If I give away my content, don’t I give away my business?

Content will set you free

The other night I had dinner with some dear friends who have a successful consulting business. They earnestly tried to understand what I do for a living but it seems like the idea of giving away content is a completely foreign concept in the “traditional” business world.

Indeed, I am often confronted with this very relevant question — “If I give away my ideas, what is there left to sell?”

So let’s dig into this and see how the new information economy works.

The content conundrum

A few months ago, I was approached by an entrepreneur who wanted to create a premium content site for small business advice.

“This will be a place where you can reveal your very best ideas,” he said.

“But I already do that on my blog,” I explained. “I give away all my best ideas for free.”

“No, I mean the best stuff you hold back for clients,” he said.

“You’re not understanding,” I said, “I don’t hold anything back. I give everything to my readers.”

“Then how do you make any money?”

Give it away, give it away, give it away now

On the right hand side of my blog there is an item called “Categories” where you can peruse hundreds of blog posts by topic. So, for example, under the category of “blogging best practices,” you can view 130 posts. I also have a free blogging eBook available and have done numerous podcasts and webinars on blogging … all completely free.

In a couple of hours, you can probably learn every idea and concept I have ever had about blogging.  And yet, somebody calls me every single week willing to pay for blog coaching. I do social media workshops on content creation with huge companies like AT&T, Johnson & Johnson and IBM.  I give speeches on the topic all the time. And lots of folks are still buying my book Born to Blog.

This doesn’t even make sense, does it? How can I still make money dispensing blogging advice when I am giving away every blogging tip and secret I have ever had?

Building trust and authority

Business relationships are built on trust. They always have been. But for centuries we were limited by time and geography. We could only create trust with those who actually knew us, and probably within a pretty small area.

The social web is an incredible gift to businesses everywhere. For the first time in history, we can create relationships and build trust with people far and wide … through our voice, our views, our expertise. But the only way to do that is by unlocking and unleashing our content.

Even though I give away everything I know about business and marketing, people are still eager to hire me because they value my perspective and they trust me through the content I provide.

When I started my consulting business, I took all the business I could on a regional level. Slowly my business evolved and grew, completely on the back of my blog content. And now I have made connections all over the world through social media. In fact, I have never spent one dime on any form of advertising for my business so far.

In other words, my business has grown ONLY because I give everything away!

Specific action plans

Now let’s turn back to my friend. His business is rich with content!  He has penned articles, written a couple of books (which don’t sell very well) and contributes to academic journals. Here was my counsel:

1) Give away as many books as you can at public appearances. Encourage people to blog and write about them. He’s  probably making less than $1 per book so who really cares about that kind of money? Build your brand,

2) Actively, aggressively build a social media audience by:

  • Participating in relevant Twitter chats
  • Becoming active in similar, relevant blogs
  • Finding new connections on LinkedIn
  • Helping people in professional sites and forums.

3) Create a video series so people can put a face and voice with a name. People don’t buy from a website, they buy from people. Let them see who you are.

4) Develop a source of “rich content.” This would most likely be a podcast, video series or blog. Since the company is made up of talented writers and they already have a lot of written resources, a blog probably makes the most sense.

5) Dissect existing content and create new posts. Create new content on a consistent basis … at least once a week since the company is already content-rich.

And then, give it away, give it away, give it away.

If they follow this formula consistently I know it will work. I’m a pretty conservative person when it comes to prognostications, but I would almost guarantee success because their ideas are so compelling.

I know this sounds counter-intuitive but being selfless and generous with your ideas is the key to eCommerce today. Not only do you create an inbound audience, you have an unprecedented opportunity to establish authority and trust, probably far beyond your normal sales “territory.”

Unlock your content. Unleash it. And watch your business grow!

What do you think?  Is it hard to adopt and adapt to this new idea?

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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  • Ayso21

    I found your perspective very appealing. I am myself a proponent of giving it away to build something bigger. Most of the time reward come after you have given your ideas away. And then there are plenty more where these are coming from, right?

  • Kumarjit Sarkar

    Being a blogger myself, I found your view very motivating and directional but still questions keeps on coming to head as I am a baby in this enchanting field, how can I build on my credibility and moreover different ways and platforms where I can promote my content.

  • Claudia Licher

    Hi Mark,
    I would say your (e)books and workshops have their own merits.

