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The Business of Free

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We all like free stuff. Whether it's free food at an event or free resources to help your business out, everyone loves their freebies. Free stuff has always been popular and it's been proven that people want it--no matter what it is--as long as it's free. The core aim of this in-depth article is to talk about how one can build a business around it, and why you should try it. I will go through the process of how I increased my traffic ten-fold, got close to 500 new members over night and how I use the tools available like social media and search engines to promote my freebies. So what you say, shall we get started?


Before you Start - Consider This

Your first impulse will be to check the market: is there enough room for me and what qualities do my competitors share? However, in the world of free there's not as much need to check your market as the market will always be there; whether it's 1,000 unique hits a month or 2 million unique hits a month there's still a market for free. While the market share isn't something one should focus completely on, the most important thing to consider is the quality: what type of quality do the competitors offer and how much do you need to step up your game.


Find your Niche

Consider upping your skills a bit. Work on the things you feel you need to work on. Find your personal style and stick with it. Make use of social media and online galleries to show off what you've got. This is also a great way to drive traffic to the site you operate.


Be Original

Though it might be hard at times, keep in mind that it's your own personal style that defines what's original. It's not the type of item you create or event you host. It is extremely important to stick with your style rather than trying to copy someone else's. If your style isn't up to par, work on it some more. Make use of new techniques to really pick up your game. Make it work for you.

Remember that the business of free applies to the offline world just as much as it does for the online world. It all depends on how you handle a situation and keep in mind that not everyone will be a fan of your work. If you host an art gallery, consider offering something other than free hors d'oeuvres and drinks. Maybe offer all guests a small gift basket with a photo of one of the artworks, your business card, a catalogue with information about the art and maybe even a customized pen. It's not much but people will gladly accept the gift and you do some subtle advertising for your gallery while you're at it.

If you host an event of sort, the same rules applies here. Give something away for free and you will get new visitors to your work and might even increase the customer base. If not, then you at least got your name out to a lot of people and that counts for something.


Where to Offer and How?

There's tons of places to offer your free stuff, especially if you're a designer or developer. There are sites like Dribbble, Creattica, and Forrst where one can not only share free stuff, get feedback, but also get inspiration from other designers and developers alike. These places are great to start with, but what if you gets many likes and a number hits on your free resources? It might be time to offer them somewhere else. Maybe your own site. But what are the pros and cons of doing so?

While some might consider it a hassle hosting them on your own site, it might still be worth it in the long run. I personally know of freelancers who gain a lot of freelance work by doing so. I do it, a few of my friends are doing it and many more.

With my new domain, the traffic has increased 10-fold, clocking in on over 3-4,000 impressions every day. While that might not sound like much, I still make money doing so with advertising and affiliate links to various sites.

For example, for some time I used my personal domain for sharing free resources and the traffic went up and down all the time. I figured it had something to do with my domain. That turned out to be correct. With my new domain the traffic has increased 10-fold clocking in on over 3-4,000 impressions every day. While that might not sound like much, I still make money doing so with advertising and affiliate links to various sites. Now, I don't say it has been easy, in fact, it's been a lot of work and sleepless nights to get everything up and running properly. With the launch of my new site I even put together a team of designers who shares their own free resources on my site, and it has helped them with traffic, sales, publicity and even a few clients for freelance work.

However, managing a team, creating free resources, reviewing and writing...it takes up a lot of my time. Some days I work 16 hours and others I only have to work 5-6, but it all depends on a lot of things. Managing a team that is spread out all over the world might sound like a daunting task, but it's still a lot of fun. The best part of creating freebies is that I get to do what I love--I'm in charge of what I create and can share it with people who may not have found my work otherwise. That makes all the sleepless nights and 16 hour workdays worth it.

I'm not saying you should hire a team to start, but if you encounter success you should consider taking it to the next level. Share them on your own site or on other sites where you can get more direct benefit from sharing free resources. If done correctly it might become a success quickly and help you land a job or two.


Make Preparations

Preparation is important for all jobs and projects, even in real life we make preparations: what food to buy, where and how to go on vacation, etc. Preparing freebies is not much of a difference really, as it still involves planning ahead, making predictions and preparing the files before you publish them. I've compiled a small list of necessary preparations and in which order I take them.

