The Trouble With Free

In theory, we like free.

Chris Anderson’s new book Free tells us it’s the business strategy of the future. Stores can give away free products by charging manufacturers shelf-space fees. Record labels can give away music by distributing it through no-cost, electronic channels. Organizations are getting creative at finding alternative ways to generate revenue.

The trouble is, we don’t buy it.

While we enthusiastically embrace the idea of free, we treat it with very little respect. Free carries with it an inherent perception of no value.

Several months ago, I spoke with a veteran sales leader in John Maxwell’s organization. She has spent over 10 years selling conference registrations to pastors and has created a very important rule for herself: never give away free tickets.

After opening her heart to scores of pastors who couldn’t afford to attend an event and giving them free tickets, they would never show up. It didn’t matter how much they cried or pleaded on the phone about their difficult circumstances, at the end of the day, they didn’t value free.

In 2007, The Washington Post invited concert violinist Joshua Bell to play for free to passing commuters at a DC metro station. Bell has won a Grammy Award and the Avery Fisher Prize for outstanding achievement in classical music. He is a much sought-after musical attraction. But on this particular morning in January, only seven people stopped to listen to him during the 40 minutes he played.

Exclusivity is, unfortunately, an effective marketing strategy. We want what we can’t have. Even more, we want what others can’t have, and we’re willing to pay to keep it this way.

When Chunks Corbett and Steven Furtick started Elevation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, they created the perception of exclusivity in their Sunday morning services. Each week, they erected partitions in the meeting space so that no matter how many people attended the service, it always felt full. It always felt like you were getting the last seat.

I visited the church just six months ago and, even with thousands of people in attendance, their team still moves these partitions row by row as people enter the auditorium.

Elevation has transferred the principle of exclusivity to their conference endeavors. Last year, they launched a one day event called Thr3e, which sold out with 100 pastors at a price of $300 each. It worked so well, they introduced Impart at a cost of $700 per person.

That’s expensive, but we like it that way. We value it more. We tell ourselves it’s more meaningful, that we’re better for it.

As someone who has dabbled in Christian conferences for the past three years, I’ve witnessed a perplexing scenario. The greenrooms are filled with people who wouldn’t be there if they weren’t invited for free. And the seats are filled with people who wouldn’t be there if they weren’t charged for it.

Free is too unsophisticated for our palates. We ask ourselves, “How could anything truly valuable be free?” When I’m waiting in line at Starbucks, I routinely ignore the free iTunes “Pick of the Week” cards because how could free music be any good? Never mind that it’s Sting.

Even if your offering is free, it doesn’t hurt to make it hard to get. How many of us have clamored for Google Voice or Google Wave accounts because they’re invitation-only?

Even Facebook, which is free to everyone, got started under exclusive conditions. Not only did the first users have to be in college; they had to attend Harvard. And not only did they have to attend Harvard; they had to be a part of the Phoenix “Final Club,” which is a type of secret society. From there, Facebook spread to other Ivy League colleges before being released to other universities, high schools, and finally to the general public.

There’s no doubt that Facebook’s limited release contributed to its rapid growth. We all want what we can’t have.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s a market for free. I’m not one to pass up a free Starbucks drink or a free e-book by Seth Godin. The word free certainly makes us perk-up. But if you want people to truly value what you’re offering, make it hard to get.

Ben Arment helps people launch great things. He’s the founder of Dream Year, The Whiteboard Sessions, and STORY in Chicago, and he also wrote a book called Church in the Making. He and his wife Ainsley live in Virginia Beach and have three cowboys, Wyatt, Dylan & Cody.


About Jim

I'm currently the Communications Director for Missouri Operation for Vigorous Evangelism [MOVE] A Church planting ministry located in Jefferson City, MO. I believe that the church is the primary means through which God works in a community to love and redeem it. Here at MOVE we’re discovering new ways to be used for this purpose as God leads us and lights His path for us. As God forms this organization and shapes it for a new kind of world I want to be right in the middle of what He’s doing, traveling on this road of a disciple’s journey.

One response to “The Trouble With Free”

  1. altonwoods says :

    “FREE” is a tricky thing indeed! I saw your post on tag surfer and wanted to drop in and read it to compare it with my post on “FREE” and I’m glad I did!

    God Bless!

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