The Babbel Blog

language learning in the digital age

Limits of the “Free” Internet

Posted on November 9, 2009 by

Markus Witte“Free” is the most important keyword on the World Wide Web. It implies “free of charge”. Babbel has been “free” in this sense for almost two years. More than 500,000 users have registered for the platform. Now, with the release of Babbel 2.0, we start charging. Why? Might this seem unfair? Shouldn’t the internet – and education in general – be free for all? So many other sites seem to show that this model works.

Our plan, in fact, was to partially finance Babbel with advertising. We intended to provide a “freemium” product that would have a basic version that was public, while providing additional premium content for those who might want to dig deeper. But now we see this just doesn’t work. It simply is not possible to build a high-quality online learning environment while simultaneously selling ad space effectively.We tried to bring these two objectives together. But ultimately we had to accept that a business model appropriate for social networks and news services is plain wrong when applied to online education.

Babbel is now one of the first online services to decisively abandon this antiquated idea of “free”. We certainly still want to make the world or at least the interneta better place, but we no longer think that we can do so using online advertising. In this (admittedly epic) blog postI’d like to give some background about our decision and some words on some related, internet-wide changes.

Free as in “Free Sharing” or as in “Freebie”?

The internet does provide a number of highly valuable things for free. Software such as the Linux operating system or the Mozilla browser belongsto this category, as well as some online encyclopedias and communities. It’s wonderful how many useful things you can find onlinethat are absolutely free. This is thanks to a combination of internet technology, on the one hand, and the selfless dedication and idealism of a great number of people all over the planet on the other.

But beyond these truly free services, there are a great number of websites, as well as search engines, freemail, and a good portion of online dictionaries and social networks, that are sponsored by ads. In contrast to Open Source software and Creative Commons, where developers and authors often work for free, ad-sponsored services are designed to make money – and they do.

What’s Wrong with Ads?

Of course, making money is not necessarily a bad thing. But ads can have drawbacks for users of these sites, some of which are obvious and some of which are not so apparent.

The most striking downside of advertising is the ads themselves. They have to attract attention, so they are flashy. They are constantly evolving to keep us from becoming immune to them. The objective is consistently to draw our attention away from other things like news or blog posts and to make us read, click and interact with more ad content and, ultimately, buy a product. Advertising’s main strategy is interruption. And interruption is what we at Babbel are trying to avoid.

Yet another aspect of online ads is that they don’t have to get everybody’s attention. They can focus on a specific target group. So besides making ads more attractive, promoters and engineers are working to “target” them to those who are most likely to respond (i.e. to buy). To do this, user data has to be collected, processed, and analyzed. This data analysis doesn’t harm people per se, but more and more internet users want to protect their privacy andare justifiably feeling uneasy about it. I must admit I feel a bit uneasy myself when I see how much it is possible to know about the users of your website when their personal data is what you’re after.

But there is another, more insidious, drawback of ad-sponsoring that is less visible to the naked eye: the true customers of these ad-sponsored services are not the users but rather the advertisers. And as everywhere else, the Customer is King. This means that these services are not optimized for the best usevalue but for the best clickrates and advertising revenue. Of course, users need to be brought back to the website somehow in order to see the ads and to click on them… but that is just a means to another end.

Strictly Commercial

These downsides of ad-sponsoring are especially problematic in a learning application. If we want to build a new kind of learning environment that really works, we simply cannot let the learner’s attention consistently get drawn away. We don’t want to spend our engineering resources on ad targetting, but rather on improving the Refresher and Recommendation systems. Most of all, we need our customer to be the learner.

Our idea is to create a new kind of online learning system that adjusts itself to the needs of the learner and makes it easy to comprehend new subject matter without too much effort. This has yet to be done successfully, and we have no real role model we can emulate or by whom we can “be inspired”. It’s pioneering work, and it requires expertise to be constantly rethought and redone.

To significantly improve our service and to approach that usercentered learning environment were dreaming of, we’ve put together an extensive team of professionals from different disciplines. Software developers and internet specialists work side by side with more than 20 teachers and language experts. Simultaneously, we are striving to make this complex application easy to use and more or less imperceptible behind the content.

So yes, Babbel 2.0 is commercial. This means that we want to – and have to – make a living from of it. We’ve got some financing and loans, but ultimately, wehave to pay our own bills. And it seems that advertising is the wrong way to do this.

