Some thoughts on “free”

Sarah O'Keefe / Opinion11 Comments

Chris Anderson (author of The Long Tail and editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine) has just published Free: The Future of a Radical Price. The book is available (not free) in all the usual outlets, but you can also read it on scribd. For free.

Reviews, so far, are mixed. Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker, didn’t like it. The New York Times, not so much a fan. And there was an ugly little kerfluffle about attribution (or lack thereof) of content sourced from Wikipedia. Emma Duncan, writing for the Guardian, liked it.

This book is important because Anderson is attempting to define a taxonomy of different types of “free.” Business and organizations face the difficult challenge of figuring out what should and should not be free. To give you a tiny, itty-bitty example, Scriptorium offers a series of white papers, technical references, and books. What’s the difference between a white paper and a technical reference? The white papers are free, the tech references are not. Costs range from $10 to $200. But how do we decide whether a document should be free or not? We are still trying to figure out the right answer. As Anderson points out, the incremental cost of producing additional e-books (after the first one) is zero. Should all digital content be free? We have chosen, for the most part, to charge for books and for the more technical documents. White papers, which typically provide an overview of a technology or methodology, are generally free. We feel that this is a fair representation of our actual development costs.

Meanwhile, our friendly neighborhood technical communication organization is trying to figure out some similar issues. Currently, the STC web site has public content (free) and members-only content (not free).

The major argument I’m hearing from STC leadership for locking down content is basically that otherwise, people will be able to use the content without paying for it. In other words, the value of the STC membership is that it gives you access to members-only content. This logic would make some amount of sense if STC held a monopoly on content related to technical communication. It does not.

So, what happens when you lock down content and hide it from non-members? You lose the opportunity to participate in the community. You lose the opportunity to have non-members read your content, decide you are useful, and join the Society. You lose the opportunity for inbound links.

Similar logic applies to forums, wikis, and online communities. Members and non-members should be able to participate. Perhaps members get special badges in their profiles to indicate membership, but communities derive value from participation, and open access means more participation.

If can be transformed into a vital hub for the technical communication community, the organization itself will do fine. In a moment of apparent insanity, I have offered to help with this effort. If you’d like to join me, contact me in the comments below, via Twitter (@sarahokeefe), on the STC Ideas forum (, or via whatever avenue makes the most sense to you. (Email and phone contact information are in the main part of our web site.)

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe


Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

11 Comments on “Some thoughts on “free””

  1. I haven’t read this particular book, but it is a dilemma we and others have looked at. It’s the “expert’s dilemma”: If you share your expertise, are you giving away free consultancy and missing out on revenue?; On the other hand, if you don’t demonstrate your expertise how will people know about you and believe you are an expert?
    There’s a book by Leon Benjamin called “Winning by Sharing” that looks into this.
    The STC needs to somehow create a marketing funnel – from free to fee – where there is a menu of chargeable services offered to people.
    Google Adwords offers a way of monetising information, but I’m not sure that would work for the STC. They could look at ways of building up a large mailing list (give information away for free in exchange for an email address), and then sell chargeable services to that list (or forward advertising from vendors).
    However, the real value is in the links. It’s in the community: the meetings, discussions and the conferences. The building of deeper relationships.

  2. I think your white paper and technical references are a good model. There needs to be a free to fee strategy that supports the service financially while promoting the value of the organization.

  3. >If the content is completely open, what does a member get that a non-member doesn’t — i.e. why join?
    – Access to specific members-only Special Interest Groups
    – Access to face to face meetings, webinars and conferences
    – Access to some premium content, reports etc. Issue being the mix between free and fee
    There’s an assumption that the STC is about the information it provides/hosts. Maybe it should be about the network, relationships it facilitates etc.
    As I posted, this is a dilemma. There is no clear answer to this problem.

  4. Good article, Sarah. I’m glad you gave in to your insane impulse and signed up to help STC. 🙂
    Your readers might want to check out STC’s experimental Body of Knowledge portal: Should STC be the keeper of knowledge about the profession or the guardian of that knowledge (or some combination of the two)? This is where those kinds of questions are going to be answered.

  5. “So, what happens when you lock down content and hide it from non-members? You lose the opportunity to participate in the community. You lose the opportunity to have non-members read your content, decide you are useful, and join the Society.”
    Well said! I’ve been trying to get this across to various people in STC for years. The model of pay-per-view is a failure for STC because, as you say, the content exists in many other places of the web already for free.
    So to those arguing “give it away and there’s no incentive to join” I say “open your eyes and look around, for the content is already free for the taking”.
    STC needs to open its content and focus on member SERVICES. Give non-members a taste via free content and they just may come back for more and be willing to pay.

  6. This reminds me of Herbert Simon’s idea of Attention Economics:
    “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”
    People will still pay for insights and understanding, ways to save time.

  7. STC is selling sand in the desert. Why pay for STC content when I can find uncensored content of equal value online at no cost to myself? Why pay for the network, when you can connect to the same people on LinkedIn and Facebook simply by being friendly?
    I foresee an increasing difficulty in monetizing virtual goods. A marketable commodity will come in the form of something that can’t be had online: live events, workshops, and conferences.

  8. @Ellis — good suggestions, though with enough technical communicators *outside* STC, one might argue that there’s networking aplenty that can be done without being a member. Also, with STC members belonging to more than just STC, one can still benefit from contact with members — just in other venues.
    @everyone — If STC were not just about providing something, but *achieving* something (pick a large, worthy mission), and started racking up some noteworthy accomplishments, do you think that might attract members?

  9. @Milan. Your suggestion about STC achieving something gave me this thought: STC provides *members* an opportunity to achieve something. Beyond the networking, the Society provides both structured and innovative ways to exell in the community and give back to it. See: chapter president. See: Associate Fellow. And I imagine that books by members, which can be cultivated and promoted at member events, are used by many people that aren’t members.

    To the question, why pay to be a member if much of the content is free–I think a certain percentage of people will never pay for membership no matter what they get for the price. Some people are only interested in free content, period. I’m not saying that’s bad or good–I wonder how large that group is?

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