The Rise Of The Gift Economy And Freeconomics

This week I blogged about the actions of Meetings Professional International (MPI) and their decision to charge $299 for a Virtual Access Pass (VAP) to attend their upcoming conference in Salt Lake, UT. See my initial post and the subsequent post about free online content.

The sticky wicket is the word “free” although I argue that I’ve already paid $375 for dues and MPI should cover any expenses for live streaming from their current budget, especially since they waited until this week, ten days before the event, to announce a fee for VAP. And, since they set a precedent in January 2009 and allowed free virtual attendance to MeetDifferent with access to four conference sessions.

To add a different perspective to this discussion view this short 3-minute video by Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired and author of The Long Tail. His next book, FREE, published by Hyperion is set to be released July 7.

How interesting that this discussion that is occurring right now in the Blogosphere is very similar to the issue taking place at MPI. Some of the biggest names in social media, Web 2.0 and new media are weighing in on the issue of free. The list includes Chris Anderson, Chris Brogan, Mark Cuban, Jason Falls, Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin, Mitch Joel, Valeria Maltoni, Tim Sanders, and David Meerman Scott. (BTW, you just caught a glimpse of my daily reading list.)

The biggest difference between the bloggers description of free and MPI’s lack of free content is that as an MPI member, I’ve already paid $375 for annual dues. I’m claiming that I’m not getting $375 worth of services, that I’m not getting enough value for my annual dues. Thus, I want the four sessions from WEC live streamed for free just as they did in January at MeetDifferent. This may seems petty to some but can you really tell me what you get for $375 a year for your MPI dues? It’s very intangible.

Back to the Blogosphere discussion that is taking place by some very smart and brilliant minds today. If they are discussing and applying the concept of free, perhaps we should watch, listen and learn. And with social media, why not jump in and discuss these concepts with them, especially since many of these thought-leaders are willing to engage in dialog with us. (I expect that MPI leadership could take some cues from how these people engage others in conversation too.)

Chris Anderson believes Free, $0.00 is the future of business.

Chris Brogan argues that we can choose to distribute our material and let it loose to the wild and hope to capture value elsewhere or lock our material into containers of perceived value. He says the later model is the way the world has worked for well over a hundred years.

Mark Cuban believes that the content is free but that where it’s distributed is controlled. He offers an example of offering free music only from a specific website.

Jason Falls argues that nothing is really free and advertising and sponsorship sustain perceived free offerings.

Malcolm Gladwell doubts that free is the future. Seth and Chris disagree with him.

Mitch Joel says that free is going to scare people.

Seth Godin says that people will pay for content if it is so unique that people can’t get it elsewhere. He calls Malcolm wrong. Seth Godin even set-up a Squidoo lens to debate the topic right here: The FREE Debate.

Valeria Maltoni believes that free is not a benefit, it’s a feature. She says it doesn’t become a benefit until it’s activated by you in the right place, at the right time.

Tim Sanders believes that amateur content should be free but not well-produced content. I don’t think Tim practices what he preachesUpdate 8/2/10 – Tim does practice what he preaches. More than one year later, Tim reached out to me. Read his comment below for his views on Free.
In order not to detract from the flow here, I’ll add my sidebar about Tim’s actions below.

David Meerman Scott believes you’ve got to lose control of your messages and you need to make your valuable online information totally free and freely sharable. He practices what he preaches and offer five free eBooks online.

To be fair, here is MPI’s CEO and President, Bruce MacMillan post The Debate Over “Free.” I don’t think Bruce deserves to be listed with these great thought-leaders because he has no new progressive thoughts about associations. Nor is he a leader that embraces disruptive innovation. He started out that way but now he is comfortable with status quo association offerings. MPI has done nothing in the past two years that qualifies as remarkable or memorable with the exception of offering free live streaming in January.

So what say ye? How do you see free impacting business today? Let’s take it further, how do you see free impacting meetings and events, associations, nonprofits? Do you think MPI’s education content is unique enough to warrant additional fees? Do you think I’m out of line for asking MPI to give me more value for my $375 yearly dues? Do you think the entire conversation of free content is free crap and that I’m just a whining MPI member?