Because we deliver Babbel over the internet and don’t have so many variable costs per user, we can keep the price relatively low. Instead of charging more than a hundred Euros per product, as many learning software companies do, Babbel goes for a price of €4.95 to €8.95 per month. That’s affordable for anyone who wants to learn a new language. Also, we make it a point to have fair conditions. There are no hidden costs or implicit commitments. Users can cancel their membership at any time without any unpleasant surprises.

Internet Beyond the Advertising Industry: Will this be Web 3.0?

It’s clear that we are breaking a taboo. Many internet users think that all online services should be free. A lot of them will be angered by our change in strategy. But we’re convinced this will be the best way. As a matter of fact, we think it brings with it a lot of exciting opportunities.

As the internet plays an increasingly important role in all our lives, unreliable quality becomes more and more of an issue. If we use the internet for our basic everyday needs, we can’t afford to waste time comparing and verifying information and stitching together our own services. We need quality delivered steadily and without distraction. Again, this is especially true for online education.

This is why paid services have a great future. The demand for high-quality services and providers who don’t monetize user data is rising. After the huge wave of ad-sponsored “Web 2.0” websites, these new business models might be the core of what could be Web 3.0.

Paid services are particularly advantageous for small providers and start-ups because you don’t need to reach a “critical mass”. You can survive on the subscriptions of your customers, even if you have a comparably small niche market. That’s why this potential Web 3.0 could be more diverse – and less monopolistic – than what we see now. Babbel 2.0 is one step in that direction. We hope that many users take that step with us.


He spotted a Sears snow cruiser that was only made from 1965 to
1972 and is truly a collector’s item. * Edwin Hubbel Chapin once said, “Every action of our lives touches on. Experience the difference an experienced, reliable home theater setup company makes.

And thus it is that even if the krazy coupon lady at the front might take a bit longer to
check out than they should, even if the sight should inspire a feeling of annoyance in the patiently waiting line, it doesn’t change the fact that everyone there can’t help but feel a little bit
of jealousy when they bear witness to the extreme couponing before
them. If there are friends around that would not mind letting you use their computer then print the coupons that
you need from theirs. 3) In store sales costs as pertains to food: Again, nothing you
can do about this.

I can’t get access to the lessons even after payment for 3 months terms

Hi Natalie – please send an email to with the details and they will be able to help you.

Helo send turkish pleas

I would like to learn German so tell me in canadian dollars how much it would cost me per month and how do I pay you. Thank you ReNee St-Denis

Hi Renee,

Thanks for your interest in our German lessons. An overview of our price list is provided here
Best regards

Babbel Team

I would really like it if you didnt charge. IM ok with adds


Thanks for your feedback. The majority of our users prefers to learn without being interrupted by ads. We made a big survey a few years ago and we definitely won’t change the ad-free model. Sorry 🙂


[…] is ditching the part-free hybrid model because it “just doesn’t work”. As founder Markus Witte writes: “It simply is not possible to build a high-quality online learning environment while […]

Sorry..Ihave no master card so cannot pay on cannot continue with my German lessons..

Hello Marie,

Thanks for your message! Please write to

Our English speaking support will quickly find a payment solution for you.


The Babbel Team

Hi Marvin,

ich unterschreibe jeden Satz. Wer eine werbefreie und pipifeine Plattform nicht zu schätzen weiß, muss sich halt anderwertig umsehen.
Wie babbel ja wunderbar beweist, gibt es genügend Menschen die a) überhaupt bereit sind, für gute Angebote einen überschaubaren Beitrag zu bezahlen und b) insbesondere für Lern-Inhalte soviel zu investieren wie für 2 Packungen Zigaretten pro Monat (bei Euren Angeboten sogar für weniger als 1 Packung)!

Ich betreibe eine der größten deutschsprachigen Handarbeitsplattformen und auch meine Seite ist werbefrei. Finanziert wird die Site durch Bonus Memberships, Verkauf von Anleitungen und Werbung auf meinem YouTube Kanal.
Mein Prinzip ist, dass alle Lerninhalte (sprich fast 600 Anleitungsvideos) kostenlos sind, schriftliche Anleitungen können gekauft werden und mit den Memberships erhält man schriftliche Anleitungen für 13 Monate kostenlos.

