David Cameron signalled the end of the “something for nothing” culture when he spoke at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham today. He said that the days are gone when the state would support you if you could work, but decided not to. This is manna to the Tory faithful who really want those good-for-nothing, lazy tykes rounded up and “dealt with”. The Prime Minister is a little less harsh, it seems. But, he has a point; there does appear to be a growing trend for people to live off state benefits because they are more appealing than actually working for a living. Human beings will always choose the easy option, if it is available. We love “something for nothing”.

Which is actually why many websites fail. They are happy to provide something for their visitors, but before they provide it they want a return. In other words, the humble visitor to the website has to take some action, do something, even give something up (such as their personal information) before the website owner will do anything in response. This is not “something for nothing”; it is “something for something else” – one of our less favourable options.

For instance, I do it on this web page. I will provide you with my guide to making profits online, but I expect your email address first. That’s not something for nothing – though in my defence, everything on my downloads page is. You can – with my compliments – download all the stuff there. free of charge, without even letting me know who you are. It really is something for nothing there.

But even if you can get people through a “squeeze page” where you ask for their email address first, before you give them anything, you still have to entice them with your free offer. What should it be? New research from social media scientist, Dan Zarella, shows that the implication of the item offered is important. The least favoured item to give away is some kind of trial. A trial offer suggests that you will in future have to pay for it. That means it is not “something for nothing”, it is, instead, something now for payment later. The most popular item people wanted was some kind of downloadable “kit”. Free ebooks were quite popular, but a complete kit was more highly rated. In other words, a mere ebook, no matter how good, is less attractive to people in the “something for nothing” stakes than an alternative item which provides much more.

Rather like the teenage girls in deprived areas who have another child to get more benefits, we are hooked on getting more and more for free online. We are less likely to want an ebook on its own now, as a free gift – we want the ebook in a “kit”. We are reducing are desire for trials, because that means we will eventually have to pay. And we are disliking the “squeeze page” notion of giving out our email address in return for something.

It all means we are opting for our base instinct of getting as much as possible for as little as possible. We ultimately want everything for nothing, not just something. It means that unless your online business is working out how to give more and more away, yet still make money, you are not likely to do as well as other companies that have squared that circle. To survive online, you need to be giving more and more away free of charge, in return for absolutely no commitment to your company. That is a massive business problem which many businesses have yet to solve.

The online business world is actually heading in completely the opposite direction to the thinking of David Cameron it appears. Unlike the Prime Minister, you can’t turn round to your customers and say they must change their behaviour to something more acceptable. Instead, you have to allow them to keep on wanting more and more for free. Are you prepared for that?

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