What is the cost of "free"?

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Jeff Hurt poked a hornet's nest when he posted his dissatisfaction with Meeting Professional International's Virtual Access Pass for its World Education Congress, coming to Salt Lake City in less than a week. The VAP lets people purchase online access to much of WEC's educational content (or you can purchase just access to the opening general session). Go ahead, read his post and all the comments around it. I'll wait.

Looks like he really touched a chord there, doesn't it? I don't really have a dog in this hunt, not being an MPI member and having never been to its conferences, but, as someone employed by an increasingly e-media company, I do have great interest in the whole conversation around "free" content and the Internet. Obviously, I'd love it if every word I wrote was so golden that people would pay hundreds of dollars to read them, but that isn't the case--and wasn't the case even pre-Internet. Most trade magazines, whether published by for-profit companies or by associations, have always followed a free circulation, paid-for-by-advertising model. Most association magazines provide conference wrapups and session writeups in their post-con issues. There's nothing new with the concept of free content supported by advertising and/or sponsorship. The only thing that's new is the media (Internet) and quantity (tons, and growing exponentially daily) of content that's free for the taking.

I think MPI's president Bruce MacMillan did his best to lay out the association's reasoning behind charging for online access. But it's not good enough, IMHO. I understand that the decision likely was driven by finances--or lack thereof--and good intentions. They wanted to bring the show to those who wouldn't be able to make it in person, and to cover the production costs. Nothing wrong with that.

Instead, they ended up alienating and angering a lot of very vocal people. In my book, that makes it a bad move. If MPI offered a more limited access for free (or at least a lot cheaper), it could have reaped tons of goodwill, won over some members who maybe were thinking about dropping their membership, and possibly enticed some new people to join.

Plus, when it comes to conferences, all providing the free stuff does is get people wanting to go in person next year. TED is the example that keeps coming up, but I'd say it's true for every conference that I've seen do it. It is the best promo you could possibly give, makes members feel valued, makes nonmembers want to join and come to the conference. The cost, while not negligible, would be less than a regular marketing campaign, I would think.

Instead, they get lots of negative PR, ticked off members, and probably won't make enough to come close to covering costs anyway.

This debate won't go away any time soon, methinks. Jeff has listed some great thoughts from great thinkers in his post, The Rise of the Gift Economy and Freeconomics that are well worth reading and thinking about.

If you think this won't affect you, think again. Whether you're a content consumer, a content producer, or both, the rise of "free" is reworking some fundamental aspects of society. This is not just an MPI issue. It's an everyone issue, and let's not be too hard on MPI for stumbling along the way. None of us know exactly how the Internet economy will shake out, and in the meantime, we're all bound to do some things that, in retrospect, we may wish we hadn't.

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