  • Plan ahead - Get a list of ideas down on paper and work from there.
  • Research - Is this something you would find useful? If the answer is no, start over with something you have use for.
  • Organize - Create a new folder where you want your freebies to be. Keep it organized for your own sake.
  • Wireframe - Do some outlining on a piece of paper or wireframe in Photoshop or the editing software of your choice.
  • Design/Develop - Start with the new item you have decided on or that is next on the list.
  • Keep it Organized - Keeping the source file organized and properly named is very important, not only does it help you locate the layer you need to fix but it also helps the people who downloads it.
  • Save -> Zip -> Upload -> Share - Save regularly to avoid any lost progress if a crash or other error occurs, zip the file and find a place to upload it to.

I realize everyone has a different workflow when preparing files and such, but these are my suggestions that have treated me well in the past and has continued to do so. If you don't have a workflow yet, then it's time to look into that before you start. It helps to have a steady flow when creating anything from freebies up to client work. If you practice the preparations regularly they will stick. After a while, you can do them in your sleep.


Bundles - Yay or Nay

If you're anything like me, you love bundles. Premium or free, it's still very fun to really look into what is included. However, I rarely buy a premium bundle unless there's more than 3-4 applications or files I really want or need. And for me a free bundle is not much different really, even though it's free I might still not download it unless there's something I really need in it. Though bundles in general has had a real impact on the design, gaming, applications and development community there still are some drawbacks to it. Let's compile a list of pros and cons shall we?


Pros

  • Exposure - This is the biggest pro of them all, exposure helps in the long run and really helps you get started.
  • Fun & Interesting - Let's be honest, it's a lot of fun with bundles and even more so when one's part of them.
  • New Market - Also part of exposure. You will reach a new market that never has seen any work from you in the past or maybe never heard of the products you offer.
  • Free Advertising - Another big reason why a bundle is good for exposure. Your products, free or premium, gets exposure and it will most likely increase the turnaround for all items you have.
  • Reputation - If the items included in the bundle is of high quality and easy to use then you can expect a reputation of keeping high quality throughout what you do. This also helps with turnaround.
  • Winning - As Charlie Sheen would say, it's winning. Read a bit further down to get what I mean.

Cons

  • Expectations - Some expectations might be lowered. People might expect everything you release for a discounted or free price.
  • Exposure - Yes, this is also a drawback but not as much as pro. However, there's something called too much exposure. Combined with lowered expectations or a bad product, this can have a negative impact on your business.
  • Wrong Target - If you don't do any research before entering, you might end up targeting the wrong market and waste your time.
  • Reputation - Low quality items lead to a lower quality reputation. Remember to keep a steady quality, no matter if there's free or premium items you offer. Keeping consistent quality throughout will help in the long run.

I'm well aware that not everyone agree with me on the pros and cons but let's keep it real: if it's the wrong bundle or simply the wrong time, there's a bigger loss than one might think. For a bundle to succeed it should contain materials that's relevant to the market it targets.


What about my own bundle?

Anyone can put together a bundle but there are more drawbacks here than pros, unfortunately. Unless it's a free bundle and marketed properly you won't reach the expected numbers and might lose in the end. Make sure the bundle is relevant to your profession and that you target the market most relevant to your business. This will help with exposure, traffic and advertising as people will Tweet, Stumble, Digg or Like it on Facebook and therefore share it with all their friends. In turn, it can gain more traction than you first intended.


Traffic - Up, Down or Steady?

In the beginning of a bundle you can expect a lot of traffic as people are interested in knowing more about you. This is also a perfect opportunity to really market your other products or services. With a lot of buzz, visitors will be more likely to look at them and it will increase your turnaround quite a bit. Speaking from my own experience you need to make sure that the ads don't take up too much space or are too many as this will decrease, not only your turnaround but also your traffic. Keep it clean and simple, you gain more in the long run doing so.

Depending on for how long the bundle runs you will most likely see a drop in traffic once the bundle is over or it has been available for a while. There's no need to worry though, as your followers and subscribers are most likely to increase a lot during the bundle you can be pretty sure that the traffic will keep a steady pace and one can also expect some spikes in traffic every time you release a new freebie or product. This also helps a lot with turnaround for services or freelance work. To put it simply, even though one can expect drops in traffic, over time it's still a winning combination both for you and the people who follows you.


