"Free on the Internet" may be how consumers expect to find content nowadays - and offering a free version of your content online may be one strategy for building awareness - but (as you might expect) it's still tough to convert free into paid sales. As Seth Godin, one of the pioneers of the new digital marketplace for content, points out - free comes with it's own set of problems:
"People walking out of the afternoon bargain matinee at the movies don't cut the film any slack because it was half price. Critics piling on to a music video on YouTube never mention the fact that HEY IT WAS FREE. There is no thrift store for content. Sure, we can get an old movie for ninety-nine cents, but if we hate it, it doesn't matter how cheap it was. If we're going to spend time, apparently, it better be perfect, the best there ever was, regardless of price."
Distributing content has become very inexpensive - but the business of making good films, building awareness and getting consumers to actually pay for that content still requires lots of old-school hard work.
To be financially successful, new world content producers often still rely on the marketing tools of the old economy. As Seth Godin points out: "The only people who should plan on making money from writing a book are people who made money on their last book. Everyone else should either be in it for passion, trust, referrals, speaking, consulting, change-making, tenure, connections or joy."
So - while Seth Godin and Radiohead have demonstrated that content-producers with a loyal fanbase can get consumers to pay for their new content (in a custom package) even if that content is also available elsewhere for free - first time filmmakers can't simply copy Seth Godin's or Radiohead's free marketing strategy and expect the paid sales for a custom edition to follow.
If you don't already have a loyal fanbase, but you can identify potential customers in a niche (your "core audience"), it might make sense to spend your time and money marketing an exclusive PAID version of your content to those potential true fans - maximizing your impact with consumers who will appreciate your work and pay you for it.
According to Seth Godin, "free" is a powerful tool for marketing - but it isn't the only or the first tool that first-timers should rely on: "Free enables your idea to spread, price, on the other hand, signals individuals and often ends up putting your idea in the right place. Mass shouldn't always be the goal. Impact may matter more."