Why give away the milk for free?

Mooooo! Image from BBC.co.uk

I was talking to my dad about the rise of content marketing recently and he posed a perfectly reasonable question: “Why would anyone pay for your services if you’re giving the milk away for free?”

Indeed, why would they? The internet and its superhighwayness allows a lot of stuff to be given away for free. Just ask newspapers, television production companies and matchmakers. When your audience can do it on their own or get it for free, you have to change your approach. The evolutionary mantra of “Adapt or Die” has never been more true.

So why would you give something away for free? Here are my thoughts:

  • People expect it. Its unfortunate but true. Folks are conditioned to get stuff for free. Not everything, mind you, but a lot. If you are a coach or trainer, you are competing against a lot of other coaches and trainers who are putting their ideas, tips and lessons in their blogs for free and then charging for webinars, personal consultation or longer e-books. But you have to give the people something first, otherwise you seem totally out of step with how things work.
  • People are skeptical. I encounter this attitude a lot. I call (or a colleague calls) a business to offer to do an interview for this blog and people say, no thanks! What?!?!? It’s free! It’s publicity! Why wouldn’t you do it? Easy answer: They don’t trust me. They don’t know me. Online its even more true – until they see behind the curtain a bit, they assume you’re a Nigerian scam artist trying to rob them of their life savings. Perhaps they are wise to be so cautious, or perhaps we have all become too cynical. Either way, giving useful content away for free builds some measure of trust.
  • People need to get their hands on the merchandise. Let’s say you’re a writer. People would not necessarily expect to get your whole book online for free. They would expect to get to see a few chapters, though, before buying. Just as they could browse through it in a bookstore, they want to see what they’re being offered. Same for an engineering firm. No one expects that you’ll be designing an electrical system for free, however, writing and sharing content for your colleagues and for laymen means that they know you know your stuff. They can see what kind of caliber work you’re doing.
  • People build relationships through gifts. Think of content marketing as giving little gifts to people. A helpful tip posted on Twitter, an informed response to a discussion on LinkedIn, a useful post on Facebook… all of these little pieces of content are pieces in a relationship you’re building with people. The gift they give in return is sharing that content, leaving a comment and ultimately using your premium services. Don’t begrudge the normal procedures of human culture just because it is happening online. If you’re miserly and cheap, it will come through and you will look like an ass. And no one gets customers by looking like an ass, except Gordon Ramsey. (And trust me, neither you nor I are Gordon Ramsey!)

So my advice is not that you give the cow away for free, but give a little milk to the people.

My personal example is this blog. I interview local business owners for free on this blog. My goal is to generate conversation, encourage people to shop local and plus I’m kinda nosy and like to get behind the scenes. It is the free stuff I’m offering to businesses. I also allow non-member businesses to post on my Facebook wall and will tweet or retweet non-member activities and announcements. Then there is a whole other host of services that I provide for which I charge a modest sum.

I try not to leave anyone in doubt of my sincerity to see the High Desert bloom with increased commerce, more jobs and interesting things to do and see.  To me, it is part of being a good member of the business community here. Of course I hope that some of those folks will join RelyLocal, but the gift is given with no strings attached. The only real outcome I’m looking for is a continued positive relationship. That’s why I give the milk away for free.

I would love to hear your thoughts on what kind of content you can share with the world and how it impacts your business. And for the end users, what kind of content do you find most valuable? How does it help build trust in businesses?

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