    In general, books are more structured than blogs – unless you start with a post ‘chapter 1: how to get started’ and go on from there. So I can imagine people buying a book. After all, there’s a limit to the number of Favorites one can stomach…

    Plus, I like to get some topics offered to me in a nutshell instead of having to turf out the bits that are relevant to me at a particular stage. A workshop that addresses specific issues and gives me an opportunity to try out a few things on the spot will save me time (and it’s more fun).

    Even though I don’t own a business (yet?) I share pretty much every idea I have on my blog. The experience has taught me that you’re right: people will ask for advice and help based on what you’ve shared. And they don’t necessarily know how to do everything themselves based on what they read. A blog can indeed be the start of a business.

  • useradvocate

    “Business relationships are built on trust.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head there Mark. A blog and other Social Media mechanisms form what we could call a ‘content environment’ in which this trust can grow.

    As a content producer, another important aspect that I wrestle with is relevance. This of course relates to audience. As someone who is building a business on providing content that bridges gaps between technical and non-technical audiences it’s sometimes a challenge to know which end of the spectrum to tune the content to.

    My assumption is that this will become less of a challenge over time. This seems to be the other side of the trust building equation – where the content author acts as listener in order to learn more about the values and resonance points of their audience.

  • Was that a RedHotChiliPeppers reference tucked in there? Great ideas in there. I’ve found that consistency is one of the biggest drivers of trust, both for creating content and for reaching out.

  • MaureenMonte

    I agree wholeheartedly and have seen it work with immense power and effectiveness in an internal corporate community of interest around the Strengthsfinder tool. Oh, and how often do I share your blog with others? Just did so today with this one, sharing it with a colleague who has created an awesome presentation on non-traditional learning in the enterprise. In my post to him (internally) I wondered if there isn’t an ego aspect to this challenge you present to us. A “real expert” or a “real professor” or a “real consultant” might consider this “give it away” approach as beneath them? I do not feel that way, perhaps because I have experienced the benefits. Also, and I think I know the answer to this – perhaps people feel there is a chicken/egg thing – what came first, you giving it away and then the success as a consultant, or vice versa? Thanks Mark. Your posts are helping me craft my new strategy… 🙂

  • People are searching for information on the web. If you aren’t creating content that’s published publicly on the web, you aren’t going to get found. It’s as simple as that. It’s the thought leadership content that will establish trust and then turn into sales and leads.

  • As usual great insightful piece here Mark. I can relate people do not really understand my business yet either. However building trust and authority in the long run is way more critical and important then making some sale. Anyone can do that, not just anyone can be an innovator and trend setter.

  • Cynthia Kahn

    I agree. Great explanation about why you should give away content to build reputation. What your friends still may be trying to understand is how you parlay those activities into money making biz. Next post?

  • Alain-Marie Carron

    Thank you for this excellent – an courageous – article. Come someday in Montreal Mark, 96% ( I am always precise in stats when I make them up) of the companies have not yet understood your point !

  • ross_boardman

    If you are scared about giving away content then you are only a one trick pony.

    How many great bloggers out there give away their recipes and then write a fantastic best selling recipe book? Many of them. So many good books are written by people who have shared and given away their ideas.

    Customers know you have more to reveal, that’s why they pay. We both know of authors who publish great free material. A lot of it I have bought in audio, paper as well as online courses.

    Try then buy?

  • I am coming to Montreal July 4. I hope to see you there: https://plus.google.com/107624559327351970888/posts/aBFVXyyDokK

  • Let’s hope so : )

  • debraandrews

    Working mostly with professional services firms, sharing knowledge and content is a huge issue. They are coming around, slowly….. Sharing blog posts, like this one, with them helps immensely. Thanks Mark!

  • That’s a big question! You might enjoy the Born to Blog book. There are chapters that would answer your questions in depth. If you are still searching for answers after that, feel free to send me an email with the problems you are facing and I will try to help. Thanks for commenting Kumarjit.

  • Thanks for sharing your wisdom today Claudia!

  • It’s funny Michael — I was just having this conversation with some friends last night. I serve a pretty wide audience and sometimes I wonder if I am doing it well, too. At some point you can’t be everything to everybody. Maybe if you lose part of your audience it’s OK, if you keep the right audience : )

  • Oh heck yeah. Not too subtle : ) Rock on Rosemary.

