Free or not-so-free in the digital (and construction marketing) economy


Oh-Yes-its-FREE---iStockRecently, there have been plenty of online articles about the rise of advertising blockers, and the efforts of publishers who depend on advertising to stem them. Some have resorted to blocking the blockers, to mixed reviews.

Now, lets take the discussion to more traditional construction marketing areas; the free consult or (more blatantly), the free estimate. These ideas have been around for years and there are plenty of observers who suggest you shouldn’t do this sort of stuff if you want to make any money. Yet many successful contractors indeed provide “free estimates” and obviously professional service providers, consultants and the like certainly are encouraged to provide free content, such as you are reading here.

Where are the boundaries? When should “Free” be a banned word and how do you manage the process?

Alas, I don’t have a magical solution, and I am guilty of plenty of inconsistencies in my application of the rules of the game.

For example, this website (and our companies’ regional publications, such as Chicago Construction News and Florida Construction News, receive plenty of press releases from AEC businesses (often using for-fee agencies) seeking publicity for their announcements. We also have some ongoing contract advertisers who provide news releases to us.

The traditional concept of editorial integrity is that the news section should be totally free and advertising and advertising-supported material should be clearly marked or presented as boxed advertising or advertorial. But the pure application of this practice would lead to some really unfair gaming — PR agencies would plant all the stuff they want (paid for their services) while the paying advertisers?would suffer,?as the editorial content almost inevitably has higher readership and effectiveness than anything displayed as advertising.

Accordingly, I try to act as a gatekeeper. If an advertiser sends us a news release, we’ll publish it. (We may give it relatively low prominence if it isn’t at all newsworthy, but it will still run.) If a non-advertiser sends us a news release, we’ll tranche it by (a) the non-advertiser’s business or non-profit status, (b) ?the news-release publishing frequency, and (c) the newsworthiness?of the content.

As you can tell, this involves some subjective decisions. Add to the equation: The news hole. While online media is different from traditional print, where you can post an unlimited amount of content, we still have constraints, such as the maximum five articles in our weekly eletters. Sometimes when I’m preparing the eletter, I’m short of content and a mediocre news release from a commercial business arrives. It could, in that situation, be published, when otherwise we would ignore it.

One thing is certain, if a non-advertising PR person becomes persistent, to the point of following up with emails and phone calls, I’ll refer that individual directly to our advertising sales department. I mean, the client in these circumstances obviously has spent a fair bit of money to get the public relations initiative under-way — and then it is a simple message to say: “We’ll publish your story when you pay us some money.”

In one of the most extreme examples of this process, a PR agency pitched a contractor’s charitable deeds, with an extensive and detailed article. I responded that we would publish the story when the contractor advertised. The PR person answered: “But this is a story about the contractor’s charitable and community support, and you blog that you encourage this sort of initiative.” And I replied: “Yes, but the recognition should come naturally from the community service itself, not a public relations person’s pitch. In this case, I think you client is?more interested in being recognized for the good deeds, then than simply doing good.”

(And, to prove the point, last night I published this story about a Toronto contractor who slept overnight on “the street” in support of a homeless ?support charity. But it was the charity — not the contractor’s pr person — who sent us the news release.)

If, having read this, you are scratching your head about free or not-so-free, I’ll conclude with some observations that may help you define your own rules.

Free is good, especially within community service and social objectives. Give a reasonable percentage of your time to community associations and charities, and you can allocate additional time and resources for the associations and charities where your current and potential clients associate. (I would say these are my highest and most successful sources of new business, outside of direct repeat and referral orders — and many of the repeat and referral orders arise from the continuing contact with equally sharing contractors and clients at association and charitable functions.)

Free is not-so-good when you are providing extensive, individualized advice and support for non-paying people and organizations who are “using” you. Providing extensive drawings and workplans as part of a free estimate won’t do you much good if the potential client then shops it around or does the work him or herself. Networking and freely sharing your observations with others who provide absolutely nothing in return, over a prolonged period of time, simply drains you and leaves you with empty pockets, and an empty spirit.

So, yes, despite the controversy, I’ll continue for now to use pop ups on my company’s “free” websites, and am experimenting with more intrusive ways to get you to pay or at least provide some information. (But I’m also testing against a truly free option; because the effective sign up and interest level may be greater long-term with continuing generosity.)

And you can still call or email me for some free advice or consultation. If it gets to be too much, however, I’ll tell you.

Do you have your own rules for “free”? If you wish, please share them either as a comment or by email to If you do, you are sharing your ideas for free, of course, and I’ll respond with free respect and consideration.


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