Let’s hear from you. All opinions are welcome here. (If you want to know my personal thoughts about Tim Sanders, read on. If you don’t care about that, add a comment.)

*Oh, and regarding Tim Sanders. I’m going to disagree with Tim that only amateur content should be given away free. (Is he really calling these blogger and authors amateurs? I’m going to assume that Tim does not mean to imply these bloggers and authors are amateurish.) Tim does not practice what he preaches here. I have personal experience that says differently. [Make sure you read my update for the full story. I]

Several years ago, I hired Tim to keynote an opening general session for a joint session of PPAI’s BF&M and The Motivation Show. When I was considering potential keynote speakers, Tim reached out to me and sent me a free copy of his book Love Is The Killer App. He also picked up the phone and had a personal conversation with me. He used free—a free book in this case–to get me to buy his product, his speech. Now, I seriously doubt that Tim remembers me because I was just one stop in a yearlong speaking tour for him.

But wait, there’s more. Tim just joined Twitter recently and is trying to build up a list of followers. He tweeted that he would appreciate some recommendations to others about following him. (That there shows his inexperience and understanding of social media.) Well, I had already tweeted about him and did so again the following week because I enjoy his writings and like his insights. He thanked me and asked me to DM him and he would send me a copy of his new book. The oddest thing is that he was not following me so how could I DM him my address. (I just lost all of you that don’t use Twitter. Stay with me.) So I sent him a public reply that I couldn’t DM him because he wasn’t following me. Days later, I sent a second tweet. He never responded again so I don’t think Tim understands the social space very well and I’ve since lost a lot of respect for him. He says one thing and does the other. And he does believe in FREE in order to get people to buy his product.

Update 8/1/2010 – More than one year after I wrote this post Tim reach out to me and kept his original promise. I have to say that my respect for him has just increased. Most people would just forget about the original request but Tim didn’t. He posted his thoughts in the comment section below and then sent me a personal email. He also shipped a copy of his book to me. Anyone that would reach out one year later and follow up, gets my respect. While Tim and I may disagree with the concept of free, I still believe that Tim has a great message, insight and wisdom. My connection is now stronger with him than in the past.

Don’t forget to add to this discussion.


  1. says

    Free doesn’t eliminate paid work…it paves the road for it. But unless you help build the road with your free content, no one will have a relationship with you so no one will pay for what you have to offer. Nor will you have enough experience interacting with your potential customers to understand their needs.

    So you are ceding the future to those who give first, for free.

    Moreover, you will end up “driving on the wrong side of the road and causing accidents” such as Jeff describes above…

    Baby steps in a new business environment….such is what we are doing on Jeff’s blog, learning, connecting, and not needing to understand it all before we participate.

    • Jeff Hurt says

      I like “free doesn’t eliminate paid work….it paves the road for it. But unless you help build the road with your free content, no one will have a relationship with you so no one will pay for what you have to offer…” There’s great wisdom into that thought.

  2. says

    Jeff, another thought. I honestly think (and I am not alone) that the US economy is going to shrink quite a bit during this recession…and then not grow very rapidly after that. There is a lot of inefficiency in business that is going to be squeezed out. Those business models that are low-cost and high value are the ones that will prevail. So it doesn’t do any good to defend high-cost business models just because they exist now.

    I started my blog, Recession-Proof Thinking, last fall when the economy started tanking, to help me write a book. I’m writing for individuals, and I’m writing for small businesses, and I’m writing for associations, about the importance of going deeper and defining what really matters rather than trying to sustain financial realities that were part of the 30-year bubble that just burst. Top econoblogger Mike Shelton writes about “painful balance sheet reform at the personal, corporate, and national level.” There are jobs, organizations, companies, and industries that are not coming back.

    The reality is that the answers to all of these issues will best emerge in conversation, working together, being creatively entrepreneurial together. I’ve been an entrepreneur for 20 years and have started businesses during a recession….the trick is to look for the opening for growth (not to defend what you did before). Entrepreneurial thinking — and action — always leads the way out of a recession. And it takes lots of minds pulling together to pull it off.

