In sales, we’re taught to avoid discussing price with customers in favor of emphasizing costs, as in: What is the cost of not using our product? That’s especially true on the Internet, where the expectation is that there are no prices for content.
But perhaps we need to have this conversation more often. If we are indeed in the age of the "information economy," what is that economy worth if we continue to assume that information is free?
I’ve been asking myself this question ad nauseam since we launched MassDevice as a free news service last year and especially over the past month, as the foofaraw over Facebook’s privacy policies made headlines worldwide.
The world’s largest social network, boasting some 500 million users, is once again in hot water over how it protects the information its users willingly provide. The latest flap started with a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission by a consumer protection group over Facebook’s new and somewhat mystifying privacy control settings. That led to more debate in the halls of Congress and in the media about privacy on the web and what we sacrifice for living in a connected world.
But the discussion so far has avoided a simple truth: When we use something for free there is, still and always, a built-in cost somewhere in the pipeline. In the world of the so called "free-conomy," we pay that cost with our privacy — the personal data we allow websites like Facebook (and yes, MassDevice.com) to collect.
Consider this: Facebook has roughly half a billion users, each of whom spends approximately six hours a month (or about 12 minutes a day) on the site, sharing information, communicating with friends, finding past lovers, networking for jobs, whatever. All for free.
If you took each of those services separately and assigned them a value, what would they be worth? They’re provided for free, so we never have to think about it.
Facebook’s thinking about it. It’s building an analytical profile of who we are and everything we do online, reducing our interactions to a series of billions of data points. Best of all, for Facebook anyway, is that we’re doing all the work. We’re doing the data entry, populating the database, for free, creating a giant petrie dish of our personalized information that every company in the world would kill for glimpse of.
But it’s free, so we don’t really talk about it.
Facebook is talking about it. It’s talking about it to the companies who are already happily paying hundreds of millions of dollars to use that data to sell their products.
On the surface it might seem a little unseemly, perhaps because we’ve never had the conversation about the true price of free information. But let’s be honest: Shouldn’t we expect to sacrifice something when we’re getting so much?
I was reminded of this when I sent out an invite for a webinar on our "Eye on the FDA" report this week. The report, which costs us thousands of dollars to produce, is one of the few products we charge for. In planning the webinar, which we’re hoping will drive more sales of the report, we were faced with choosing either to charge for the event itself (and getting maybe 20 participants) or to give it away for free (and hopefully attracting a much larger crowd) and then working out a sponsorship arrangement involving the resulting sales lead information.
In the end, we chose to ask for a nominal $60 fee to attend the event. And wound up fighting the assumption (by a 10-to-one margin!) that it’s free.
This has been a little maddening. But it’s made me realize that it’s my fault, for acceding to the assumption of free — and for never instigating a frank discussion about what it costs us to produce what we give away.
That’s part of the reason we started our "Support the News" campaign, to try and get our readers thinking about how much they value the content we produce. Now I’d like to ask you to have that conversation with me directly. Think about what this news means to you and to your business, and ask yourself how much you’d bewilling to pay for it. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.