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Free Is A Four-Letter Word: Why It’s Worse For Business Than You Think

By November 19, 2015January 11th, 2019Podcast, With Guests
Free Is A Four-Letter Word: Why It's Worse For Business Than You Think


Today’s guest is Blair Glaser and we asked her to be on to continue the conversation about why you should not be giving away your time and services for free. On our last episode on the topic we got a ton of feedback – all of which was from people who are also tired of doing work for free, all of whom agree that enough is enough.

Then not 30 seconds before starting this recording, I got a text from a friend saying that she’d been contacted by a big agency to do some work for them. I was really excited to hear that, until she followed up by telling me that their idea of “working together” meant “you write our blog for free.”


Webinar Or Romper Room?

Remember back in the day when the Magic Mirror would look out into TV-viewer-land and see you there? And the hostess of the show would greet a few lucky watchers – Hi Emily, Hi Sam, ooh I see Jenny and Joe…

Well, our guest today mentions that attending one of those free webinars is a little like that. The person hosting the webinar greets one person after the next until it starts to get a bit annoying. Plus, it makes her wonder, “Where are all these people coming from?”

Blair continues by saying what we all know: many of those free webinars are nothing more than an hour-long sales pitch. The lengthy greetings are usually followed by the short pitch, followed by maybe a bit of info followed by the long pitch. It’s all pretty slimy and uncomfortable, often not the best use of our time.

If you’ve ever put on a webinar you know how it can be like pulling teeth to get people to sign up – let alone show up. So how do some people always manage to have gadzillions of people (who they then greet individually in a way that cuts into 10 minutes of your precious viewing time)?

Turns out… and I think I blew Blair’s mind a little here… that you can buy software to fill seats for you. Not with actual people, but with names that make it look like there are people. I guess that’s the webinar version of social proof, eh?

The longer our conversation goes on, the more we agree: some of these webinars are good, but a lot of them leave us feeling slimed. Kind of gives free a bad name.

Losing Your Authority

Blair makes a great point about how continuing to give away time, products and services (including your valuable content) takes you “out of your authority.”

What ends up happening is that we attend the webinars. We subscribe for other people’s email courses. We watch the instructional videos. We get all this free stuff that purports to tell us “how to do something.” We see very successful people “doing something.” And we want to do it, too.

So we follow their plans and blueprints because if THEY are doing well with this methodology, WE can.

But Blair says no.

Blair says that chasing the carrot leads to doing things that don’t push you forward on your own path, into your own authority. It doesn’t help you find the things that work for you because you’re too busy doing things that work for someone else.

The result? Disappointment. Feeling like a failure. Burnout.

Burnout Is Bad

You probably don’t need to be told that burnout leads to a host of bad outcomes. It has negative effects on your mental well being, your health and your business.

But worse, perhaps, is after you’ve put in all this effort to create your free offers and free webinars and free books and whitepapers and courses… and you get a client. But wait… why is that bad?

Because you may end up being so darn happy that your efforts paid off that you aren’t even paying attention to whether this client is a good fit for you. And that can lead to bad business and even worse burnout.

You Are Not “In Service”

Blair challenges some serious status quo when she says that there is a myth we’ve been brainwashed to believe, which is that by producing all this free content and doing all this free work, we are “serving people.” This idea of being “of service” to people has got us pumping out more and more free stuff.

But that is not our job. It’s not yours.

Service and money have to coexist. Blair is a big proponent of the law of reciprocity. She says that you give and you get. In business, you typically give your customers what they want and need – and you get money. Anything less is not business.

A Good Use Of Free

Do you know what standup comedians do? They perform a set at a small comedy club for free so they can test the material out on a live audience and refine it so it’ll be ready for the big (paid) gig on HBO or something nice and profitable.

We all agree that this is a great way to think of doing stuff for free. If you’re working on a product or service and want to “test” your material out on an audience so you can get feedback and perfect it, go ahead. But again, consider the law of reciprocity: you’re giving (free content) but you’re getting, too (feedback and an opportunity to improve for your paid gig.)

Pro Bono Is Not The Same As Free

We take a brief detour to discuss doing pro bono work, which essentially boils down to doing stuff for free but it’s entirely different than the kind of free we don’t like.

Pro bono work is something you choose to do deliberately because you value or believe in what you’re doing. In many cases, you actually are “in service” when you do pro bono work.

We do pro bono work for non-profits and for our school district. But it doesn’t inhibit our ability to run our business and we don’t expect any monetary return.

Still, we get something in return: we get to feel pretty damn good about what we’re doing. We get to feed our souls, nourish our values. We get the satisfaction of knowing we’re supporting our community.

