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Conversations at the Office: Free vs Paid Support

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So, new job, new office. New and actually pretty interesting conversations going on. One of the ones I’ve been hearing about is this tension between free vs. paid learning support.

So… context. Right now at least, I’m helping to create basic overview videos on our software for people to watch. Pretty straight forward stuff. But we also have longer form elearning courses that were created (and are consistently updated) that are also free right now. And the tension has been, how do we – how can we draw a line between what we give away for free and what we ask people to pay for?

This actually goes back a bit to a previous post on my own reawakening about we work of instructional design – to get obstacles out of people’s way so that they can do their best work. And it seems like the folks on my team all agree. We’re selling software and we want to give the folks that purchase it (and even the folks with pre-purchase questions) everything they need to be successful. It isn’t fun or sexy software, but if used appropriately, it can really help businesses to look holistically at all of their resources and make better decisions about people and IT. So it’s important.We want them to have what I like to call a cocoon of support. And so it makes sense that we would want to give away basically everything (that is, most of our learning content) for free. I think that’s solid logic (and the basis of content marketing strategies). We want people to be able to use the software, quickly and easily.

At the same time, training on complex software also has monetary value. I consider the example of learning to program. For a long time now, (many) people have had the opportunity to use the Interwebs to gather free resources to learn to program, resources on any language you can think of. And yet online programming sites and in-person (and virtual) bootcamps are thriving. Why? Because it’s hard to try and pull together everything you need to learn to program! Even if every free resource ever was all on one site and all you had to do was search, it would still be up to you to do your own instructional design and create a pathway for yourself. How would you test your knowledge? How would you know you were reading the right articles or working on the right projects for your experience level? Where would you find community? These paid experiences (although some are free, like my beloved Free Code Camp) do all of this work for you. It saves you time; accelerates your learning. So, many people find that it’s worth their money.

I think that has parallels to my work (and perhaps to some of your’s, too – after all, at least some IDs work in customer-facing roles). There’s value in giving away a lot for free, especially if it’s in the context of someone having purchased a product from you. But I don’t think that that excludes creating curated and designed pathways (in particular, when those pathways have assessments) that could be valuable paid offerings.

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