How scary is free? Downloads are crippling the music industry and movies are free online before they turn up in movie theaters. Even brands are getting into free in a big way. Krispy Kreme offers free coffee on Inauguration Day and Diesel offers free hot showers at a Dutch music festival. You get the picture. As consumers get more demanding and more fixed on value, companies are learning how to play the free card.

While the idea of free goes way beyond the Internet, the Web has sure convinced millions of young people that free is simply the way it is. Will free fade away? No way. One of the oddest ideas I’ve heard recently was from a guy who was looking at ways to monetize free! Good luck, mister.

A smarter way to get ahead of free was launched recently by The Guardian. Their Open Platform will give third parties free access to a huge amount of content (they’re talking over one million articles) from The Guardian to incorporate into their own sites. The ambition is amazing: to put The Guardian’s content into the fabric of the Internet – an Internet where most people find stuff through search ad links rather than nicely controlled home pages. The Guardian is also releasing the top sets of their publicly-available data. If you want to know who’s drinking all the champagne or the running totals of the U.K. bank bailouts, you can know as much as The Guardian by accessing Data Store.

So how does The Guardian expect to benefit from letting its cultural capital fly out the window? For a start, by accelerating its brand worldwide. The Guardian has a flying start. It has online expertise – at the 2008 British Press Awards was named website of the year. It has a long history of activism and advocacy. It has writers and commentators who aren’t afraid to be provocative. Open Platform is an opportunity to reach more people with The Guardian’s ideas and curated points of view. This is why people started newspapers in the first place: to give the news and set it in context. An important part of that context is who is doing the telling, aka The Brand. The Guardian has had a good look at itself and realized what business it’s in: the ideas business, not the print-on-paper business or even the news business. Newsprint was an historical legacy, not the core of the enterprise. Ideas could just as easily be passed on over the Internet, or by one person talking to another.

The Guardian is unleashing itself as a free spirit online. Free content with brand and advertising attached. Working with free, not against it. We’ll be seeing a lot more of this. I’ll be watching the evolution of free very closely. Come to think of it, I’m involved in it right now by publishing this blog.

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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