When Free Is No Longer Free


We’re getting so used to free: free social networks, blog publishing tools and microblogging sites. Free trials lasting weeks and weeks, where we can kick the virtual tires of everything from Basecamp to Typepad. But what do we do when what we were getting for free is no longer free?

There’s a difference between a service that’s free as long as you stay within its limited parameters (two users, or three clients, or two workspaces, etc.) and one that suddenly announces that it’s implementing fees in order to stay afloat. If you appreciate Chris Anderson’s thought-provoking ideas about the free price tag in his book “Free: The Future of a Radical Price,” you’ll know that some of the companies that lure us in with “free” may not be able to properly leverage a large non-paying customer base to stay in business.

Take the white-label social network-building site Ning, for example. Ning wasn’t entirely free. If you wanted to remove ads from your community, you had to pay $24.95 per month, and if you wanted to point your domain name to your network or get more storage and bandwidth? More fees. Then, earlier this year, Ning announced it couldn’t sustain hosting free networks and gave all the owners of unpaid networks an ultimatum: Either upgrade or migrate somewhere else.

Clearly, free tools are attractive, but there’s a risk that some of these tools may not be free in the future. How do we manage the free tools, sites and networks we are using online that are integral to how we do business? Here are some things to consider:

  1. Don’t go free for “mission critical” tools. If the site or service is key to the work process or growth of your company, pay for the services you need from the start. There are fixed costs you should be accounting for every month and things like project management, invoicing and payroll, phone systems are just a few of them.
  2. Go free, but budget for future fees. You can find a lot of useful tools entirely for free, but you won’t always get the features or support you really need. While you’re bootstrapping, free can fit the bill, but as you project future expenses, start adding in fees for the enhanced versions of the products you use every day.
  3. Use free trials to test drive, then commit. Not sure which project management tool you want? You can try a few for free to see which one you prefer and make a better-informed decision before committing to paying.
  4. Stay free by migrating. Often when a site that was free starts charging, its competitors see it as an opportunity to win new users. Let’s look again at Ning. As of this week, Ning may start eliminating non-paying accounts so make sure to choose the paid account that’s right for you. But what if you don’t want to pay? The network hosting site Grouply has been aggressive in offering not only a free alternative to Ning, but a painless way for migrating your Ning network to its service. In just a few minutes, you can import the critical content from your Ning network, including member information, then configure your new Grouply group with additional features like social network integration, event management tools and customizable websites. After that, you can send an announcement to your members informing them of the change, or use Grouply to back up your Ning network and store the content until you decide to use it again.

There’s a lot of value in “free,” but there’s even more value in planning for a future when free turns to fee. Are you prepared?

What are you using for free and how are you planning for any changes in the future?

stock xchng image by user lusi

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Report: The Real-Time Enterprise


Carlos Burbano

I was using a few social media monitoring systems for free (demos and free forever). If you want quality and save time, the paid tools are the choise


I guess you could also talk about why it pays to keep your product free, for getting eyeballs and proven market viability, and then move towards specialised products using the same User Interface but tweaked for added value.

Aliza Sherman

Yes, there is the flip side to this entire post from the business side i.e. the companies looking for rationales for the freemium model and more sustainable ways of making it work for them.


Most of the free SaaS applications has to bear the cloud hosting cost. As the user group grows, hosting becomes costly. Then it becomes difficult for companies to absorb more cost (thanks to free users). Then such companies think that they have good amount user base and even if 20% of them migrates to or upgrades they will make more profits.


Reiterating the need to pay for mission critical services: in some cases, users of the free service will not receive support as paid users. I was burned before by a free online backup service and moved to a paid service.


I would add: “Stay free with game mechanics”

…As in reward smart users who work really hard on wring every last ounce of utility of a free account, and upon doing so let them unlock some premium feature for free.

( Flickr did this recently )

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