The cost of free

I looked at the post.

photo from JingI had a chance to win  a free copy of the software. All I had to do was download the trial, use it to take a picture, and link to the picture. It is incredibly simple. And I love my current simple version of the product (Jing).

I almost did it.

And then I thought about the time that the process would take and the distraction it would be from the work I’m supposed to be doing.

But it’s free.

And then I remembered the times that I have, for various free things, entered the contest. I’ve written the post. I’ve retweeted the offer. I’ve filled out the form and sent it in. And then I’ve waited. And wondered. And looked at the other entries. And imagined what I would do with the prize, what I could do with the prize.

I’m long past knowing that companies do this for my information. They get an email address, they get traffic, they hope to get access to my followers. And I’m actually fine with that. It’s a transaction.

But I’m only beginning to understand the cost of the distraction. There is a huge cumulative opportunity cost.

What could I have done with that undivided attention that I just spent on a contest, on a drawing?

I’d write more, but I have to get back to work.


10 responses to “The cost of free

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  2. Joseph Ruiz

    Jon, a great reminder that free isn’t always free. Squirrel comes to mind. I like that term because for me it is a great mental picture.

    I needed to read this and be reminded that distractions can be sinister. Often I am not even aware they are there!

    Hope all is well.

  3. Absolutely fantastic post!

    And the better of all, it´s true! About distraction, and the business thing.

  4. In the world of software, Scott McNealy from Sun once said, referring to “free” open source software — “Yeah — it’s free. Free like a puppy.”

    That’s what I notice about a lot of the stuff people want to give me for “free”. All I have to do is buy a dish, and a leash, and some shots, and take it for walks, and pick up the poop…

  5. Joe – all is well, apart from the squirrels I keep in cages and often release across my desk.

  6. Thanks Luciano!

    Dick, that’s a perfect metaphor. Absolutely perfect.

  7. Omar Elbaga

    It makes me wonder if giving away free things is really a valuable way to gain attention.

    I think it sometimes devalues the work to both you and the customer.

    I recall Kevin of digg saying in an interview that users feeling exclusivity and rewards encouraged them to participate more.

    I put that against free.

    I’d rather be in on an exclusive beta test than download something everyones getting for free.

  8. Omar – that’s a great point from the marketer’s perspective. You are exactly right, I think, that the sense of exclusivity attracts the consumer’s interest. And that’s what then traps me as a consumer. The exclusive beta test is still “free” to me as a customer. It doesn’t cost me anything up front.

    However, because I’m part of the beta, a couple things will happen. 1. I may have to deal with bugs that will consume time. 2. I will feel beholden to pay for the free test by commenting and critiquing. 3. I may participate in what I don’t really need, captured by the sense of “hey! I got in and you didn’t.”

    And there I am again, spending time and focus on the free.

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  10. Free is not always free.