What are the secret rewards of free?

The joy of reading is finding a book that challenges, grips you and encourages you to make changes to your life. I also read a lot of trash that does none of the above but are still enjoyable, it is just when you find a book like this you want to shout about it.

One such book is Drive, by Daniel H Pink, that looks at how we motivate people. One of the chapters starts with story:

Imagine it’s 1995. I would like to test your forecasting powers by describing two encyclopedias.

The first comes from Microsoft. It is going to fund this encyclopedia. It will pay professional writers and editors to craft articles on thousands of topics. Well compensated managers will oversee the project to ensure it’s completed on budget and on time. Microsoft will then sell the encyclopedia on CD-ROM and later on-line.

The second encyclopedia won’t come from a company. It will be created by tens of thousands of people who write and edit articles for fun. These hobbyists won’t need any special qualifications to participate and absolutely nobody will be paid to write or edit articles. Participants will have to contribute their labour, sometimes twenty and thirty hours a week, for free. It will only exist online and will be free – no charge for anyone who wants to see it.

Now imagine it is modern day. Which will be the biggest in the world and which will be defunct? In 1995 I doubt you would have found a single person who would not have picked the first model. The incentives were all wrong for the free offering as everyone involved in that project knew that success would bring them nothing. In fact it would cost them something.

So what happened? In 1995 Microsoft pulled the plug on MSN Encarta while Wikipedia ended up becoming the largest and most popular encyclopedia in the world.

Edward Deci explains that human beings have an inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capabilities to explore and learn.

I like this. Cold hard cash is never something to turn your nose up at, but I agree with this ethos that a challenge or opportunity to create a legacy is a stronger driving force. They are certainly skillsets that we look for when recruiting people at Berkeley PR.

The story also reminded me of the excellent work that Barbara French does with her blog and analyst database. There are a number of expensive (and frankly not very good) analyst relations databases out there but she has bucked the trend by creating a community analyst database.

Barbara has created a free information resource looking for experts on the tech and telecoms market. She openly encourages user to send her updates, add comments about their dealings with analyst firms and sends out regular updates via her Twitter feed to highlight changes. She also does this on top of the day job.

So what motivates Barbara to do this? Having never discussed this with her I wouldn’t like to put words in her mouth but having read Drive would suggest it is the motivation offered by intrinsic reward that drives her forward. She isn’t working on this directory for commercial benefit but simply because she finds it gratifying to provide a service to the community and enjoys it. The joy of creating the database is in itself its own reward.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a similar media list service presented itself? It would certainly save many PR companies many thousands of pounds each year.