Nice to see you! It’s time for another edition of JebraWHAT!?, our non-techy, ultra-friendly advice column for social entrepreneurs and non-profits managing their web sites on their own. We’ll be answering your questions about ways you can take control of your own web presence, keep your site updated, and integrate the technology that best supports your customers and donors — and hopefully, our answers will be as easy for you to understand as a cookie recipe.

Today, we’ll be answering a question from the utter force-of-nature that is Malik Turley of Hip Circle Studio, a dance and fitness studio for women and families in our home town of Evanston, Illinois. Aside from offering a unique variety of get-your-groove-on classes that celebrate women’s fitness wherever it is for each woman in the moment, Malik also runs the Women’s Business Empowerment Workgroup, a six-month workshop that helps other women business owners get the tools and support they need to run their own enterprises. She’s a community advocate and a powerhouse and, of course, a downright good person.

She came to me in January with a question I thought deserved a careful answer. Malik asked me to address Prediction #9 from this article on marketing predictions for 2015: “Marketing tools will become free.” She wanted to know, in general, what I thought of that.

“If you’re not paying for it, you are (sometimes but not always) the product.”

I hear this all the time, minus the parenthetical part. I hear it especially about smartphone apps with ads and social networks like Facebook and Twitter, but it’s also applied to things like Hootsuite and Buffer, which help you schedule your own content marketing to all the channels where you hope to find either colleagues or customers. For any piece of software — online or not — where you are seeing advertisements, that is 100% true. The money earned by Facebook comes from advertising, and you, as a reader of content on Facebook, are providing the value that those advertisers are seeking. You’re looking at those ads. You are Facebook’s product.

On tools used for scheduling content marketing, however, the free software doesn’t make you into a product. Using Hootsuite as an example, we can see that free users are without question not providing a clear product to the developer. Free users have a limited set of permissions and abilities on Hootsuite, but for small businesses like Malik’s — and mine — the free version can often be enough. Here’s how Hootsuite’s model works for them: they’re banking on Malik and I eventually growing big enough to need premium options. has a great explanation of when you’d want to upgrade to the “professional” (a.k.a. paid) version of Hootsuite. When you need more features than you can get for free, you start to pay. To paraphrase that linked article, you’d pony up real money when you need:

  • more than five social profiles
  • more than one login for the same set of profiles
  • mass publishing options using a spreadsheet
  • more robust statistics
  • video tutorials

When those things are worth $10 a month to you, you’ll upgrade. Until then, you’re not their product — you’re someone for whom a free tool is sufficient.

Free Beer vs. Free Kittens vs. Free Free

I had a great exchange of comments with Patrick Masson, secretary of the Open Source Initiative on the syndicated version of this blog on Business 2 Community last week. I had mentioned that clients who use free open-source software with free themes/templates and free extensions/widgets end up with projects that take longer to build than ones which use at least some components purchased from developers who charge for their work. This happens because developers who don’t charge for their products are often slower to release patches and fixes and to respond to the questions of the freeloaders who didn’t pay for the developer’s product. (This is not always true — there are some awesome developers who give their work away and support it beautifully — but it’s true often enough that I can quantify the delays in products with no software cost whatsoever.) The comparison I used for open source software was that it was much more like free kittens than it was like free beer. Free beer has no maintenance cost; free kittens require care and feeding. (Note: I originally heard this comparison expressed by the inimitable K.G. Scheider, the Free Range Librarian, but she admits it has another origin.)

Masson suggests that we’re ignoring the real meaning of the word “free” as it applies to open-source software, which is not “without cost” but “with liberty.” Open-source software offers developers the framework and outline on which they can build and add functionality. I wrote about it in a blog post comparing open-source code to a recipe for home-made cake. Masson is right; that’s a better way to think about it for developers and for people like me, who understand its backbone. Small business owners will still hear “no cost” and get excited about saving money. The key for me and my colleagues will be to explain to our clients that, just like with the freedom to vote, this free software comes with responsibility — to understand the decisions we’re making, to support the developers we feel are doing “it” right, and to contribute to the community, even financially.

Free software will always be there. It will get bigger and easier to use. And we’ll all need to feed it.

You’ve Got to Spend Money to Make Money, or Do You?

Fair warning: here’s a lot of conjecture. The marketing prediction Malik asked me to review includes the following sentence: “Marketing tool providers are now basing their decisions on life time value metrics versus going for the short term income.” My opinion is that I know a lot of businesses that grow only to a certain point and never farther. A local Italian restaurant is probably not actively seeking more than local exposure, a decent set of reviews on Yelp, and a full dining room most nights. At some point, they’ll reach their capacity as a business, and they may never want to grow. Not everyone out there is looking to expand indefinitely. For a place like that, the free Hootsuite account might always be enough. I think there are more businesses like that in the world than there are businesses looking to get big enough for a huge suite of marketing tools.

And what’s more, I think businesses are throwing money into online marketing less because they’re growing and more because the landscape of opportunities is changing. For example, I don’t know a single small business owner with a business page on Facebook who isn’t frustrated as heck by the changes to the newsfeed algorithm there. Marketing tactics that worked before are suddenly not working anymore. They’re going to be forced to spend money on Facebook reach not because they as a business got bigger but because Facebook changed its model.

So, is this prediction (“Marketing tools will become free”) correct? It depends on how the companies offering these tools set up their businesses, and how the platforms for marketing your content evolve. I’m not sure there’s as much a need for more free tools as there is a need for some stability in the platforms themselves. Until there is, the current marketplace for free tools is pretty saturated already. The real question I ask my clients is: what value will spending money on this tool give you?

And only you can answer that.

Want to ask us a webby question and get a friendly answer? Send us an email, or reach out on Facebook or Twitter. Maybe it will be in our April installment of JebraWHAT?!