It’s Free!

A couple weeks back I was sitting in the front seat of a Bolt Bus from Baltimore to New York. At the end of the line of passengers getting out at the rest stop was a young man, apparently Hasidic, who paused to ask if I was Jewish. When I said yes, he introduced himself and asked if I would like to put on tefillin (please Google for details). This ritual not being part of my religious practice, I declined. One of his companions then piped up: “It’s free!”

Marketers learn that the word “free” is magical. Free sample! Free gift! Free trial! Buy one, get one free! In the case of museums, concerts, and theatre, admission fees can be a barrier. Subsidized and discounted admission make a difference, but free admission makes a world of difference. And many of us now enjoy virtually unlimited access to cultural materials online, encountering few paywalls.

According to Wikipedia (case in point), the source of the “information wants to be free” credo was a remark by Stewart Brand to Steve Wozniak at the first Hackers Conference in 1984:

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

Setting aside the larger issues of intellectual property, copyright, and the destruction of business models in journalism, publishing, and entertainment, what I would like to do here is distinguish between information and experience in the cultural sphere.

If you believe as I do (and as I think Walter Benjamin did and John Berger did not) that there is a difference between seeing a reproduction of a painting and the painting itself, this can become the foundation of your museum’s marketing strategy: Free online, ticketed in person. Fully exploit online (and traditional) media to communicate the value of your museum’s in-person experience, then charge for it. The same goes for concerts and plays.

Of course, many cultural organizations already operate this way. But Baltimore’s two major art museums, for example, eliminated general admission fees in 2006 with support from city and county government. This was a bold decision which expanded public access. As a marketer, however, I am a true believer in ticketing and membership/subscription programs as signifiers of value and audience cultivation tools.

In my next post, I will talk about attracting non-traditional audiences, a worthy goal that in my view has muddled the question of to-charge-or-not-to-charge. One of my objections to “It’s Free!” is that it casts too wide a net. Marketing is matchmaking: offering defined groups of people exactly what they want–experiences for which they are pleased, even grateful to pay–and building relationships.

Perhaps the goal of my Bolt Bus acquaintances was simply to have more Jews obeying more commandments. But if I was really inclined to become more traditionally observant, I would have been perfectly willing to invest time and money in doing so. What they should have asked was if I could help with their website and social media…

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2 thoughts on “It’s Free!

  1. The value of an experience is not determined by it’s cost, but by it’s repercussions.

    I presume you were on the Bolt Bus because it was a more cost effective way to get to NYC than by plane or train.

    There seems to be something bordering on the ironic here.

  2. Involved as I am in both university teaching and educational publishing, this sentence resonated: ‘What I would like to do here is distinguish between information and experience in the cultural sphere’. Substitute ‘educational’ for ‘cultural’ and you articulate the tension that exists between those who advocate cheap or even free access to masses of information (via MOOCs – google it) and those of us who are invested in relatively small, interactive and instructor-mediated ‘learning experiences’, albeit at some financial cost to the learner. The equation of ‘free’ with ‘good’ is a non-starter. This way madness lies.

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