A Curious Model For Online Sites

Oct 26, 2016

I have been involved in Academia.edu since the beginning.

For those of you who do not know it, Academia.edu is a social network for scientists, researchers, and university teachers. Think of it as a Facebook or LinkedIn for geeks, doctoral students, and other brainiacs.

Like many online applications, Academia began as a free service—well, not exactly free. Users were expected to pay for their participation by uploading research documents and publications. This month, however, things changed. Academia introduced a new premium-level membership. For a mere $9.99 a month, users can now get access to additional pay-to-play information and tools.

What is surprising about this development is not the fact that Academia now has premium content. This is a tried and true business strategy used by many of the “freemium” services offered by Google, LinkedIn, Dropbox, and others.

What is surprising is where all these tech companies found this business model. This approach to making money online is not the product of some Silicon Valley think tank. It was developed and tested on the nation’s street corners. This business model comes from the drug trade.

As every dealer knows, the way you build a consistent and loyal customer base is by giving a little away for free and then introducing a price for continued service. So Academia.edu is in good company.

Like Google and LinkedIn before it, they know that the first taste is always free, but after that, you gotta pay.

I’m David Gunkel, and that’s my perspective.