Web 3.0 setzt auf Qualität bezüglich Technik & Content und auf User, die beides zu schätzen wissen…

Wenn Ihr nun noch eine Zahlungsoption via PayPal oder Konto anbietet, bin ich sicher, Eure Userzahlen stiegen sprunghaft (allein von meinen Plattformen würden sicher gleich ein paar hundert kommen…)

Wär das was?

Nur weiter so! babbel ist ein 1st-Class Service und jeden Cent wert!

Grüße aus Wien,

Why have people set-up an account and then tell them there is a charge. I do like your site, but will not be using it because of the charge.

Of course ads distract, it’s the whole point to get some of the user’s attention while they are focusing on something (preferably, something thematically related).

The arguments against ads apply equally to any service on the Internet whether this is plain search, doing email online, networking with others online, etc.

Maybe many of these decisions are example of companies that use a community to grow initially, then when their user base is deemed large enough, change the terms. Sure, sometimes the terms have to be slightly modified, but to change them fundamentally – to me – is an abuse of the trust relation between the users and the owners of the service.

i’m imene from algeria and i like this learning program

My school would like to use Babbel. Is there a school licensing available????

Hello Joan,

Yes there are special rates for education institutions. You can just send an email to


but you should definitely keep developing in more languages, and maybe can put those system in different languages:)
say if Im from China, I should be available to use Chinese to learn French. so far i am using English to learn the language. not sure is it because I am in the UK or because it’s normal for the programme.
I want to introduce my fs in China who would like to study Spanish to use it!!!

it’s such a good service, i am using it to learn French and it’s entertaining.. and fun….I can’t leave my eyes off it once i started the course.
I felt successful watching the green processing bar keep going from the begining to the end. So much fun!

Thank you Babbel making this software. the price is absolutely affordable especially after comparing to RosettaStone, which I wanted to buy at first. so, woowoo!

[…] last week that language learning company Babbel had its first profitable quarter (notably after abandoning the freemium model) point to education technology as a promising area for tech […]

[…] last week that language learning company Babbel had its first profitable quarter (notably after abandoning the freemium model) point to education technology as a promising area for tech […]

[…] last week that language learning company Babbel had its first profitable quarter (notably after abandoning the freemium model) point to education technology as a promising area for tech […]

[…] last week that language learning company Babbel had its first profitable quarter (notably after abandoning the freemium model) point to education technology as a promising area for tech […]

[…] might have been more than a few raised eyebrows last November when Babbel decided to move away from our known Freemium model. We were forging into unknown […]


ich habe also gerade gelesen,dass ich für jede einzelne Sprache von Babbel einzeln ein Abo bezahlen muss. Da ich alle vier angesprochenen Sprachen (italienisch, französisch,spanisch und englisch)pflegen möchte, ist mir ein Vierfach-Abo entschieden zu teuer.

Außerdem erscheint mir, dass das Angebot mehr auf junge Leute und Einsteiger zugeschnitten ist. Ich beschäftige mich aber schon seit Jahren mit den o.a. Sprachen. Ich denke,das alles sollte schon in der Werbung für Babbel zur Sprache kommen, um spätere Enttäuschungen zu vermeiden.

Hallo Herr Hoffmann,

danke für Ihre Rückmeldung.
Wir bieten regelmäßig Sonderaktionen an, bei denen man alle Sprachen zu einem deutlich günstigerem Festpreis abonnieren kann.
Wenn Sie unseren Newsletter nicht abbestellt haben, sollten Sie auch auf diese Angebote aufmerksam gemacht werden.

Was das Lernniveau angeht, richten wir uns sowohl an Anfänger, als auch an Auffrischer und Fortgeschrittene. Falls Sie die erste Testlektion meinen, die ist meistens aus einem der Anfängerkurse und daher vom Niveau her recht niedrig. Sie können aber auch die Anfängerkurse überspringen, wenn Sie wollen.

Beste Grüße,

Das Babbel Team

ich bin seit 04/2009 auf babbel und mag das system wirklich sehr. ich habe auf babbel angefangen italienisch zu lernen und habe ab und an auch in spanische vokabeln geschaut, um mein gedächtnis aufzufrischen.
ich war auch bereit für dieses system zu zahlen, da ich wirklich spass daran habe. ABER ich bedauer es sehr, dass ich nun nicht mehr die anderen sprachen verwenden kann.
das ist wirklich sehr sehr schade trübt ein wenig meine lernfreude. mit dem basispaket kommt ein fortgeschrittener nämlich leider nicht besonders weit….

