The “Free” debate heats up…..But who will “Pay” in the end?

This post also appears in Forbes.com……CEOnetwork (R)

The latest publication of the new book Free by Chris Anderson is causing quite a stir in the so called “Guru Community”.

CEO’s and business leaders alike have been been falling over themselves in trying to figure out who they believe has the right commentary on the subject. You would think that someone was trying to figure out how they could gain access to their bank accounts or something….Oh wait a minute…Maybe that’s what is actually happening!

I’ve read from Seth Godin, Malcom Gladwell, Mark Cuban, and others their take on the subject. It is quite interesting that even these experts on the subject are at odds with one and others views. Usually they’re ahead of the curve, and more often than not  they’ve been proven right for their prognostications, and usually from a similar point of view. ( Not on everything, but the general transformations of media.) I find this raging debate, and everything that it seems to have lit off …fascinating!

Free, and everything it implies is a death knell, or at least a massive coronary to everything profit, is it not?  But what if just maybe it’s not.
One of the main reasons why you, me, and others are listening and chiming into this debate with such an intense want of understanding is because we want just that….understanding. Everyone who owns a business or intends to own one, or is responsible to the bottom line to pay salaries, taxes, start up costs, and more looks at free as something that can’t be competed against. To some free makes an already nervousness feeling in their gut feel more like an ulcer in these economic times. One of the first things that you say to yourself is “I’ve just reduced the widget by 20%, what if someone now offers it for free?…Then what?…How can I compete with that?”  I believe those are exactly the wrong things to think and here’s why.

What we are now experiencing in this economic climate is what I call ” Paradigm Upheaval” Everything that we thought was so, is no longer , but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Take radio, and television for instance. Radio screamed they would not be able to compete with television. Radio was free, but they didn’t have moving pictures! Business leaders said they would be dead in a year. Sorry to say, but radio is probably stronger now than it ever was. Why? It now needed to find what it was truly better at than TV, and make itself even better. Take the flip side of that argument on another level. Who was that crazy masked man who had to propose that…… “Not only are we going to compete with free TV,  we’re going to charge for it! Not only are we going to charge a minimum just to watch TV, but were going to compete so well we’ll charge extra! Can you imagine the poor guy pitching that idea at the boardroom. The poor schmuck probably ended his presentation with having to tell a panel who wanted everything to be wireless, and over the airwaves …….Clearing a lump in his throat as he said…..”and we’ll call it Cable TV!…..Oh how foolish he must have seemed….Yes… tongue and cheek, but I think you get my point.

Free will become part of the equation to increase profits. Yes…I didn’t make a mistake…It will be a very intricate part of making profits, just where it fits in the marketing dynamic is right now unclear. But that’s a good thing because that also means no one…and I mean No One, is yet late for the party in figuring it out and then monopolizing, or monetizing it into their own business. Matter of fact the party is probably just starting, and when it gets going, the ones who are actively involved in looking to see how “Free” can work for their bottom line will find they didn’t need to be invited. They’ll have already found a seat and be enjoying the music, while others are waiting and wondering why they didn’t receive an invitation.

Mark