Marketing - How to do it

If you offer freebies like I do then it might hurt quite a lot to pay for advertising of your site, especially if you don't make any money from your site yet. From my own experience the best advertising is the free advertising. Make use of Twitter, Facebook, StumbleUpon, Digg and other social networks. If you're active enough and keep a professional appearance you gain followers, subscribers and retweets or Likes. It all depends on how you do it and if you're active enough to gain exposure this way. Don't worry if you have a low follower count, it will increase in time and help you gain more than it costs you.

 Keep in mind that you need to target the appropriate market.

You can still pay for advertising if you have the funds for it but keep in mind that you need to target the appropriate market when doing so. If you target the wrong market, or simply advertise on the wrong site, you shouldn't expect a lot of results in traffic increase nor impressions. However, you should also keep in mind that the ad itself should be attractive enough for people to click it. In short, you should utilize the tools available for marketing.


My Process - How I do it

Everyone has a different process when working on a design or when developing, but not everyone does, and I figured my personal process might come in handy for people who needs some help with this subject. My process is mine, and there's no guarantees it will work for you but hopefully you can at least get some inspiration for your own work.


Planning & Research

When I plan a new freebie, I have a look at my total downloads for all my freebies and then I look at them individually to see what's more popular than others. This way I can get an understanding of what might become a top contender, one of the most popular freebies. One thing I have noticed is that icons and glyphs are very popular and have been on top of my list since I published them. I have also done surveys on Facebook and the result have always been the same: people want to see buttons and other web elements (including icons) over other content.

Most of the time I have a look at my list of various freebies I have created to see what I have waiting and if I can utilize an existing design the way I want. However, if I see that there's not much market for a type of freebie, I revisit what I have already done and recreate it or create another version of it. You can do many variations on a single item.

When I have decided what type of freebie that would be suitable enough I tweet and write on my Facebook wall to build expectations and to make sure my followers stay alert. Write teasers and share previews. I can make sure that a spike in traffic happens when the freebie is finally published.


Presenting & Packing the Files

When I design a freebie I usually make sure that the packaging (preview image) is clear enough to really show what type of file it is. I try to avoid any unnecessary clutter and to make it as clean as possible. That way people clearly see what it is and if they have any use for it. I also make sure to write a short description about the file and how it's built to ensure that one clearly see that the layers are properly named and grouped.

For packaging I just zip the files together with my Terms and Conditions text file. I pack the Terms and Conditions with all my freebies to make sure users read it. I have a separate page for it on my website, but you would be surprised if you knew the low pageviews for it. I've found that the most effective way is to include a .txt file with my license information inside the main zip file. This way users always have it close at hand if they are unsure where and how to use it within limits of my Terms and Conditions.

Plus, it helps them remember where they downloaded the file and who created it. In the Terms and Conditions text file, I have left links to my Twitter, Facebook and Google+ profiles. This has proven to be an effective way to gain new followers and likes as it makes it easier for everyone to find me and my site.


Upload - Where & Why

One thing to consider is where to host the files you share, especially when traffic increases. If you host them on your own server the memory and traffic might overload your server which can, in worst case scenario, lead to your site going down. Personally I use Amazon's S3 server for hosting all my freebies, that way I can avoid any unnecessary downtimes and make sure my website works as fast as usual. Just note that using S3 for files is a premium alternative and one has to pay to use it.

I know that there's a lot of other file hosting companies around and some are better than the others, but I have found Amazon's S3 service both affordable and reliable for my needs. Best of all, it's fast and easy to set up. For most other services one has to pay a monthly fee that's been set from the start, but with S3 you pretty much pay as you go and that's the reason to why I have found it affordable enough for me to use.


Marketing - Utilize the Tools Available

Once you have uploaded your freebie and have it published it's time to market it. This is where social media in general comes into play, with billions of people using social media it's a great and free tool to use for marketing. A word of warning though, don't over-market your freebies or products. Over saturation can turn customers off. You will lose more than you gain that way. Keep it simple and random.

When I have published a freebie, I tweet it, post it on Facebook and Google+. This way it gets exposure from three places at once and with my 1500+ followers in total, it get good traffic from the start with a decent amount of retweets, likes and +1's. Now, not everyone has 1500+ followers but there's an easy way to still get decent traffic. Make the tweets and status updates engaging enough for people to click on them. They'll only share it if they check it out for themselves. Instead of only publishing the name of the freebie with a link, make time for it, write an engaging update that will urge people to click it.