Your discussion on the online ads are absolutely true and I must agree with you regarding it. Ads seldom prove good while considering education or learning a new language. I think your ideas and methods would result in a better learning methodology.

[…] Now what does all this mean? Well, first of all it does not seem to have worked out the way it had been planed. What I like about this email is that eduFire is honest enough to name it. Reminds me of the great blog post of Markus Witte of Babbel when he announced that Babbel is dumping…. […]

[…] se développer, babbel dévoile son business model en devenant payant. Sur le blog du site, Markus s’exprime sur les limites de l’Internet gratuit. Il explique plus précisément « qu’ il n’est pas possible de construire […]

bin gerade auf euch aufmerksam geworden und finde eure idee und das angebot absolut toll. man kann sich das ganze gratis anschauen und wenn es einen überzeugt, kauft man sich wie ich ein abo. im gegensatz zu älteren sprachlernprogrammen (langenscheidt etc.), die man mühsam besorgen, installieren und ständig aktualisieren muss, ist diese online-flex-variante ein segen. die bezahl-version hat auch noch einen sehr guten nebeneffekt: wenn ich weiß, dass ich dafür zahle, wächst jede noch so hohe motivation weiter an, weil ich quasi mit lernfortschritt auf meine kosten kommen will 😉
einziger kritikpunkt: das hier machen sicher viele leute, die nicht nur eine sprache üben/lernen wollen; warum ihr für jeden kurs einzeln verlangt, leuchtet mir nicht ein.
lg aus wien

Your start page might have problems loading in China.

[…] Markus Witte, co-founder of the language learning portal Babbel, wrote on their blog about adjusting their business model: Our plan, in fact, was to partially finance Babbel with advertising. We intended to provide a […]

You are courageous. There is so many free learning stuff in the internet, so your new concept may not work. Or only for people who want just learn without a lot of internet searching…
Just have a look at Google web applications – they are free and successful. Have a look at the news market like WELT, SPIEGEL, FOCUS (and let’s not forget Google News), they newspaper market is declining, and nobody want to pay for news on the internet. So why should one pay for language learning content?
I just setup an BABBEL account and did the one, free lesson. My conclusion: the lesson was far too easy (is there some level test?), and I am not able to save the learned vocabulary (no copy/past possible). The test did not convince me to become a paying member.

In my opinion, Web3.0 is the concept of putting (web) applications on top of other applications. Think of a babbel Facebook application for example…

That said, I’m glad that babbel is heading in the right direction.

You guys are on the right way 😉 Congrats and good luck for the future.

I can see this move being damaging.
Although I agree with the essential worry about ads getting in the way of education there are several other moves you could have taken to make babbel financially profitable while not presenting ads to your users or asking them to shell out money to use the service.

You should have taken the sell developer api approach.
You should have expanded on the babbel service and created a pay service for educators to use babbel in schools.

To be able to manage classes and more easily spot how students are doing.

I don’t like how you have compared this move to web3.0, there is nothing new about charging people for services in the way you are doing right now.
The reason why it is not common these days is because its a failed business model.

You really need to figure out who your audience are, figure out possible revenue schemes and expand your service to take advantage of such schemes.
Your revenue will not come from individuals, its a shame you have not spotted this as your site is A+ thus far. Your revenue will come from organizations, governments, educators.

There is a huge problem in the way kids are educated today, its not evolved. Learning languages is a pain in schools. You are in a unique position to change how languages are taught, to help teachers understand students strengths and weaknesses better.

Oh well.

[…] Markus Witte, the Managing Director of Babbel wrote a long and detailed blog post on this decision that will of course heat up some discussions between the free users of the platform. First reactions of other companies like VidSchool and busuu on TechCrunch Europe blog are not what one would call “shocked”. […]

[…] Zu den genauen Gründen für die Premiumisierung schreibt der Geschäftsführer im Blog. […]

Hey guys,
I salute you. Courageous step for good reasons. As you say, you are now entering terra incognita. I think the eyeballs of the industry will now turn your way.


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