Where does technical documentation fit into a “Freemium” business model?

This short video by Penny Power explains the Freemium model and how it applies to her business:

So where does the Technical Publications department fit into this model?

Traditionally, the user documentation has been given away free with a chargeable product. It’s not been chargeable in itself, but people have been required to buy a product in order to have access to it. Today, many organisations are still reluctant to make their documentation freely available on their Web site. It has meant that documentation has been seen as a cost, which has then lead to budgetry pressures upon the Technical Publications department.

Underlying this, is an assumption:

More free technical documentation = Fewer chargeable support and consultancy opportunities

The Freemium model challenges this assumption, offering the potential for:

More free technical documentation = More chargeable support and consultancy opportunities

Can technical documentation really act as funnel to more chargeable services? With Web Analytics, you can test this idea. What’s more, you can use analytics to test different ways for increasing the conversion rate from “free to fee”.

The Freemium model can be difficult for many businesses. It challenges the ideas of property, scarcity and value. If your business does find it scary, be thankful you’re not competing with Google, as it sometimes adopts a “less than free” model!

This does not mean your business should give away free consultancy. It can educate your clients in understanding what is chargeable and what is not. Indeed, it could help you with sales prospecting and qualifying, educating users to:

  • Understand your company’s skills and capabilities
  • See the value of your company’s chargeable services
  • Understand the “ground rules” between you and your prospects.

In our case, we’re always expanding our own knowledge, as well as teaching others. A key part of our company’s culture and identity has been to share knowledge willingly. It helps people get a better understanding of our company, demonstrating our expertise and our areas of knowledge. We do it to challenge people’s thinking, and more importantly, to be challenged ourselves.
We share what we learn and find through a number of means. We share through this blog. We share via our newsletter, for information better suited to dissemination in this manner. We also host peer group mentoring meetings for documentation leaders, and we’re members of other peer groups ourselves. If an organisation wants to call upon external advice or resources, we’d like to think they’d consider using our services.

A Freemium approach may mean that the Technical Publications department has decide what to give away for free and what (if anything) to hold back.  Alongside the technical aspects of publishing different versions and controlling access to them, it raises the issue of what belongs where and what has the greatest value. Again, this is where Web Analytics and, perhaps, usability testing can help you make those judgements.

We welcome your thoughts.



as a technical writer, i believe, the “Freemium” model is something that not only fits in for technical documentation, rather its a necessity. It specially applies to selling softwares, where training the users to use the software for free can be a great marketing tool. While, explaining them how to use it and how it meet their needs, it also reduces the ‘Tech-Phobia’ of a great number of non tech savvy users.
– thanks 🙂

Ivan Walsh

Hi Ellis,

The flipside of this is Magento, who are now selling their User Guide. i never heard a company do this before and no idea what the uptake has been.

Re this business model. I think we’ll see ‘low quality’ providers offer this service as a teaser but larger more established will avoid this model.

I have no problem paying – if the value is there.



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