Blair is pretty adamant about the circle of giving and getting. Whether it’s money, emotional satisfaction or something else, you need both ends.

The Gratitude Hangover

Here’s a perspective we’ve never explored and it’s this: when you give something away for free, the recipient feels grateful. But that gratitude can turn to guilt if the recipient doesn’t hire you or buy from you.

I bet you never considered that your free stuff could be making people feel bad. Now, not everyone has this problem of course. Lots of people are happy to take your free stuff and run. But there are also plenty of us with a sense of gratitude and loyalty who do want to participate in the law of reciprocity and give back to the people who give to us. But sometimes it’s not a good fit, and it feels bad not to give back.

Subways During Rush Hour

Blair says that all this free stuff has turned our inboxes into a subway during rush hour. And that leads to the other negative effect on recipients of free stuff: overload. The more free stuff people sign up for the more their inboxes and desktops get cluttered and the harder it gets to process.

And at least for us in marketing, we’ve noticed that the more free stuff people get, the less they learn. The problem is that so much information contradicts other information. And as Blair mentioned earlier, it’s too easy to think you need to try something that isn’t for you, just because it worked for someone else.

The problem is the same in other industries where too much information can be confusing. Coaches, consultants, therapists, nutritionists… you may get quite a lot of conflicting information from different professionals so that if you’re looking for “the answer” you’re only going to get stuck in analysis paralysis.

That doesn’t mean one person is right and another is wrong. People may just have different philosophies, approaches, ideas. They may all be valid. But that doesn’t mean they are all valid for you or that you have to follow them all. If you plan to work with a professional, pick one that you trust, and go.

Less Free Stuff = More Money

Blair noticed something interesting in her business when she stopped doing free webinars: she had a whole lot more time to do other things. And one of those things was getting out into the world to meet people where she closed more business and made more money.

We had the same experience. When we stopped all the free meetings and free consultations, we started to focus on the things that made us money. And expect compensation for the value we provided.

You can do it too. Want to vet clients through a free 20-minute consultation? Or test out some free content on an audience? Go ahead, but remember the law of reciprocity – you need to be getting something of value in return.

And remember, you have to value yourself, your time and your services before anyone else will.

Your Action Item

From Blair: Have fun. It may seem counterintuitive not to do something “big” but that’s the point. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or stuck, do something fun, whether it’s a fun work project or a fun hobby.

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Join the discussion 17 Comments

  • Mucho thanks to Blair for showing up today and sharing her unique take on free! I love this topic.

    I’m the odd ball here, I suspect. I have NO free offer on my site, despite the fact everyone teaches you HAVE to have one. Pfft!

    Years ago I used to have a cool freebie for download as a means of garnering email subscribers and growing a community online. WHAT A WASTE OF TIME AND MONEY. At least, for me, but it was a great lesson. What I learned was most people grabbed the freebie and ran … as fast as they could. They had no interest, at all, in establishing a relationship with me, collaborating, or opening their wallets. They just wanted the free stuff … period.

    That whole experience was not only eye-opening, it was damned depressing. Poof! The freebie went away.

    • Yep. People want the free stuff. Of course they do! Why pay for something when you can get it free? This idea that the more you give away, the more people will see your value is just insane to me. The more you give away the more people come back for more free stuff. Then they freak out when you ask for money.

      As you know we’ve had the Marketing Game Changer Kit for a long time (which I keep wanting to kill but just don’t have the time to think about it!) and that has been great for building our list. Do you know what it hasn’t been great for? Making money. Our list exploded to several thousands of people and after a few months of increasing Mailchimp fees I go in there and start pruning off the dead weight. The people who don’t open. The people who don’t click. Not that long ago I bumped over a thousand people off our list in one fell swoop because they wanted the free thing and they took it and ran.

      Whose fault is that? MINE. I gave it away. So what did I expect?

      • I suddenly don’t feel so all alone. 🙂

        At the time I was offering my freebie, I was using Aweber. Then one fine day after years of spending $20/month on their service, I hit the big cancel button and never looked back. When I add up all those hard-earned dollars for zero dollars ROI, I get a little nauseated.

        Kudos to you for pruning the dead weight!

  • Just finished reading the Houston Press article. Wowzers! Shame on the Huff Post! I’ve always assumed writers/bloggers were paid for their submissions. Boy, was I wrong. They’re making moola from the ads on their site, I’m sure, and yet they won’t even fork over a lousy two cents for an article.

