Is Free Content Really Free?

This a tale of a free burro.

Free burro day, or is free content free?

On a mediocre night while I was skimming through Facebook, I saw that a friend of mine was planning to attend a giveaway event next week at a Mexican restaurant in town: Free Burro Day.

“Burros!” I exclaim. “Those are bigger than burritos!”

Because I’m cheap, I planned my whole schedule around a lunch that would take thirty minutes tops.

Was I wrong.

I walked up to find the line out the door, a lumpy line that stretched to the street and slithered through every patch of shade on the concrete.

I got in line. Good thing I always carry a book on me for emergencies like this.

Book in purse, or is free content really free?
Books save lives. And me from boring, awkward moments.

So I waited. And stood. And read. And inched forward.

After forty minutes of waiting and one long chapter almost complete (it was a really long chapter), I made it inside to the second phase of the line where it weaves back and forth. Was I waiting for the latest roller coaster at Cedar Point?

Roller coaster line, or is free content really free?
This is how long the line felt when I entered the restaurant.

You get the point.

When I (finally) reached the ordering counter, I asked for my free burro to go.

“Sorry,” the employee says. “Free burros can only be consumed in the restaurant.”

“I didn’t see that written in the advertisement,” I said.

He ignored me. “Can I see your right hand please?”

“I think it’s my left you want to see,” I teased. I inched my hand over cautiously.

Without permission, he uncapped a black marker and smudged an X across my hand.

“What’s that for?” I said.

“To make sure you don’t get in line for another burro.”

“I’m disappointed you couldn’t trust me,” I said.

“Next in line.”

It wasn’t long before my burro was delivered to my table, but was that burro really free?

A tale of a free burro, or is free content really free?
The right amount of deliciousness (free chips not pictured).

In an age where content is king, many companies are using the power of free content to increase business. It seems like a win-win for both customer and company: The customer gets free information and the company gets business from the customer.

But is it really a win for the customer? Is that free content really free?

Sometimes. But in most cases, no.

Remember the burro? I didn’t pay a dime for it. But I did pay with sixty minutes of my time, unwanted ink on my hand and surrendering my choice to eat my burro in the comfort of my own home.

I didn’t pay with cash, but there was a price to getting that burro. There were strings attached.

This is true for many companies who offer free content. In order for me to download that free white paper or free ebook, you only* have to give the company your name, your address, your email address and your phone number.

*sarcasm implied*

This information, through tiny font disclaimers or not stated at all, lands you on email campaign lists and in a call queue that rings you at 7 in the morning.

At least you can unsubscribe from an email.

We need to stop associating “free” as meaning “not costing any money.” If the customer must exchange something in return for the free content, then the content is not free.

Because the customer pays a price for free content. Personal information must be handed over like dollars in exchange for the “free” content.

Many customers will see through this charade. And they will not like it.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how good that burro is. It will still leave a bitter taste in your customer’s mouth. And they may not return.

I’ll be thinking twice before downloading “free” content—and standing in line for another free burro.

What do you think? Is free content really free? Share your insights below.


  1. I had to type in my email just to make a “free” response!

    Great point, here. There is always a cost to everything…what is your time worth to you? What is the social cost? Etc.

  2. There are costs related to all decisions, all choices. Some costs and consequences we can see, some are hidden. At least you got a yummy burro out of the deal 😀

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