Free or not? When should you give it away, and when should you expect to be paid

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freebox germany
A Freebox in Berlin, Germany 2005, serving as a distribution center for free donated materials (from a free-to-use Wikipedia photo)
A Freebox in Berlin, Germany 2005, serving as a distribution center for free donated materials (from a free-to-use Wikipedia photo)
A Freebox in Berlin, Germany 2005, serving as a distribution center for free donated materials (from a free-to-use Wikipedia photo)

One of the most unusual (and challenging) aspects of the publishing business is that we give away our most valuable news section editorial services for free, as we encourage businesses to advertise. Editorial coverage combines credibility with relevance, building your reputation, and we don’t invoice for the services.

Not surprisingly, this rather contradictory business model has resulted in a parasitical industry dedicated to public relations and communications – and I receive several calls each week from commercial organizations seeking to “pitch” their clients’ self-serving stories.

I send these inquiries directly to our advertising sales representatives. We are happy, of course, to promote community service and charitable initiatives without worry about advertising revenue, and will  freely report on industry association activities and controversies. However, I’m not giving the public relations industry a free ride. If clients can pay for media publicity-seeking services, they can certainly pay for some advertising in our publications or online media.

This policy makes some sense, of course. Yet it is an imperfect answer to a question that challenges anyone who markets professional services, consulting, or other resources. How much should we give away, and when, and why?

This blog is an example. You don’t need to pay a cent to read it; and there are plenty of supplemental resources and links here that also cost you nothing. You can obtain, with these free resources, a truly comprehensive construction marketing education and even a few personal suggestions and ideas without any expectation of anything in return if you email or call me.

In fact, most readers here should not even think of giving my business any money. You probably are not in our market area for advertising services, or other, non-advertising methods would make more sense to build your business.

Of course, the blog has been profitable over the years, resulting in leads that have turned into several hundred thousands of dollars in business volume.

Undoubtedly the contradiction between free resources and paid services can be a challenge for anyone seeking to market professional or business services. Certainly it “pays” to speak and share advice, and build your reputation as an expert, although often you cannot expect any compensation for these services. As well, generosity often results in worthy reward because potential clients want to reciprocate.

Yet you should still have some rules, policies guidelines and systems in place to sort out what is free, what is paid, and what might be either. Here are my guidelines:

  • If a non-advertiser (or publicity agent) asks for free editorial coverage, we firmly direct the freeloaders to the advertising department;
  • If an advertiser requests some additional editorial coverage, we’re happy to provide it. In fact, we’ll go further — we’ll consult on how our advertisers can present themselves to other (competing, even) media to receive free publicity in the other publications and websites. (I’m always happy to support our clients at the expense of our competitors);
  • If the initiative is community service and charitable in nature, we’ll support it with free publicity and advertising, even if there is no chance of our making any money;
  • We’ll be happy to list all relevant AEC blogs on this website (though we can select when and how to do it);
  • If you want to “pitch” a Guest Post primarily to support your own (or a client’s) search engine optimization initiatives, we’ll decline. If you are an advertising client, we’ll co-operate;
  • If you want a bit of free advice, I’ll give it without hesitation. If you want me to develop a full-scale marketing plan, and expect detailed and comprehensive suggestions, if you aren’t an advertising client, you will need to pay a consulting fee. If you are an advertising client, you’ll receive the services for free; and
  • As much as possible, we’ll recycle free materials and resources in different vehicles (website, letters to clients, magazine and newspaper articles, and so on) to save time and achieve higher results.

Well, these are my “freebie” policies? Do you have your own? You can share them (freely, of course) as comments.

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