Example 1 (bad): Music Player (PSD) by @LarssonPatrik - http://bit.ly/somelink

Example 2 (good): Go download this amazing new #freebie by @LarssonPatrik, it's well worth it - Music Player (PSD) http://bit.ly/somelink

Notice that in the second example I made use of a so called hashtag (#) and made the tweet more interesting and personal than the first example. With this practice you might increase the clickthrough rate with around 50% or more and that leads to decent traffic, no matter how many followers you have. And if people like your work they will follow you or at least subscribe to your RSS feed.

A newsletter is also a popular solution when it comes to getting good traffic, but more about this further down.


Branding - Why it's Important

I think most of us can agree that a brand is important and that it helps when building a business. However, there are things to avoid and to consider when building a brand. Now, I won't go into every detail of what to avoid nor consider with brands, but instead I'll share how I did it and why it worked for me. Keep in mind that this is a very simple overview of brand management to get you started with freebies.

There's one thing I find important for a brand and that is to keep it consistent. You should have a simple logo, if you don't already. Logo and graphics should be similar in style, preferably use the same font and colors. But there's a couple of things to avoid. First, the logo shouldn't be over complicated or too flashy, keep it discrete and subtle. That way you focus more on the content than it's brand. Second, keep everything easily accessible. This goes for pretty much everything from the content and all the way up to the logo itself. It should be visible but not too visible. It should be discrete but not too discrete.

A brand should be related to your market. If you share freebies or other resources, you should make sure the name is suitable for the market you're targeting. If it's not targeting the proper market, people might lose interest in your business or even find it confusing. We want it to be straight forward and to the point.

Make it personal. Even if it's a brand for your company or business, keep it personal. More precisely, do it in your own personal style. This not only helps when picking a name but if it's simple enough, it will be easier to remember for everyone.

Personally I share Photoshop resources and other useful items. And with the above in mind I figured I'd do a brand that represents me and the freebies I share but still match the team I'm working with. What I did was that I contacted a few designers with a similar style to my own, asked them if they wanted to join my team and get extra exposure in return. Most of them said yes and I got to work. I needed a name that represented what we were doing but still simple enough to remember.

After giving it some thought I settled with a name I already owned the domain for and went from there. Found a theme suitable for my needs, plugins to help me get all planned features of the ground, and got work. As me and my team deals a lot with pixels and we all have a simple style when designing, I combined these two characteristics and formed the name, Simply Pixels. It's easy to remember, packs a punch and it represents our market.



Revenue - Monetize the Site

Revenue is an important part of almost every website. Without some type of revenue, it can be quite expensive to run a high traffic website. This is something I took into account before doing anything else. I needed an effective way to monetize my site to make money from giving away things for free. It took a while to figure it out but when I did, everything came together nicely for me.

Here's how I did it. First I started to look around for membership plugins for WordPress and eventually I found a great one. This has not only helped me build up a member section where members gets exclusive freebies and various offers that non-members do, but also a decent conversion rate. When signing up, which takes 30 seconds, one can sign up for my newsletter where I send out notifications about my premium products and feature a couple of my most popular freebies. Even if this is not a weekly newsletter but only sent out when I feel something's worth featuring or putting extra focus on it still give a decent conversion.

A newsletter not only comes in handy when promoting products or deals, but it also help you with a steady flow of visitors and conversions for your freebies and products. If it contains relevant and interesting enough content it will increase the interactions with it's content. That is what brings conversion rates up and help you keep a steady flow in traffic every month or when you decide to send it out. A word of warning though, if you send out a frequent newsletter, don't let it be too often as people will find it annoying and will unsubscribe.

Feature your newsletter at a place where it's easy to spot and interact with it. Keep the signup process easy and accessible for everyone. Fill each newsletter with relevant and valuable content. Keep the unsubscribe button visible but discrete, we don't want people to unsubscribe but still want them to be able to if desired.


Finishing Up

After all this, you are hopefully ready to try offering freebies of your own.  To really finish it off, I decided to do a small but exclusive freebie for you all to enjoy. For Tuts+ Premium members, I've created a few social icons, fully layered PSD, beautiful and clean colors, 2 different sizes: 32x32px & 48x48px and to top it off, it's 100% resizable! Thank you for reading and I hope you found some useful information.


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