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There ain’t no such thing as a free service—for long

by Sunir Shah | September 20/2010 | freemium

A penny for your thoughts

I recently read the legitimate complaints of Eric Goldman about Scribd’s new Archive Subscription premium service. For those not aware, Scribd is a fantastically popular document sharing site that made Word and PDF files viewable inside a web browser, which was not really easy before Scribd. Until recently the service was completely free to use, which no doubt helped it grow superpopular.

Through the end of summer, Scribd introduced what it called a premium feature called Scribd Archive Subscriptions. After some period of time (apparently two months), if you need to download the original document, you have to buy a Scribd Archive Subscription. Readers will only be able to read the document on Scribd.com or on a suitable ereader.

For thousands of users like Eric and others who relied on Scribd to store and share their documents with their audiences, this was a huge shock. These authors and contributors had sent their readers to Scribd and now Scribd was exploiting their documents to generate money. What’s more, by making it difficult to download documents, Scribd had changed the expectation of why they sent readers to Scribd.

Scribd made this more difficult on themselves by making it an opt-out program. I bet they were nervous when they flipped the switch.

You are not the customer

I understand why Scribd had to do this. In fact, their VP of Marketing, Tammy Nam wrote a very honest guest editorial on the Huffington Post: they need to make money to cover their operational costs. Wildly successful and wildly expensive, they really need to ramp up revenue to be profitable and they don’t yet know what to do to get there.

I cannot blame Scribd for this decision, nor should you. There is one thing I have learnt dealing with free services. Until they know what their business model is, you can’t know who they are. They can tell you what they think they will be, but it doesn’t matter. We all become defined by how we earn our daily bread.

While everyone else is jumping on Scribd, let me turn the tables on their users. The only reason Scribd’s story was so dramatic was that it had an unstable relationship with users from the beginning. Here’s a true fact: when “users” pay nothing for a service, they are not the customer.

Fight for your right to pay

It’s simple, really. If your business depends on a service, pay for it. If Scribd won’t take money from you, use a subscription document sharing service like OfficeDrop. Then you know how the company earns its living. From you! You will be the customer.


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