Selling Free Content: Why Seth Godin never gives anything away for free
Ask any senior citizen and they’ll tell you that there is such thing as a free lunch. They’ve likely been invited to an “educational” investment “workshop,” with great urgency. After all, there is “limited space availability” at the seminar.
When you’re giving away something for free, from valuable content to a sample of Miracle Whip, you may think that all you have to do is, well, make it available. After all, who could say no to free? And, basically, not to put words in author Seth Godin’s mouth, but that seems to be the position he takes.
First, we kill all the squeeze pages
In a (not so) recent post on Web Ink Now, Seth Godin, Tom Peters and David Meerman Scott all decry the dreaded “squeeze page” that seeks to extract an email address in exchange for, say, a white paper download.
I couldn’t agree more. Which is one reason why our optimization research journal does not require an email address, phone number, or filling out any form at all. Just click a link and dive into 172 pages of marketing experimentation.
However, it’s how Seth describes this idea that makes me a little skeptical.
What is truly free?
You can see the video about giving content away for free yourself, but basically, Godin states that…
“When I give away an e-book, I just give it away. I don’t say that you have to give me your email address so then I can extract your attention on an ongoing basis, that’s a transaction.”
He goes on to explain, “Whereas if I give you an idea, a blog post, a PDF and just say here, take it, spread it, it starts by its nature as being uneven. And since it’s uneven it can be a gift. And when it’s a gift, it’s art. And when it’s art, it can make a change.”
Sounds good, right? Especially coming out of Seth Godin’s mouth. And I was sold as well. Hey, he is quite persuasive. And then I talked to my favorite iconoclast, MECLABS Editorial Analyst, Austin McCraw.
Austin is currently writing an optimization book, so we’ve engaged in some deep discussions lately about value proposition – with each other, with MECLABS Managing Director, Dr. Flint McGlaughlin and with our entire research team. And one thing we collectively agree on through our research is that…
Every action requires a value proposition
OK, let’s first address the elephant in the room. Clearly, Seth Godin is way smarter than me and way more knowledgeable about marketing as well.
You can tell from the above-referenced video. There are lots of books behind his head that he’s written, and they are even in foreign languages with funny letters. One I believe is Cyrillic, one is an Asian langue of some sort. I believe there might have been a Klingon language in the corner.
I, on the other hand, have far less books behind my head right now. I haven’t written any of them. And I’ve only even read one and a half of them.
But testing is the great equalizer. While I’ve personally learned a lot from Seth, take everything he says with a grain of salt. And especially take what I’m about to say with an entire bottle of some coarse kosher salt. Use the advice from us marketing talking heads to help shift your paradigm and give you ideas. But, you must test to determine what really works for you.
That said, through our experimentation we’ve found, like I say in that subhead, that every action requires a value proposition. We’re still debating the clearest terminology to explain this, but let’s call it a sub-value proposition for now. Much as a subhead relates to the one, main headline, this sub value prop relates to the overall value proposition of your company, product, or offer, but it is focused on getting a specific action.
To Seth’s point above, while I agree with the main trajectory of his thinking (spare the form and spoil your audience), I thoroughly disagree with the idea that something is not a transaction if you don’t ask for an email address.
You are still asking for one of your audience’s most valuable commodities – time. So, a transaction is in fact taking place; the visitor gives up time in exchange for content. This transaction (or “value exchange” as my colleague Boris Grinkot explains in this blog post) is where you, the marketer, must provide enough value to justify the cost of the particular action you desire from the user. Even Seth’s free content requires the visitor must still pay something, even if it is just to pay attention. Therefore, you must communicate the value of the action you are asking them to take.
Which is why I haven’t read the e-book Seth Godin referenced in his quote. Again, I think he’s smart and the content is likely valuable, I just don’t see enough value in it to trade my very valuable time for it at this point.
And why, for every piece of content we provide from MECLABS (even the “free” content) – from a MarketingSherpa newsletter to a MarketingExperiments Web clinic – I am highly cognizant that we must clearly communicate its value to you. And then, of course, come through on the value we promise.
Giving freebies value
Which brings me back to the value I promised in this blog post. How do you give something away for free? Like I said above, you don’t just plop it in front of your audience and assume the value is self-evident. Especially for something like a white paper or webinar, your audience likely receives endless free come-ons every day.
You must create that sub-value proposition, that reason for the click. And then you test. Here are a few places to start testing:
- The approach – From an email to a PPC (pay-per-click) ad, your objective is simply to get the click. You can not possibly sell someone on making a five-figure investment in a business analytics software platform in the 100 or so characters you have in a PPC ad. But, you can sell them on taking the natural next step in the product education and purchasing process by clearly communicating and then providing some value for the click on that PPC ad.
- The button – Well, really, the entire call-to-action (CTA). But, it’s funny how people usually ask about “the button” more than anything. And for good reason. Through our research, this is one of the areas we’ve identified as ripe for optimization in many marketing organizations. As Dr. Flint McGlaughlin says, what are you really telling your audience with a button that says “submit?” The definition of submit is to “yield to the control of another.” Test different CTAs that focus on the value to your audience for clicking on that button. While “Free Business Analysis Research” doesn’t tell the entire story, it’s clearly more compelling than “Submit.”
- The payoff – You need to have a little bit of Former NBA star, Karl Malone in your marketing department. He was nicknamed “The Mailman,” because the mailman always delivers. Do you? It’s great to promise value, but it’s also very easy to overpromise value. If you do, you will see some serious click degradation. For example, I could get a ton of blog readership by writing a post entitled “How to Cure Cancer and Make Millions with Twitter and Facebook: 3 easy steps.” But I can’t possibly deliver on that. And I’ve probably lost your trust, and will never get your click again.
Photo attribution: stillwanderer