Can You Afford the Price of Free?

fruitsThe Age of Free has officially arrived, according to Chris Anderson’s new book Free, which went public earlier this week. Now is the time when giving away content across digital mediums turns out to be a cheap  and effective way to attract attention (near-zero costs to reproduce and broadcast + everyone loves free).

A debate has begun over Free, which roughly goes like this: Malcolm Gladwell disagrees with ChrisSeth Godin disagrees with Malcolm, and Chris defends his position against Malcolm. Then everyone else chimes in with their opinions, and so on.

It’s no doubt a worthy argument, but let’s skip it for now. Forget about which industries are crumbling and which are emerging, or what the next profitable publishing model will be–these issues are being sorted out.

Instead, focus on attention–your attention. As both producer and consumer of content, your attention is valuable. But how do you manage it?

Determining the Price of Free

Free doesn’t get any better from a cost perspective, but it’s a real killer on time. Infinite choices of free content makes subscribing to anything and everything a, well–free for all.

I’ve since unsubscribed from a lot of that free content not because it sucked, but because it was too much. I learned something–too much free is a problem.

Free stuff costs time, and time is money. Since free stuff was (indirectly) costing me money, it wasn’t really free after all.

Establish A Value System: Be an Editor

Because content is now the low-hanging fruit, we need to be skilled in judging its value to ourselves as well as our tribe. Just because something is free doesn’t mean it’s good.

Your job is to edit all content you come into contact with. You must cut out everything that is unnecessary towards realizing your vision or engaging your readers. This is the primary function of an Editor, a role I suggest you assume immediately. As Seth says:

Editors become ever more powerful and valued, while the need for attention grows so acute that free may even be considered expensive.

One way to describe the importance of being an editor is to relate it to a surfing contest. In a surfing contest, all surfers are out of the water except for two competitors. With no crowd to deal with, these two surfers get to choose any wave that comes their way. It’s free-for-all, with the cost of waves being free.

Luck aside, the surfer with a better sense of wave selection has the winning advantage. All the talent, strength and courage of his competitor mean nothing if he choose waves that close out or breakdown and fail to offer chances of high-scoring rides.

The same hold true with free content–you need to learn how to the select high scoring content. Your job as editor is to save people time by distilling the excellent content from all the content, especially the free stuff.

Remember–time is money. Save people time and you’ve got something of value.

In the Age of Free, editors will profit.

Photo by pshutterbug.

3 Replies

  1. margaret wille Reply

    Thanks Charles for all your great advice …. and great reading. Your advice is appreciated … though you may not receive a lot of comments (since you are not raising points to debate, rather providing kernels of insight to chew on).

    I often think of you when (if I take the time) to cross out of bunch of “that”s

    Mahalo and aloha, Margaret Wille

  2. Simone Reply

    I totally agree.

    One way I establish a value system is by posting less. I publish once a week. I understand that time is valuable – certainly mine is valuable – and according to a report highlighted by Advertising Age, people are spending less time on line. I started my blog the first Sunday in July and in the back of my mind I knew this.

    The article and your post just served as further evidence. I suspect more people will come to the same conclusion.

    See link for the Ad Age article:

  3. Laura Kinoshita Reply

    Great analogy to surfing, Charles! Learning how to mine the diamonds out of the coal is definitely a skill that is needed. Yet still not taught in school, strangely …. Someone once said that anyone can buy a piano, but that doesn’t mean that everyone can play it. Being able to pick out the nuggest of info. from the onslaught and then being able to use them wisely is what turns a collection of notes into a song.