The post on Three Reasons Free Will Eat Itself drew a fair bit of attention. To be clear, I’m not anti-free by any means – I think it can be a great marketing tool – it’s just that it is a very slippery one.

For your business (or even yourself) to stand out, you need to be noticeably different from the rest of the crowd, in a way that is sustainable. Your strategy needs to be based on defensible differentiators, things that you can maintain and that others can’t copy. At least, not easily.

It turns out the free is easy to copy, and that means it doesn’t make for a sustainable differentiator. Even worse, people get used to it. As Seth puts it in Too much free:

If you want to know who’s a newbie on a film set, just watch what happens at lunch. Major films have huge buffets laid out for cast and crew, and the newcomers can’t resist. It’s FREE! Over time, of course, the old-timers come to the conclusion that it’s just lunch, and the crew gets a bit more jaded and learns some self-restraint as well.

Seth goes on to argue that the next logical step on from the offer of “it is free” is “I’ll pay you to try it” – I’d say that is arguably happening already, with the way that some companies and social media agencies are engaging with bloggers and the digerati. It might be a great short-term tactic, but it isn’t one that is sustainable in the long-term. That isn’t in the best interests of either the businesses or  users. What’s that? Gmail went down again? Where do I send my Paypal details?