Kate Atherley examines the thorny issue of the worth of free patterns versus paid – and why they can be worth their while…
There is great debate amongst designers about the value of publishing free patterns. Some feel that to release a pattern for free devalues the work of the knitwear designer. There is concern that free patterns will lead crafters to believe they shouldn’t have to pay for any pattern, ever.
A free pattern is just like a product sample in a supermarket: it’s a way to generate some attention, get people to try out your offering, and provide them with information and enticement to buy something from you.
But there are so many choices out there for a knitter. For any type of project – sweater, sock, scarf, hat, tea cosy – there can be thousands of patterns to look through. Knitters use many criteria to decide which pattern to work. Ease of access is definitely one of the decision factors. If I can get it right away – without having to get out a credit card, or type in a PayPal address – of course it’s going to appeal. And knitters enjoy the preview opportunity offered by the free pattern. If I can look at a pattern in detail to learn more about it – does it offer both charts and written instructions for the cable motif? What is the range of sizes offered? Does it have tutorials for techniques that might be new? – I will be more comfortable with my choice of pattern.
(Now, of course, a designer can provide a more detailed preview by offering detailed notes on the pattern in the information. And no matter what your feelings on free patterns, I strongly encourage providing detailed pattern information to the shopper to help decision-making.)
If a knitter is shopping for a pattern for a particular project and free patterns are available, the knitter is likely to download those patterns anyway, regardless of whether she has the intention of paying for a pattern ( or ends up doing so). A free pattern can provide extra support and information about the project or the skills required, even if that pattern is not the one used.
And a knitter who is just learning, or looking to try something new, might be not ready to make any kind of financial commitment, no matter how small. Free patterns are risk-free – or at least they should be. (More on this below.)
Free patterns are an excellent way for knitters to get to know you and your work. I published a free sock pattern nearly ten years ago and still have knitters tell me their experience with the free pattern encouraged them to try my paid patterns and buy my books. They liked the way the sock fit, and they found my pattern easy to follow, so they felt confident that my other patterns would be similar.
And this is crucial: If you do choose to publish a free pattern, you’ll get the most value if it is representative of your work. That is, if you’re mostly a sock designer, you’re better to publish a free sock pattern than a free shawl pattern. A shawl knitter who gets a free pattern but can’t find another shawl pattern in your offerings will be less likely to make a purchase.
There’s an argument for giving away a more complex pattern, and selling the simpler ones: fewer knitters are likely to take on a more complex project, so you’re actually losing less potential revenue than if you were to publish a free pattern for something simpler. A complex pattern will have higher perceived value, so a knitter is more likely to download and feel they have obtained something significant from you if it’s a pattern for a cabled tam and scarf set rather than a plain stocking stitch hat. And if they value the pattern, they’re more likely to knit it.
Make the pattern representative of your work, too: your free patterns should be just as well written as the ones you expect people to pay for. Indeed, a free pattern should be your absolute best work. It should be a fantastic design, yes, but the pattern itself should be great. The photos should be wonderful, the pattern writing detailed and clear and accurate. Provide tutorials, a detailed glossary, lots of supporting information. A free pattern can be your opportunity to make a first impression, so make it a good one!
The knitter should thoroughly enjoy both the pattern and the knitting process. You want the knitter to be successful with the project so that they feel confident about your other patterns. I pay more attention to the tech editing, photography, pattern layout and graphics for free patterns than I do for paid. If the objective is to get projects onto needles (and your name into conversations in yarn shops and on social media), make sure that it’s mentioned in a positive way.
The goal of publishing a free pattern, ultimately, is sales. So make it easy for the samplers to remember you, to find you, and to buy something.
All free patterns should have a ‘sell’ page showing pictures of your other (paid) patterns. Make sure your name and URL is on every page. You may or may not wish to include your contact information: including an email address will invite questions and correspondence from knitters. If you do, it should go without saying that you should make sure you reply to questions. Again, put your best foot forward. Some designers use a Ravelry discussion group for support questions, rather than an email address. This is your own choice. Either way, make sure they know where to find support. Many of the samplers will be less experienced knitters, and you can expect questions. If you’ve got a sophisticated website and tracking capabilities, use a custom URL to track sales.
Everyone loves to get a free sample, but only a very small percentage of those will make a purchase. Many take the free sample precisely because it’s free. In the crafting world, there are those who simply won’t buy patterns. For some, it’s a philosophical stance, for others it might be a budget question. But if they do take the sample, and this generates social media activity or discussion of your pattern or name at knit-night, there’s definitely value. Although the downloader might not be a buyer, the knitter who sits next to them at knit-night and admires the project may well be. And even if the downloader never buys a pattern, she’s going to know your name, and she might be more inclined to take a class with you, or attend an event you’re appearing at, or a read an article you’ve written in a magazine or on a website. And perhaps if the downloader’s circumstances change, she might buy patterns in the future.
And if it’s all about conversion, to maximize it you need to get the free pattern distributed as wide as possible. If only 1% of the downloaders subsequently buy a pattern, better to have it in the hands of 1,000 samplers than 100. Promote it as many ways as you can, on sites with lots of traffic.
And even if there’s no trackable sales from that free pattern, there can still be an awful lot of value in having completed projects posted on social media, and knitters knowing your name. And free patterns are a very easy way of making that happen.
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