OPINION1 August 2009

Here’s some free advice


Chris Anderson has long been a highly regarded member of the technorati. As Wired’s editor in chief he mirrors and, some would say, helps tosteer opinion among the web-savvy, e-commerce-powered masses.


Chris Anderson has long been a highly regarded member of the technorati. As Wired’s editor in chief he mirrors and, some would say, helps to steer opinion among the web-savvy, e-commerce-powered masses.

He was the man responsible for identifying The Long Tail and his latest book Free looks set to make as much of a stir. In the book he argues for a commercial model where the bulk of a company’s services or products are offered to market free of charge. A consumer’s dream. A financial director’s nightmare.

Google was one of the first companies to spy the benefits of bringing free software to the masses. Microsoft has recently announced that it too will start to offer free cut-down versions of its applications on the web. Where the software industry treads other industries are sure to follow.

In last month’s cover story we examined the effect of free, or nearly free, market research tools. The sort of tools that put market research into the hands of clients rather than agencies. We’ve already received a lot of feedback on this, some of which you will find on our letters page.

It’s clear that market research survey software can be accessed at minimal cost. However, while users may be able to benefit from using these tools, they will be missing out on the interpretation and insight that derive from the findings.

There’s no doubt that DIY software presents a considerable challenge to the research business. Yes, the industry will have to hone its value-added proposition and promote its consulting skills. But, agencies would be wrong to simply place all the emphasis on their importance for the back-end of a project.

It’s now the perfect time to promote research standards. The importance of methodological rigour and sample robustness should be a key selling point for research agencies when going up against DIY research tools. You can have all the shiny insight and consultancy you want, but it’s not much use if that’s based on less than pure data. Granted, it’s never going to be the sexiest of selling points, but it may prove a surprisingly effective strategy if aimed at serious-minded clients.

Time will tell whether free survey software will really make a mark. Will the giveaway model really offer payback?

It’s interesting to note that, on publication, Anderson’s book was offered free of charge to Amazon’s Kindle users. It’s also interesting to note that despite Anderson’s campaign for ‘free’ this was a strictly limited offer and now customers have to pay up. So after all’s said and done it appears that, for the moment, there is no such thing as an entirely free lunch.