Why giving away your best content is wrong and stupid (if you’re selling information products)


Think Traffic recently published an article titled ’17 Traffic Building Tips from Some of the World’s Most Popular Bloggers’. The very first tip, from Josh Hanagarne (the World’s Strongest Librarian), is: Give your very best content away.

Now, given the context, I’m taking it for granted that this advice is targeted towards online businesses in the information market. So if that’s you, let me assure you that this tactic will indeed bring you a lot of traffic. But unless you are making all your money selling your services—and you’re happy to spend the rest of your life doing this—it’s a terrible, awful, lamentable idea.

If you see any value at all in selling information products, then I’m gonna warn you now: giving away your best content could kill you. Here’s why:–

There’s traffic, and then there’s traffic

I got more traffic than I could handle when I launched Information Highwayman. This site got featured on a number of very widely-read design galleries and blogs, and I had to buy more bandwidth allowance in a hurry. “Harr, traffic,” I thought. “Soon the world will be mine, and all that is in it.” But alas, my bounce rate was high and my conversion rate was low.

Duh. Web designers checking out a site for inspiration aren’t qualified leads for me. They don’t want to buy my services. They just want to ogle my site’s trim user interaction model, drool over its well-rounded typography, and maybe lift up its skirt to get a peek at the pert markup underneath. Now, sure, if I were specifically targeting web designers with my copy in the hopes of partnering with some of them, that traffic would probably become a lot more useful. But…well, I didn’t do that.

Simply put: all the traffic in the world won’t help you worth a damn if it ain’t qualified. If the people crowding your site aren’t interested in buying, then you’re just wasting money serving your pages up to them.

Giving stuff away attracts hobos looking for handouts

Now, probably the average site will be getting traffic more from search engines than design galleries. Fair enough. And a lot of that traffic will stick around and become an audience. If your content really is good, giving the best of it away for free will definitely result in a huge following over time.

That’s good right? “The money is in the list”, direct marketers always say.

Well, yes and no. The money is in the right list. If your audience is comprised solely of people who expect you to hand them everything for free, then when you try using that list to generate some actual revenue, you’re going to get a very poor response. In fact, many of your followers will leave in a miff.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t give away valuable content for free. Obviously I believe that doing so is a very good idea, since I do it myself. It proves your expertise at the same time as providing something useful to prospects—which pushes up your perceived value enormously. (Perceived value is what makes sales.) But you have to focus on the ROI for what you’re giving away. If you give away the farm, people think that “free” is your business—so they feel betrayed if you try to sell them anything. Even something small. But if you give away just enough, people think that you’re doing them a favor—so they feel favorably inclined towards you when you try to sell them something which builds on the free content you’ve already provided. Which leads me into my most important point.

If you give away your best content for nothing, you’re going to get asked for a hell of a lot of refunds on the stuff you sell

I mean, seriously, this is just common sense. If you give away what is truly your best, most valuable content for nothing, then what possible reason could anyone have to pay for the stuff left over? If you’ve already made your most valuable content free, then what topsy-turvy logic makes you think that people are going to be happy giving you more than $0 for content which is less valuable? No, they’ll either just pass on it, or they’ll buy it thinking it will be even better than what you give away for free—and then feel gypped when it ain’t. Which will lead to a lot of customer dissatisfaction, loyalty problems, returns, and mucho lost revenue.

In other words, it’s just dumb.

What you should give away

Okay, so here’s what you should give away if you’re in the information products business. Things like:–

What you should not give away

Right, so what shouldn’t you give away? Pretty simple, really: anything that would compromise your business model! For service-based industries (like copywriting & marketing) you can give away a great deal if you’re happy to make money purely from your services. There will never be a shortage of people who can’t do what you do; of people who can do it but don’t have the time; and of people who wish they could do it but haven’t yet learned how. Which means that you can give away the farm if you want to, because what your clients are paying for is not information—it’s you.

That said, if you’re a consultant, giving away your best information might be very unwise. And if you’re not satisfied to make money purely from your services (as I think most entrepreneurs aren’t), but you want to develop passive sources of revenue which will ultimately be more lucrative, then you definitely don’t want to give away your most valuable content. That would be crazy—that’s the content that you’re going to package up and sell, for crying out loud!

In summary, let this be a lesson to you.

D Bnonn Tennant
‘The Information Highwayman’

D Bnonn Tennant, ‘The Information Highwayman’, signs his name to this

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