What Free Costs Me

This post isn't just about me, but about the royal "me" as in us. Plus it rhymed. But it is about free, and what free for companies costs those of us doing the free contributing.

What inspired this post was two things: yesterday's association Twitter chat (#assnchat) and a tweet by SmartBrief. The topic of #assnchat yesterday was annual meetings, and as part of that we were discussing speakers, speaker fees, and speaking for free. Maddie Grant said:

@maggielmcg we're trying hard not to speak for free anymore. provide tons of free content in other ways. #assnchatless than a minute ago via TweetChat



Her point was in the context of a conversation about highly-paid general session speakers who are horrible and the fact that the most valuable speakers at ASAE are volunteers who still have to pay (reduced) registration as well as travel expenses. ASAE has members who are association staff (like me) and who are vendors or consultants (like Maddie). If you're a vendor or consultant, the presumed "what's in it for me?" (WIIFM) for speaking at their events is potential new business leads. If you're association staff, the WIIFM is reduced registration, resume fodder, potential future job leads, and, of course, the ego stroke.

On to the Smartbrief post:



Cool, I thought, when I saw the post: they're hiring. Well, not exactly: they're looking for someone to pen a weekly column and become a member of their advisory board. I was all set to reply--because who wouldn't want to be on their advisory board--when it dawned on me: a WEEKLY column? That's a ton of work. Or it is if you already have a full-time job, have your own blog (or two), already volunteer in various capacities (as I do; I recently became a proud member of the Social Media Club--DC's Leadership Team, in addition to various other volunteer activities and guest blogging gigs)--then have the rest of your life to swing--which in my case includes 2 kids, a husband, some attempt at an IRL social life, a house to take care of, dinner every night...you know--stuff. Life.

Now obviously I'm not the only one with a life--we all have one. And to some of us writing a weekly post would be no big deal, and well worth it in exchange for a coveted spot on a highly visible advisory committee. But the thing is that it's not just Smart Brief looking for contributors: user-generated content is a huge part of so many companies' weekly and even daily offerings. Look at Social Media Today: all their content is written by unpaid bloggers. Even newspapers now are capitalizing on the hyperlocal trend by including citizen journalists as part of their daily offerings. Webinars--there are tons of them out there, and most content is provided by uncompensated volunteers. Blogs--tons of them rely on guest bloggers for content. And so on.

Content provided by uncompensated volunteers is a great model for businesses: they don't have to pay someone to write/provide it and it's what people want to read/watch/hear: the equivalent of reality TV (sort of). I'm talking about what Chris Brogan called "Everyman": average Joe who will tell it to you straight (presumably) and who we all trust more than we trust ad guys or paid copywriters.

But what happens when "Everman" decides he/she wants to get paid? Or that he/she's tired of companies making a buck off his/her free efforts? Hopefully that's starting to happen more in the mom blogging world, where expecting mom bloggers to blog, tweet and promote for a pack of diapers or a link is starting to get really old.

Is this making any sense at all? Am I the only one who's feeling stretched too thin and wondering whether, in the end, ego strokes are worth tipping the work/life balance cart? At some point will people start deciding they don't want to write or do webinars or speak for free anymore? Or is this nothing new and there's always someone willing to do it?