Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
April 24, 2010 9:02 PM

When Free Costs A Fortune

For the average person, having access to something for free is the best, but it's when those average people become power users that the problems begin.

Everything online is free. The truth is that everything online is not free (it just is for the vast majority). When you live online (yes, I'm looking directly in the mirror), you quickly begin to realize that you're never better off with a free service, and that was validated twice this week. Both Chris Brogan (co-author of the best-selling business book, Trust Agents with Julien Smith and author of Social Media 101) and C.C. Chapman (Managing The Gray) got shut out of the Google accounts.

By doing some quick online searches, you'll see that issues like this aren't exclusive to Google. Almost any and all companies that offer up free services have tons of issues like the ones Chris and C.C. experienced. People constantly get shut out, shut down, locked out, etc... and there's usually very little they can do about it. All of us know one person (or more) who had their account flagged in spaces like Facebook and MySpace and how helpless they feel/are when trying to navigate the FAQ or using email forms to try to get to some point of resolution. When something is free, customer service is usually non-existent. And, while it's cool to have all of these free tools and platforms, imagine what it costs the users in productivity when they can't get into the platform or access their own data? Multiply that with their lack of knowing how long it will take to get back into the platform (or if they ever will). Ouch!

Why aren't brands grabbing all of this free money?

For all of the people using the free services, why don't these brands ramp up a small (but smart) customer service group and start charging a premium for things like:

  • Guaranteed up-time.
  • Front-line communication should the service be disrupted.
  • Pre-emptive notification if the service is going to be shut down or if your account is at risk.
  • Someone human to speak to.
  • Extra storage space (if they don't already offer unlimited space).
  • The ability to have an off-site back-up of the data that is always accessible by the creator.

Paying for a service that is free is not going to be for everybody... and that's the point. There must be thousands and thousands of folks just like Chapman and Brogan who would be willing to pay (and it's probably not a small fee either). In fact, one of the main reasons I (and probably many others) don't use these free services as my core business tool is because there is no expectation that it will always be there when needed. Imagine the business model in providing that professional level of comfort and security?

When something is free, what does the supplier really owe the people using it?

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by NailaJ
    Mitch Joel

    I couldn't agree more! The only legit way to make money online in a "free" environment is to charge for bonuses like perks and security... And these things should matter to people, have a real impact on their day-to-day usage of the service.

    Reply
  • Posted by Dan Spira
    Mitch Joel

    This problem is going to be hard to solve: Yahoo has a premium fee-based approach to its email service and guess what? It's not as reliable as GMail.

    Reply
  • Posted by Leefe
    Mitch Joel

    Yes, I suppose, the old adage "you get what your pay for" holds true in these circumstances.

    If you are going to run a business through a service, you should choose one where the provider has a contractual obligation to ensure that the service works. And when you pay for something, you would expect the terms are more favourable to you.

    While bad press from service failure of high profile cases, and large numbers of people, may get the problem fixed in the long term. It is always much better to have someone you can contact to fix the problem now.

    Reply
  • I couldn't agree more with @Leefe. Really took the words from my mouth!

    Reply
  • Posted by Kevin
    Mitch Joel

    They owe the users nothing if the services offered is already FREE.. thats the hidden risk that the users have to undertake if they rely heavily on these FREE platform..

    Reply
  • Posted by Promod Sharma
    Mitch Joel

    There is already a paid version of Gmail in Google Apps Premier Edition with a 99.9% uptime guarantee, 24/7 phone support, more storage etc. It costs $50 US/user/year.

    I've thought of getting it but the free ad-supported version works well enough for my purposes.

    Reply
  • I would be all for "premium" services from companies like Twitter and Google that would provide customer service and premium type account options. I have tried tweeting to Twitter to get help in changing my account name - ironically they never reply.

    These companies have people asking for services that they can monetize - let's hope they are listening.

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    since when are facebook and google "free"? we pay for them by viewing the ads inside the services. if we can't do that, then these companies lose income. this is the same reasoning for why they'd want to maintain a good level of service even if they had sold us a product like a hosting company does.

    the thing that sets these major sites apart from other sites that appear to be free, is that they are so large that they are in a place where they can snub the entire userbase with faq and help pages rather than respond to them.

    i personally trust google to host my mail more than my web host. if it's offline for a bit of time i don't freak out. i'm a little surprised that brogan got that alarmed about his situation.

    Reply
  • Posted by Rob Cotter
    Mitch Joel

    I think that relying on free services in my business--the music industry--has disrupted growth tremendously for a few reasons. Despite a lot of amazing free tools for musicians, it has come at the cost of being able to control ones marketing message. It's a great thing to have a Facebook or MySpace page as ancillary destinations, but many artists are using these portals are their primary touchpoints to the consumer. And as it goes, said companies are controlling the databases of contacts. If you get shut out of your account, you might have lost months or years worth of fan data. Not a wise move.

    We know that web sites, micro sites, and rich media cost money. Money that many bands don't have. But let that serve as somewhat of a gateway to weed out those who aren't as serious in their hunt for success. A few minutes into MySpace for example and all pages start blending in to one another. It's not a special experience anymore.

    I'm not saying the quality of music isn't to blame for the troubles in the music industry, but let it be said that most are better off writing music, hustling for a gig, or building a fan bases in person rather than virtually. Hard work makes superstars, not third party web sites.

    Nevermind that it looks a lot cooler to have an email address that ends in "yourbandname.com" as opposed to "gmail.com". Nevermind that it is a lot cooler that owning a domain name and server protects your service flow and data.

    Reply
  • Just ran across this about Google Drawings. Point #3 is: "The risk of losing data is zero." Made me think of this post. http://wireframes.linowski.ca/2010/04/google-drawings-wireframing-kit/ (BTW overall just loving Wireframes mag lately — but could not help calling this out.)

    Reply
  • Posted by Barry
    Mitch Joel

    Thank you for the message, it surely opened my eyes since I’m kind of in turmoil right now with this situation.

    Reply
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