    Social media is part of that opening for all of us. As a disruptive technology, it challenges business as usual — but it also puts tools in the hands of individuals, groups, and businesses to create the future. We have to be willing to learn how to use them. Not just to become technologically proficient, but to learn to be more open to new ideas, inclusive of new parties, patient as we learn new things, committed to finding workable answers, and generous with our knowledge and empathy as we all explore this new terrain and create the future.

    • Jeff Hurt says


      I don’t think you’re hogging the comments. I think you’re giving voice to some of the very concerns and issues many association members have right now. You’re also articulating what some of us have a loss of words to say. So thank you.

      I think social media has given rise to new types of leadership, Starfish Organizations as Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom describe in their book The Starfish and the Spider. As they say in their book:
      If you cut off a spider’s head, it dies; if you cut off a starfish’s leg it grows a new one, and that leg can grow into an entirely new starfish. Traditional top-down organizations are like spiders, but now starfish organizations are changing the face of business and the world.

      The Internet and social media have given rise to leaderless organizations, those driven by the power of peer relationships and those organizations are direct competitors of associations. It will be interesting to watch in the future.

  3. says

    Actually, I think the “leaderless” issue is up for reconsideration. Seth Godin (Tribes) doesn’t buy it (his work is all about becoming a leader), and recently on his blog, @chrisbrogan shared his aha! moment about the need for leadership and the limits of self-organization.

    Here’s how I see this playing out in this conversation (on this blog post and the last one).

    I think there are answers to the issue of free content that are accessible to this discussion…there are two parties missing from the conversation: MPI and the supplier who offered to provide streaming for free as a sponsor.

    Here’s where we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place: It’s notable that the offer to sponsor — to take this issue away if I understand it correctly — wasn’t jumped on!

    That is where leadership is necessary. It’s not the kind of leadership that you get from your job description. It requires technology, business, and people skills to pull together a discussion in which solutions such as the one that is sitting there on your blog can be developed.

    Imagine if participants in this online discussion went out for drinks. The “sponsor” can teach the MPI staff (national and chapter) about streaming technology. The association staff can voice their needs as the ultimate customers. Younger members can add their own technology skills while learning about how business gets done. And all parties would come to understand the business model of the supplier and gain a keener appreciation of how people with different financial interests can collaborate. Everyone learns and grows and solves their problems.

    Not only would there be free streaming….everyone can build on that success on ever more exciting projects. That’s when this gets really fun.

    Meanwhile, everyone would start following each other on twitter and would pick up tidbits about each other, would comment on each others blogs, refer each other to people and information that is helpful…all the basics of building stronger business relationships.

    That’s the kind of leadership that blends the offline and online world. That’s the key business skill set for the economic reality we are now in. It’s among the best recession-proof thinking I have found. I’m loving teaching it; I want to shout it from the rooftops chance I get.

    As the dealer says at the poker table in Casino Royale, “It’s up to you, Mr. Bond.” We ARE the ones responsible for finding our way forward.

  4. says

    Hey there Jeff — I’ve replied to you directly RE my failure to follow up on my promise to send you my latest book.

    I really appreciate you booking me back-in-the-day for that talk. I did want to make a point though, regarding your post. I sent you a copy of my book as a promotional tool to secure an opportunity. It wasn’t free, I had to pay for it out of my pocket. The book isn’t free to the public, like a blog post, for example. My point is that a free product shouldn’t have the same production investments, etc., as a product that’s worth paying for. Me giving you a freebie as a deal driver doesn’t contradict that POV.

    • Jeff Hurt says

      Thanks for responding and I appreciate your POV. Good point about the production investment.

      I think the discussion of free as a deal driver is a good one. Events that want to retain attendees or get new prospective attendees could offer free livestreaming as a promotional tool. I know it was a deal driver for me in several circumstances.

      Thanks again and I appreciate you replying.


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