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Free as Advertising: Giving It Away for Profit

Would you buy something that was available for free?

In late 2005 the UK music scene was to get a radical awakening when, on Monday 17th October, a relatively unknown band released their debut single. Without any marketing or advertising whatsoever, this single shot straight to the number one spot in the charts, selling almost 40,000 copies in 6 days – one copy for every 1,500 people in Britain. A few months later, after a string of top 10 hits, the band’s debut album was released, quickly becoming the fastest selling debut album in British chart history.

This led many in the music industry to debate whether this was a signal for change – a change in how bands are ‘found’, marketed and sold, and how they gain their recognition.

To really see where this started though, go back a year further to 2005 when the band started recording songs. Without a record label, they could not afford to release them so uploaded their songs to their website and started touring small ‘indie’ venues. A couple of months later, after signing to Domino Records, they were invited to play in one of London’s biggest venues – the Astoria. The venue sold-out in record-time and on the night of the gig the crowd were singing along to songs that had never been released and had only been performed live a handful of times. Through P2P networks, social networking websites and bootlegged songs, the band was a hit. This band was The Arctic Monkeys.

Now I don’t like The Arctic Monkey’s, but they epitomise the idea that you can make money from giving away something for free; “free as advertising”, as Rob Manuel, of b3ta said on the eve of releasing his Bumper B3ta Book of Sick Jokes as a free pdf download, a wiki (Sickipedia) and in bookstores around the country simultaneously.

In December,Carl wrote concerning books that are freely available online. I had already read a few on this list, but saw one that I had meant to read in the past, but had forgotten about.

This morning I bought that book; Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture – available for free on the official website. Why did I buy it? I love it – this book is important and I want to own it. I would like to re-read it in a form that doesn’t make my eyes hurt and that’s easier to manage than 350 pages of A4.

Why am I telling you these two stories? I believe that the future of successful marketing for entertainment products is going to be in giving away a product for free. Music, movies, books and more besides, can all benefit from giving away their product and concentrating on other revenue streams such as advertising – or using the free distribution itself as advertising for a paid-for version of the product.

Just like Ruckus, if you can discover your market, and believe in your product, you can make a viable income from advertising. Cory Doctorow released his debut novel free online and in bookstores simultaneously. To quote from my newly purchased book (Free Culture, remember):

His (and his publisher’s) thinking was that the on-line distribution would be a great advertisement for the “real” book. People would read part on-line, and then decide whether they liked the book or not. If they liked it, they would be more likely to buy it.

[If more people bought the book after seeing it online than people who would buy it, but didn’t, because it was available for free, then the strategy would be successful.]

The book’s first printing was sold-out months before the publisher had expected and Cory is now a well-respected writer and journalist.

Free works.