Free samples, whether from a grocery store, makeup counter or a newsstand, are largely welcomed by consumers. Give people a chance to sample great products without putting down a dollar and watch the line of waiting customers curve around the block. Aside from the free good itself, consumers will often experience a warm feeling for the manufacturer supplying it, “They really do care!” Companies (retailers, publishers, etc.) know this, and maintain the freebie as an act of goodwill, opposed to what it really is: a bite to inspire consumers to buy the entire package.

Today, The Wall Street Journal opens the gates of its paid wall, allowing viewers to access every article on its site without agreeing to a subscription. The key icons, which normally accompany original or more provocative WSJ content, have disappeared. The free access is sponsored by Citbank; a click-through ad for its Thank You Reward Cards is nestled against WSJ’s “The Wall Street Journal Online is Free Today” banner cresting the top of the home page.

No doubt Wall Street Journal’s page views will spike throughout the day, as word about the free content spreads in the Venn diagram of the social sphere. No doubt these page views will be integrated into overall numbers for the month of November and later used in pitches for advertising partners. But the bigger question, the question that will likely remain unanswered in hard numbers from WSJ, is whether or not this free access will sell subscriptions.

As publishers begin to total up digital sales, free downloads are often included in the tallies. This certainly makes the digital scape appear more appealing, with promise of larger revenue and greater audience engagement. But after the giveaways are over, the numbers often recede (as we all know, just because someone downloads a free issue doesn’t mean they open their wallets to purchase a subscription).

In a recent CircMatters Special Report, Jack Hanrahan takes a close look at the state of digital circulation. Hanrahan cites 32 magazines reporting a digital circ of over 15,000 to ABC for first half 2011. He then analyzes those magazines with a “true paid” circulation, compared to those who include partnership subs, sponsored subs and verified individual use copies in their total numbers.

After this parsing, 8 out of the top 10 magazines originally claiming the highest downloads weren’t included in the new top ten who could claim 100 percent “true paid” numbers. In fact, only 10 of the original 32 titles were able to make this claim at all.

Giving out free content is undoubtedly a decision that should be made by individual publishers; unfortunately, when one publisher does it, others are forced to follow. At the FOLIO: Show, Peter Moore, editor of Rodale’s Men’s Health, made no secret of his disappointment in major players like Conde Nast choosing to bundle digital editions with their print subs. By doing so, audiences become accustomed to receiving products for free – setting up a precedent other publishers may not have chosen for themselves, but one that audiences now expect.

So while free may sell, and free may boost numbers, it remains important for publishers (and advertisers, and consumers) to weigh the price of free. After doing so, the publishing world may find itself agreeing with Moore when he said, “Free sucks. We should get rid of free.”

New Ecommerce and Paid Content Models
Check out this related session at The Folio: Show, November 1-2 in NYC!

Media companies responding to challenges in advertising are looking harder than ever at ecommerce, both selling products to readers and…