I was expecting—maybe even hoping—to hate Chris Anderson’s new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. As a digital marketer I have seen far too many poor business models pop up, become addicted to annoying advertising, and slowly fade away (e.g., the Bloglines RSS reader is killing me). I felt that Anderson was launching his book at the worst time, just as the economy hit new lows and businesses were burned by failing to act responsibly. I even started putting together notes for a thought-piece on why “free” is wrong and why the “99-cent economy” with iTunes songs and iPhone apps is the real answer. But after reading Free, I have to admit that Anderson is right, and I must thank him for providing yet another pillar of proof that the world must shift to Marketing with Meaning.
Anderson wrote the book with his biggest detractors and doubters well in mind. The result is a book that is well-researched with bulletproof logic and hundreds of examples. As an economics major myself, I appreciated that he went down into the details of this dismal science in order to make his case. He also blends in psychological studies to teach us how we think and react to free versus paid offers. For example, one study suggests that, “Most transactions have an upside and a downside, but when something is FREE! we forget the downside.”
Free aspires to be a general business book and approaches the simple, compelling work of Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers). However, I believe we marketers will get the most out of the Free manifesto. Anderson describes how one of our traditional tools, free samples, is powering new business models in industries as diverse as music, retail, and bike rental. But his thinking for us is much deeper…
One of Anderson’s fundamental points is that while the cost of information (and many real-world products) nears zero, the amount of attention people can give to something has remained unchanged. Unless we figure out how to avoid sleep or sprout additional heads, we’re pretty much limited here. This means that consumer engagement—the doorway to selling them stuff—is becoming harder and harder to open. As a result, if you’re a musician hoping to break through, or a game developer hoping to attract players, you are better off giving something away in order to earn this engagement. Once we have their attention, there is a chance to sell them something.
This is actually very much the thinking behind Marketing with Meaning. Because consumers are less willing or able to give their increasingly valuable attention to interruptive advertising, we must try new methods to get their attention. Through free samples or free services—meaningful marketing—we can break through the clutter and begin a dialogue that can effectively lead to sales.
For example, by creating a tool that lets people create their own Simpsons characters, the franchise wins viewers for its programs and movies. By providing live lunchtime entertainment, Healthy Choice has a chance to share information about its new line of Fresh Mixers. And by providing free education for you, dear readers, through this educational blog for more than a year, I have earned the chance to tell you about my upcoming book.
Imagine if the $500 billion in annual global advertising spending was completely diverted away from unwanted, interruptive advertising and toward marketing that adds value to people’s lives. It’s not a utopian dream; rather, it’s the simple economics of a world where the most scarce resource for business is consumer attention. If you’re not giving them something valuable through your marketing itself, then you have little chance to win them over. But win their attention through meaningful marketing, and you have the chance to achieve short-term sales and loyalty for life.