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Free is not a benefit. It's a feature. We think it's a benefit because we know what we offer has value. It benefits from our experience and it's designed to get someone to act on something. Yet our prospects and users have not discovered any of that yet.


This is a reprise of a conversation we had at my blog, Conversation Agent, a while ago. With a twist. In tough economic times, free is much more difficult to do, or is it?
In other words, free might not be such a good idea for those who need to make a living off their intellectual property (IP) and efforts. Yes, businesses are also in that same boat. There's an interesting discussion at Wired blogs where Chris Snyder asks: will the economy kill "free" on the Internet?
This discussion is relevant for marketers. Much of what we have produced in the past - sell sheets, brochures, ad inserts, Web copy, press releases, even lead generation materials - that used to be created and designed as company-centric, mostly, started losing the attention of our target demographics.
In the last couple of years, all of this free stuff generated by companies was severely challenged by a new generation of free - that of the third party-ish kind. Professionals who publish with the help of social media - eBooks, top ten advice lists, blog posts, community conversations - and share plenty of their intellectual capital. One need only look at all the great content you can access on MarketingProfs Daily Fix as an example.
Many consultants continue to utilize social media successfully to engage in content marketing. They share their IP in exchange for making connections, developing relationships, and being brought in to actually execute on their ideas. Web 2.0 tools have allowed everyone, including those gainfully employed, to gain personal brand equity, which some rented back to the organizations where they work.
I wonder if in the current economic situation, brands (and companies) will see an opportunity.
What if they started renting the time and intellectual capital of free lancers and professionals to engage their customers and prospects with content marketing. It's a subtle difference. This is not just the writing skills - it's also the content. It's no secret that the internal staff in many companies are stretched to the max. Agencies are still grappling with the concept of the old media models having shifted from under them. There might also be the issue of only so many top or senior spots in organizations, that tips experienced professionals towards a solo career, especially after a layoff.
My take is that the economy will not kill free on the Internet. The human need for self-expression is too great to just wither. Plus social media is a great tool to grow a personal brand in this touch economy. But, here's a thought. Will we see free (existing) content sponsored by brands? How is that going to be different than simply advertising? Are readers and followers of that personality for hire going to feel betrayed? For the model to work there will need to be clear delimitations of what is brought to you by.
TED conferences post their valuable content online for free thanks to the sponsorship of a couple of companies. Those brands believe in the alignment between what they stand for and the conference vision and mission. Would it work in the same way with individuals as brands? What do you think?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Valeria Maltoni helps businesses understand how customers and communities have changed marketing, public relations, and communications - and how to build value in this new environment. As a communicator she specializes in marketing communications, customer dialogue, and brand management. Valeria has come to define modern business as a long and open conversation. Conversation Agent is recognized among the world's top online marketing blogs. Valeria is a Fast Company expert blogger and a contributor to The Blog Herald. She is a co-author of , a groundbreaking ebook collaboration by 103 of today's top marketing writers. Valeria is a frequent public speaker on brand marketing, customer service, and building successful business teams. She publishes in both English and Italian. Educated at the University of Bologna and Villanova University, Valeria combines New World sensibilities with Italian style. She's an active member of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), the American Marketing Association (AMA), the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia (WACA), and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).