Crisis in the free content model over @ Smashing Magazine

One of the most popular free content magazines for the web design community, the German run Smashing Magazine, appeared to go slightly crazy yesterday, redirecting all of its pages to an urgent plea asking readers to buy a special ebook ” for 9.90 to help keep the magazine afloat.smashing-magazine-book The move to redirect all of the magazine’s content to this donation page, albeit temporarily (the magazine is back online normally at the time of writing) caused a lot of justifiably negative comments, as did the choice to sell an ebook of material the majority of which is already available online.

The redirect was certainly not good for pr, but it remains to be seen if it was good for donations – probably, as for a limited amount of time it became the focal point for all visitors to the site. To those who argue that a simple donation banner should have been used, the response is simple – how often do you read website banners (particularly when they include a price tag). There’s even a term coined for our ability to screen them out – banner blindness

As for the book vs donation argument, it’s obviously much easier to put a $9.90 price tag on a book graphic, even if in effect the majority of the material is already available online free. The mistake here, in my opinion, is the way the whole move was done including the urgency, and the knock-on effect it may have for genuine books produced by the magazine remains to be seen (they currently have a number of great books including Smashing WordPress: Beyond the blog and Smashing Javascript). It would be better to raise less money through a transparent donation system rather than having a purchase where people part with their cash and may – despite it being clearly described as already existing content – be dissapointed with the results. What-s the likelihood of them buying other books from Smashing Magazine then?

The wider issue though is the question it raises about free content. If these guys, who have been so innovative in many ways, can’t manage to keep afloat, what hope is their for the less web-savvy media to turn a profit while giving away their content for free?

In reality, though, as I’m sure the magazine editors would admit themselves, this is a story of a rapid expansion that has run into problems, not least of which were the spiralling costs of their first book publishing venture – an effect surely of dipping their toes into an unknown territory. You live and learn (and in fact their latest books are being published by John Wiley and Sons).

So rather than signalling a complete failure of the free content model, this is a work in progress to harness the fremium model as described by Chris Anderson in his book Free: The future of a radical price . How Smashing Magazine weathers the financial storm remains to be seen, but the fact that it’s free already brings two important things to the table during this pr fiasco. 1) The brand is unlikely to suffer significantly from its poor decision regarding the redirect and ebook sale, because it consistently offers great free content. Despite the uproar from some readers, it’s hard to imagine them shunning the magazine because of it – something which would be very different in a non-free context, and the brand is what will make money through associated ventures, and 2) Because the magazine is free, it has built up a huge and largely loyal following. Many people commented that they have bought the ebook even knowing that it’s not original content. If you can provide quality paid-for content – in ebook format, for example -harnessing that loyalty to make the magazine profitable should be easy to do.

Here’s hoping that the magazine gets through these growing pains, and learns some lessons from the reactions of their readers. It-s a great resource.