Free services are the most popular way to attract users, but what are you compromising on for this to happen?

The word ‘free’ is still a popular way for many online services to gain the users they need in order to start becoming more than just another blip on the Internet radar. With that enticing offer of being free, most people sign up, use the service and then decide if they want to keep using it or not. The pull of being free can be a powerful thing and like so many things people like it when they get something for free.

In the beginning users of the service are happy. They can’t believe their luck that this service is free and they can use it on a daily basis. They love the new service and sing its praises to their friends who in turn sign up as well. It is free after all. The trend continues and if the service is a hit it can eventually scale to becoming the next big thing.

After a few years, the service owners wants to start making some money, but they don’t want to charge their loyal users for the privilage of using their service. That would be a terrible idea. Instead the service owners decide to change some things about the way the service works. Maybe they limit the API, change a well liked feature to what the service owners think is better (for them anyway) or even just start throwing some ads in. That last one always works right?

Alas the loyal users of the service start to feel like they have been cheated and throw their arms up in the air in objection to the new changes the service are implementing. Just because they have been loyal to the service since its early days, it’s wrongly assumed that the service owners are going to listen to their users. Sadly they don’t. And then an amazing thing happens. Despite the drawbacks to using the service with the new changes they don’t approve of, the users decide to keep using the service. It’s not about free anymore though, it’s about the people your connected to using this service. How will you ever connect to these people without this service?

Clearly I’m taking a few examples from social networks like Twitter and Facebook, but the rules apply to any service that starts out being free and refuses to entertain the idea of a paid account or subscription. The rule is that in order to gain the user base you need to become a smash hit, you need to make your service free for everyone. You need to make it instantly attractive for people to use and that starts with giving it away for free.

It’s a plan that has been played out with many services now and while there have been successful exceptions to this (well done Trello), many free services stick to being free and then try to generate revenue by using brand advertising and promotion or selling data as a product to others.

It’s at this point where the idea of a free account is nothing more than a compromise. In exchange for using the service in question, you must be prepared to accept the changes to the service and continue using it as best as you can. You might not like the changes that the service are implementing but the decision to continue using it or leave the service is down to you. You’re the user after all.

This is the cost of many free services now. If they don’t require something back from you in return now, chances are they will in the future. It’s just a matter of deciding how much you’re willing to compromise on to continue using the service.