Sunday, 7 February 2010

It Pays to Give for Free

Day 6/365 : When I was happy to hold all this money, originally uploaded by ~jjjohn~.
Sister Diane from CraftyPod and Paul Overton from DudeCraft (which is by the way one of my favourite blogs) have recently shared their ideas about Free - the concept of sharing your work for free to profit the community and ultimately yourself. You can listen to their podcast and read blog posts here and here to better understand the concept and what they think about it. I advise you to also read the comments because the discussion is really interesting.

After reading the posts mentioned above, I thought I will also share with you my thoughts about Free:

First of all, I love to share and I do it whenever I can. I volunteer for this opensource, democratic and contributive organization. I make jam, I don't really like and give it away to friends and family. I work with people on a number of art projects and I open my house to complete strangers (again, read about BeWelcome). All of this might make it easier for me to see the value in give-and-give situations. But I can also see how the concept gets more tricky if you try to make money of your handicraft. Persuading sceptics is never easy and much less so, when you are asking them to release their property and/or copy rights.

So, bugger the charity, good will and karma of it all. What is the real value of Free? What does one get out of giving out ones work if money are not involved? And the answer is: the network!

Consider this: the greatest marketing tool that exists is the all powerful word of mouth. When people speak about your positively your customer pool grows and you also get a third part endorsement - much more trustworthy for customers then your own advertisement. So, you want people to find you and you want them to talk about you to their friends and audiences.
Now, imagine you have created a beautiful scarf and sell it in your shop. You post about it in your blog and on twitter, and you add a photo to your flickr photostream. This means that there are 4 places where potential customers can find your scarf. Now imagine, that apart from the scarf you also release the pattern, for FREE, on your blog and Anna from blog X and Johnny from blog Y make your scarf from themselves. They love your pattern and they post about it in their blogs, linking to you. Now you have two bloggers who support your work and already 6 places where customers can find you.
Imagine farther on, that you are feeling particularly generous that day and decide to release your photo of the scarf under CreativeCommons attributive licence and I use it in my blog (like I did with the photo above). Now my readers who like your scarf can find you and who knows, maybe your photo is so great, that you will be asked to participate in writing a book, or an ebook about scarves!
Your network has grown by 3 blog audiences and millions of CreativeCommons browsers.

In this little scenario, what you lost was...nothing. What you gained was 3 more links on the internet and an enormous pool of potential customers who would not find you otherwise. And the community gained new free pattern and a photo that can be used by others to learn and adorn their work. I guess the math is simple on that.


  1. Maria - It's like you're in my head. I'm just in the middle of a post about the value of networks for Make and Meaning. Thanks for this well timed and well written argument for generosity. You strike a nice balance between, what we lovingly call, the "woo-woo, kumbaya" aspect of gifts and the very practical side of the equation.

    What you talk about here is what I refer to as "Karmic Reciprocity". In a reciprocal relationship the giver expects something back. When karmic reciprocity is at work, the giver expects nothing and, yet, seems to get "paid" back tenfold.

    Again, thanks for the great post!

  2. Many thanks for sharing your experiences with Free, Maria! I love your perspective and look forward to lots more discussion with you.

  3. Free is goodness, multiplied dynamically. I've been creating and giving away free paper crafts, clip art and coloring pages for personal non-commercial use since 1996. The karma from free has been positively powerful. And my tribe is pretty big, too ...

  4. Thank you all for the comments.

    @Paul: I like "Karmic Reciprocity" - it's a really good term for this phenomenon. And the best part is that it not only agrees with our hearts but also has support in theories of marketing.