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Making it Work as a Designer: Releasing Free Patterns

I don’t know another subject divides designers quite as much as giving away free patterns. It was unsurprising that it was one of the first discussions in our Facebook group and is a subject that frequently comes up in conversation with other designers.

Free patterns can be a great traffic source for your blog or designs. They can offer a taste of your writing style and are a great way to get your name out there. There is no question that they can also be problematic, creating an expectation that patterns should be free and, many argue, that they devalue the work of a designer.

I've gone back and forth on how I feel about free patterns - wavering from feeling like they are a good thing for my business to feeling like they devalue my work. Ultimately, I have come to view free patterns and tutorials as an integral part of my business model. 

It is important to note that everyone operates a different business model and I am talking about my business where the bulk of my income comes from work with mainstream publishers. Independent pattern design sales in crochet still lag behind those in knitting and while they are an increasing part of my portfolio, its still not reliable income that pays the bills. Free patterns may not work for you and that is ok, we are all trying to make it work in a sustainable way.

I offer a lot of content for free. In fact, my business has been built on it. I see the free content on the blog as a great way to give back to customers and build a platform.  I do a lot of designing and not every pattern is worth money or necessarily saleable or it simply might be a case that offering the pattern for free is more valuable to me than the £ I would make on it.

What makes free content valuable?

  • It gives back to people supporting your work.

  • Free content, especially tutorials and patterns, attract readers which in turn builds your platform.

  • They are shared on sites like Pinterest, Share A Pattern and Facebook more frequently than paid patterns will be (everyone likes a deal).  

  • It positions you as an expert in your area of work.

  • It offers a taste of your style to potential customers. 

  • It acts as advertising for your business.  

Ultimately, I view free content as part of my sales funnel. For those of you not familiar with the term a "Sales Funnel" its a marketing term that describes how clients move from being potential leads to new clients. In blog terms, a "potential lead" translates into blog traffic and for me, specifically people looking for crochet patterns.

For my business, free content falls roughly into 3 categories:

- Lead Generation/Traffic Building: Most of my free patterns fall into this category. They may have been previously published elsewhere or maybe I designed them as a test for something else. Their purpose is to be standalone free content for crocheters.  With decent photos and optimised posts, they are good shareable content, increasing (hopefully) the number of folks visiting this corner of the internet. This is also essential for building a platform so that when I pitch a book or other work with publishers, I have the numbers to prove there is a ready market.

- Linked Content: A number of my tutorials fall into this category.  While they do stand alone, they were usually created to act as a link in a paid-for pattern to help people make the project.  For example, my crochet colour work tutorial and my crochet cables tutorial were both written to be used in paid-for patterns. There are usually 6,000 pre-existing similar tutorials on the internet, but these what makes these valuable is that I am not giving traffic away to someone else and they apply directly to my own work and way of doing things.

- The Next Step: This free content is designed specifically to help crocheters feel comfortable taking the next step in their crochet (and hopefully buy my patterns!).  My tutorial on how to read a crochet pattern is there to help people feel less daunted by my traditionally written patterns. The Lake's Edge hat is written with a similar purpose. 

Loss of Income?

A frequent argument against free content is that it constitutes a loss in income for the designer. There is no question that the time spent on creating free content is time that can't be spent making money. 

There is also the issue of the potential loss of income from what could have been pattern sales. When I released Woolly Owl, I had over 100,000 downloads in the first 6 months. If had charged £1, I could have made £100,000, right? Friends at the time certainly thought I was crazy for releasing it for free and argued as such.  I don't think its quite that straight forward as in my experience free patterns are shared much more frequently than paid for ones, reaching a much larger audience. 

It probably would have made some money, but rather than see it as a loss of income, here is what I see - a viral pattern that was pinned all over the place, that got into the Etsy lookbook for the year and ultimately noticed by a publisher.  While my book advance was nowhere near £100k, it was definitely the best advertising I ever "paid" for...

Another example is Crochet Camp, my online crochet course I ran in 2013.  This free tutorial series made no money at the time, but was crucial in securing one of the biggest clients I have ever had and has paid for itself. 

Ultimately, its up to you to decide whether you want to offer free patterns.  In thinking about what to choose for free subject matter - patterns in the easy to advanced beginner range are usually good choices and kids patterns tend to do well. Take a look at what else is out there and make a decision as to how your free content fits in.  Look at your own content plan and think about what would make a nice addition to your upcoming blog content.  

If you are going to offer patterns for free:

  • Give them the exact same care that you do your paid for patterns.  Your free patterns are often the first impression of your business. It is not the place to dump crappy patterns, if for no other reason than the one below...

  • Be prepared for pattern support.  In my experience, free patterns often require a higher level of involvement than paid patterns. Whether this is simply a numbers game (more people working from it means more people having problems) or if its is a case of people looking for free patterns may have less experience in working from patterns in the first place. 

  • Be clear how it fits into your overall business plan. What exactly is that free content leading people to/ what action do you want them to take after finding the free pattern? Maybe its just growing your general readership, maybe it’s a similar, but more advanced pattern, maybe its showing off a specific skill or technique for a class or as an incentive to sign up to your newsletter.  Whatever it is, be smart.  Highlight other paid for content in the post so people have a clear action to take if they want more.

  • Don’t give the traffic away. For the love of all that is mustard yellow, if you come away from this post with one lesson its this: DON'T GIVE YOUR TRAFFIC AWAY. If you have a post or a pattern that references a specific technique – write the tutorial for that technique and put it on your blog. Don’t link to someone else’s post on the subject if at all possible. Also, if you are going to create free content make sure that it is housed on your own site and not as a separate download (for example a ravelry download).  That way the traffic is being directed back to you.  

Do you give away free patterns? How has it worked for you?

Are you a maker or designer looking for support or advice? Check out our Making it Work as a Designer Facebook Group.

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