Answering the “Why is this free?” question

dollar-1175048_960_720You’ve probably heard warnings like “There ain’t no such thing as free lunch” or “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold” as cautions against things being offered for free. I’ve encountered some of that skepticism in my promotion of WordPress for Toastmasters. People are waiting for the punchline, watching for my deep, dark ulterior motive.

It’s not all that mysterious, but let me give as straightforward of an answer as I can.

A little background: My name is David F. Carr, and I’m the prime mover behind the WordPress for Toastmasters project. I spent most of my career as a technology journalist at Internet World, Baseline Magazine, and Information Week and continue to exercise those muscles in my blog on Forbes.com. These days, I make most of my money as a ghostwriter and editor working with business and technology leaders. I’m also the author of a book, Social Collaboration for Dummies, which is about digital productivity strategies for business. The hands-on web development work I do is motivated by a desire to create online experiences that apply the lessons I’ve learned from my study of digital businesses.

My most widely used digital product is an events plugin for WordPress called RSVPMaker. The open source version of the software for Toastmasters I created is RSVPMaker for Toastmasters and the theme that supports Toastmasters branding is Lectern.

Because not everyone who wants to do web marketing for their club is a techie who wants to mess with configuring WordPress plugins and themes, I am offering free websites on something much like the FreeToastHost model. FTH established toastmastersclubs.org as the domain where all club sites are hosted (mysite.toastmastersclubs.org), and I have toastmost.org, where club sites get a web address in the format mysite.toastmost.org.

Which brings us to the why question. Some answers:

  • I’m a raging egomaniac. I’m proud of the software I created, originally for my own club, and want other people to be impressed.
  • Because the WordPress software I built on top of is free and open source, my plugin software had to be free and open source to be distributed through wordpress.org. (There is some wiggle room for “premium” add-ons). I get a tremendous head start from building on WordPress as a the foundation for web content management, and it in turn benefits from the contributions of thousands of volunteers.
  • The free websites for this project are running on a server I’m already paying for, which so far has adequate capacity to spare. If thousands of clubs were to go live on the service, I would have a greater need to offset expenses with advertising, donations, or some other form of revenue.
  • This is an opportunity to make professional contacts with Toastmasters all over the world, some of whom may have a writing, editing, or web consulting project to steer my way.
  • I’m following the same path as the developers of Free Toast Host and Easy-Speak, also volunteer-led projects.
  • I’m crazy: this is one definite possibility I have entertained, on days when I find myself investing time in this project that might be better spent on paying work.

If operating the free hosted club websites sites becomes too expensive, I could close the door to new registrations and still support the “early adopters.” That is, I don’t want to pull the rug out from under anyone who sets up a free site. And I would very much like to make this work on a self-sustaining basis.

Meanwhile, the availability of the open source software means Toastmasters clubs always have the opportunity to operate one of these sites independently. Using the multisite capability of WordPress, districts could potentially host websites for all their constituent clubs. Other sponsors could set up sites on the toastmost.org model anywhere in the world.

Setting the software free creates many opportunities, which I hope you will take advantage of.

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3 thoughts on “Answering the “Why is this free?” question

  1. Personally, I think you should rather recommend that people get their own domain name and inexpensive hosting account. It is more professional. What will happen if you can no longer provide this free service?

    1. First of all, unless I’m run over by a bus or go bankrupt, I would plan to keep supporting any free sites indefinitely even if I closed the offer for new registrations. I’m just trying to be honest about the fact that I don’t have a guaranteed source of revenue to support this project and in theory it could grow to the point where I wouldn’t be able to add more servers etc. on my own nickel.

      I’m not opposed to clubs hosting their own sites. In fact, one potential source of income I do have is a referral fee for clubs that choose to buy their own hosting through A2 Hosting, which has agreed to provide accounts with my plugins and the Lectern theme pre-configured for WordPress. See http://wp4toastmasters.com/hosting-your-own-wordpress-for-toastmasters-website/

      However, from what I can tell most clubs have a website budget of $0. Since FreeToastHost is free, the only alternative they are likely to consider is one that’s free — particularly if they are not convinced it’s any better. Some clubs already have a WordPress website, but on the wordpress.com service (where my plugins for Toastmasters-specific functionality are not available).

      I wanted to make the software available to people who would like access to the online marketing boost WordPress can provide, and the functionality I’ve added, without having to futz with the technical details of configuring a website.

      I recommend that even the clubs that have a techie on the team and the money in the bank start by setting up a free test account to see whether they actually like the software and think it matches the needs of their club. If club officers decide they would rather host their own site, rather than going live on toastmost.org, great. (I’d just ask that they let me know the test site can be deleted if they’re done using it).

      I don’t disagree with you that there’s a branding advantage to having an independent web domain, but it may not be all that dramatic. If you assume most visitors to your site will come to it via search, a social media link, or a referral from the zip code lookup on toastmasters.org, the domain that appears in the browser’s address bar is not all that important. Having good, unique content about what makes your club special — with keywords for the search engines and points of interest for the readers — is far more important to whether you make a strong impression. At that point, the advantage of having your own domain name is more to make it something that looks good on a business card or a brochure.

  2. If it’s still not clear, WordPress for Toastmasters is intended as a service to the community, not as a business venture. The software is free and open source. The service where clubs can sign up for a free site online will theoretically be supported by advertising and donations (just enough that I can operate it at a slight loss, rather than a big loss).

    I’m certainly hoping for some boost to my “personal brand,” but that’s no different from the benefit I might enjoy from volunteering to speak at a TI event or participate in a leadership role of any sort.

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