage this situation, as we are always looking for input and ways to improve our business, lets use this situation to our advantage.

    After a couple of question I would say something like “if you head over to my blog, the answer to most of the questions you are asking are there if you feel something is missing leave a comment and I will respond”.
    ou out.

    This way if the person is serious and not just pumping you for info, they will take the time to check your blog and add some input.

    You get some comments and interaction for your blog, and they may come up with a question that would make a great blog post.

    You benefit your blog readers with the advice you provide this person, which your blog readers may miss on twitter.

    If the person is just s time waster, they will quickly disappear when asked to do something to help you back.

    Cheers Adam

  10. Great post! Don’t forget that, for people who want something for free, they can use their favorite search engine. The information they find there may not be exactly what they want, and it may even be incorrect, but hey, if you want free, you get what’s valued at free.

    Many times, I can point people to a blog post I have written about the question they have. Since most of my Tweets deal with small business leadership and success, and that’s what I blog about, the questions I receive are mostly generally in that category. If I don’t have a blog post that’s on point, I often refer people to my small business social networking site where they can connect with people who may have the same questions they have. They can do a word search at the site and often uncover tips, links and resources that are helpful. If none of those things help, I can refer them to a book that has helped me on the topic. And if they are unwilling or unable to find what they are looking for still, I quote my hourly rate without any shame without hesitation.

    Another alternative, if the question is good enough, is that I will suggest that they actually ask the question at my social networking site. That way, at least I can provide a general answer that helps more than just them, since it’s free. It also helps me by saving me having to think of something to write about, plus the social site is picked up by search engines.

    Maybe some people can try some of these alternatives. My goal in responding to those who want something for nothing is to share what I have already created on the topic so at least I give them something useful. This often leads to long term business benefits, including that they often come back later for one-on-one consulting after they’ve spun their wheels for a while trying to accomplish their goals without paying for good advice.

    Sorry this is so long, hope it’s helpful.

  11. I struggle with the same thing. I get particularly irritated when I take the time to answer someone’s question, and then the person disagrees with my answer and is rude, expects a dissertation explaining every nuance, or (as you note) suddenly thinks I am his or her personal tutor available at all hours to provide an immediate response.

    Even though I have an autoresponder that says I don’t answer every question, I get nasty e-mail messages from people who let me know they already submitted some question, they’re writing again, and they expect a response. (Hint: this is the quickest way to ensure that you never get a response from me.)

    Overall, interacting with people is fun and has been a powerful marketing tool, but sometimes I have to just step away and not answer questions for a day or two. I don’t give an explanation; I usually just disappear for a while. Perhaps not the best thought-out plan, but usually by the time I need to step away, I’m not feeling civil enough to write an explanation.

    I like the idea of limiting Q&A to a certain amount of time each day, although I’d need a lot more than 10 minutes.

  12. A good balancing point which those asking for advice can empathize with is to offer only a fixed amount of time per day for giving advice . For example you might tell your readers you’ll dedicate 10 minutes a day to answering questions. Once that time is up you don’t answer any other questions.

  13. The line, I think, is when it turns from a general question into personal consulting. “hey, know any good resources for small businesses starting out in social media” is one thing, question after question about specifics for their small business is across the line. Tara Hunt’s done a couple of good posts about this recently and makes the point that most people who get these questions have done blog posts etc which address the basics. A pointer to the relevant ones of those is fine… but the person who wants something for free should be willing to put some effort of their own in. If they want a guided tour, pay the tour guide.

  14. If you give away the milk for free, no one will buy the cow.

    Yes, free information is important from a marketing perspective, but only up to a point – drawing lines is important. After all, your time isn’t valued until you start to value it.

    What happens in practice in business, despite the theories of many in the online community, is that if you spend too much time educating your potential client about consulting services, you end up teaching them how to buy from your competitors.

    You can still give away information that’s useful – but rarely (if ever) should you give away the whole enchilada. The vast majority will just read and take your information and not pay you a dime.

  15. Most people who use social media for business (me included) will constantly struggle with sharring our knowledge for free. Unfortunately with the level of noise out there we are almost compelled share advice that we would typically be paid for.

  16. This is an ongoing challenge for any of us who provide service/information as our product. It often comes in the guise of the informal friends and family discount (aka free advice). Our “friendship” base, with social networking tools, expands exponentially. Same problem, different magnitude. I think it’s important to educate our “friends and family” about the value of the service/information to our livelihood and encourage them to also be responsible for finding a balance between asking for advice/help as a favor and taking advantage of the relationship in such a way that the favor sucks up time and resources needed for earning a living.

  17. One fairly graceful way of dealing with question after question is to thank the follower for inspiration and then answer all their questions in a blog post at a later date. They can back off knowing that you’re not cutting them off totally, and you get some breathing space to get on with other stuff.

    The point about giving time and knowledge away for free is a pertinent one, mind. It can be difficult to strike a balance between happily helping out with a couple of queries and knowing when somebody is taking advantage.