October 19, 2017

Value Propositions with Free Services

I see a lot of value in some free services, but why don’t we as consumers value our own privacy, time, and attention in the same way?

I signed up for Google Photos recently because it is free photo storage and the one thing that comes out of having kids is photos. Every time I sign up for a free service these days, however, I struggle with why these types of services exist. Yes, people like free stuff, but in a world where free isn’t really free, you’d think that there would be a different value proposition involved.

This line of thinking was further spurred by an article by Mike Monteiro that I linked to earlier this afternoon, in which Mike discusses the fact that Twitter started out as a rather mundane idea, turned into something that fostered real friendships and connections, and finally became what it is today: a haven for abuse and harassment. The fact is that social media in and of itself should be a rather harmless idea, but instead it has become one that political outcomes and entire wars have been predicated upon.

So why do we as consumers give our time and attention to such toxic places, places that feed on our information and spit out annoyance (in the form of ads) or worse? In my mind, we give our attention to these things because the value proposition of their services would not be enough to pay for with actual money. Twitter in its infancy—the Twitter that Mike discusses at the beginning of his essay— was a place people would be willing to pay to frequent; perhaps, consider young Twitter as an exclusive club, people see its value inherently. A couple dollars a month or more is worth it when you see the value of the relationships formed or, in the case of Google Photos, the output of a service.

In the case of apps, there are basically two options: free apps with ads (or shady dealings) and paid apps that are worth the price. I love well-designed apps by indie developers, so I might be biased on this. The moment an app decides to change from a free with ads or a pay once to a subscription service, there is immediate backlash because the value proposition has changed. Did you know people don’t like change?

Subscription apps, to me, mean that I have to reevaluate the value of an app each time it is up for renewal; I can’t be alone in this line of thinking. Most of the time, especially for the best in class apps that are out there, that value is easy to find, but I have retired my use of others because recurring revenue for the developer or not, my value is placed elsewhere.

In any case, the simple fact is that we consumers don’t value our own attention or privacy that much anymore; those have been commoditized while actual dollars are less available for most of us. I have reclaimed some of that attention by focusing on creating, instead of simply digesting other people’s information. Yet, Google Photos is worth the lack of privacy because there are a lot of photos and they have astounding technology that helps to categorize and surface good photos within a large collection. In addition to all the technological marvel, the service is free.

So will I regret signing up for Google Photos? Almost assuredly. So why did I sign up for it in the first place? Peace of mind. All of my digital photos (reaching as far back as 2003) are backed up and I don’t need to worry about losing them. I’ll check back in when that sentiment changes.

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