    Writing is hard work. It’s art. It’s a sad shame most freelance writers are treated as hobbyists. And don’t get me started on people offering “exposure” as compensation! Aaarrgh! Insulting, at best.

    • I totally agree but I also think we (writers, content creators) are to blame. No publication can take our stuff for free unless we GIVE IT to them for free. So why are we giving it to them? HuffPo would not be publishing content for free if people said uh-uh, no way. But that won’t happen because of wishful thinking. We have this idea that “exposure” will be a magical unicorn that will carry us off into riches. We think the fairy dust of these big, important, wealthy organizations will rub off on us. Tell you what, give me less exposure (or none!) and pay me money. How’s that? pft.

      • Hmmm … money vs. exposure. I’ll take the money! Took me half a second to choose. 😉

        Yes, we’ve got ourselves to blame. We’re giving out massive free content for the whole world to stuff in their swag bags! So what’s a content creator to do? Charge admission to the blog? Admission to the podcast? Admission to the webinar? Wish I knew a quick fix.

        • There’s never a quick fix! I’m happy to produce content as part of marketing, I mean unless blogging IS our business then we’re probably using it to MARKET our business – and not to sound redundant but that’s a cost of doing business. So blogging, even podcasting or video if that’s your bag of rice, is all good stuff. But when it eats into our time, takes us away from our clients, families, and other things, when it starts becoming a frustrating fruitless endeavor and crosses the line into more and more – that’s a huge problem.

          • Of course there’s no quick fix. You must have taken me seriously. If there were ever a quick fix for anything, I’d sell it a make a mint. LOL!

            I HEAR YOU BIG TIME on the “crosses the line into more and more” and starts becoming a “fruitless endeavor”. Precisely what we see happening online with the huge barrage of info placed in front of our eyes every day. Makes a gal want to stop creating content altogether. I mean, who’s really gonna see it/hear it/watch it anyway, right? There’s already way more than is humanly possible to consume.

            You know what? The real world is calling my name (as in real world networking). It’s been a faint whisper off in the distance for a while but the volume is beginning to increase and I’m ready to heed the call. 🙂

          • Oh, I took you seriously? 🙂

            The real world is a pretty good place once you get back there and realize what you’re been missing!

          • Lucky for me, I roamed around in the real world (of teaching and consulting) for four decades. I miss that arm-in-arm, face-to-face, eye contact thing. The internet is great but it will never replace in-person exchanges. Right now I wish I resided in New Jersey. 🙂

          • I KNOW! Well, sooner or later (hopefully sooner!) we’ll get this show on the road and visit 🙂

          • Yay! Yippee!! Yahoo!!! Hope your road trip begins SOON. 🙂 xoxo

  • Once upon a time (like a really long time ago) …

    I met a wise marketer and illustrator online named Ameena Falchetto (now Ameena Gorton). Hers was the first blog post I’d ever read on why small business owners shouldn’t give stuff away for free. I agreed with her then and I still agree. Today’s podcast and Blair’s point of view reminded me of my stroke of luck in meeting and befriending someone who wholeheartedly believes “Time is money”. 🙂

    • You need to hook me up with her! Sounds like she was way ahead of all of us on this thinking.

      • Without hesitation, a forward thinker!

        Sadly, her old site is gone (ahem … divorce issues. She was in partnership with her ex.) But the good news is that Ameena is in the process of creating a whole new home for herself on the web. Can’t wait till it’s up and running. She’s in France, by the way, and she’s our kind of people. I know you’ll enjoy getting to know her. 🙂

  • Dana Gore says:

    I can appreciate this – a lot actually. I had given away quite a bit of work for a few years a while back. I looked at it as a way to “get my work out there” and expand my reach. While I do feel there is merit to this to a degree, I think there has to be some balance. I never did get a return on the time and content I produced – other than experience. While I consider that valuable in and of itself, I could have shortened that time to not go on for so long.

    It did build up some resentment in me, and I had to ask myself if I was being fair to myself. It’s easy to overlook your own needs when you intellectualize your way out of things. Now, I’m thrilled to do some guest posts for specific people and reasons, but I will no longer devalue my time, or my work.

    Thanks for this. I’ll make sure to listen to the podcast.

    • Great to hear this resonated with you. We’ve been beating this drum for a while now because there is so much chatter out there about how you have to provide value (for free of course) if you ever plan to get paid. And that’s crazy! It’s some weird internet mentality that somehow got confused with content marketing. Yes, we blog “for free” but that’s part of our marketing strategy, not just us creating free content for abstract reasons of authority and brand building. Well. Let’s hope we can get rid of free stuff one small step at a time 🙂