  • This is such a rich content and question Maureen and I do think there is something important here. Let’s say you go to a high-end retailer and see a pair of NIke shoes for $2.99. You would think there is something very wrong. You might even shy away from buying them because it just does not make sense.

    I see the same danger with content. People may place more value on content they pay for. So I do recognize the issue here and acknowledge there might be greater benefits to charge for content in some cases. However I think that is probably a relatively rare situation. I really see huge benefits in leveraging the amazing opportunity we have today by building our brand through our voice.

  • Amen Nick!

  • Powerful point Tom. Well said!

  • Jeffrey Slater

    I just finished Adam Grant’s book called GIVE AND TAKE. It helps to explain this phenomenon how givers can benefit when they focus on the giving part. This isn’t just about the universe coming back to help you but that is a part of it. Adam’s book has some wonderful ideas about why those who give tend to be the people who succeed the most. If you can get a copy of the book, its a worthwhile read. I’m happy to share my hard copy.
    Just ask.

  • A good idea Cynthia. Thanks so much for reading today.

  • Certainly a legitimate trend, isn’t it Ross? Love that. Thank you very much for taking the time to comment today.

  • Hurray!!! If I helped you make progress, you have made my day! : )

  • You are the man. Thanks for your kindness Jeffery!

  • MaureenMonte

    I love made up precision! 🙂

  • MaureenMonte

    Hi Kumarjit – I have given Mark’s Born to Blog book (and used it myself) – highly recommend this approach – I was a baby, once too! 🙂 You might also consider going to next year’s Social Slam in Knoxville. I attended this year and learned tons. Made me much more confident in my internal corporate blog. Now I will be moving to an external blog and have much more experience, confidence, and sense of fun about it – simply because I know what I’m doing – Mark’s book and the conference had a lot to do with it.

  • MaureenMonte

    Hi Ross, I agree totally with the one trick pony remark – and unfortunately, there are a lot of those out there, staring blindly at those around them who actually have ideas, purpose, vision – and a work ethic. We live in the age of research before you buy, and since our product is information, the likelihood of a recommendation coming from your neighbor is almost zero.

  • As always, a great explanation of an often misunderstood concept, Mark! Certainly points out the fallacies of ‘traditional’ business approach vs the new information economy (your words) — totally agree. Although I believe in part at a much deeper level, this is also a potential mindset ‘issue,’ no matter the economy or biz philosophy.

    Why do I say this? In part basing this on observations of Old School IM-type techniques (that didn’t work well before — and not really now, either), with meant-to-be enticing ‘holding back until they buy’ offers.

    When your knowledge is deep in a topic, aspect or area, you have much to draw from and can easily continually offer it all out for free. That is the essential difference — and it sets you apart from the pack. That is when the knowledge you offer all for free turns into ‘expertise,’ causing others to pay you for your time and attention… Building “Trust and Authority,” as you say.

  • Boom. You nailed it Becky!

  • Craig Lindberg

    Mark, as strange as this may sound your post reminded me of
    an experience I had years ago standing atop an insanely steep ski run in the
    Rockies. I admit it, I was gripped with fear, the kind that makes
    your palms sweat the dye right out of your ski gloves (yep I had beaming red
    hands for days). But I remembered what one really good skier had said
    to do on runs like these; lean waaay out over the tips of your skis, keep
    planting your poles and linking your turns. The thought petrified me. All my
    natural instincts said to lean back and stay close to that mountain! The secret
    of course was to get my weight over the skis to control my speed and increase my
    edging. This counter-intuitive method
    worked and it was a blast (I didn’t say pretty) to ski the steep stuff then
    look back at it and say ‘yeah’. Your advice today echoes that moment atop that
    mountain when I trusted advice that seemed like the opposite of what I should do, to ‘get out over my tips’, just like ‘give it away.’ Right now like so many marketers I’m also facing
    some big, new challenges but I’m with ya. Thanks for leading the way!

  • Just because some one gives you an idea does mean that you can do it. There is a big leap there. There are all kinds of book on plumbing but that does not mean that I am going to take on a plumbing project tomorrow. Give away ideas till the cows come home.

  • RandyBowden

    I often get asked about the “free” aspect of my content and have at times struggled to clearly explain the works. When I started blogging just a short time ago I looked around, researched, read and perused established blogs searching for a course. I have found footing and I am adding to the my published content consistently. This blog and community has been a constant guide. You keep teaching me Mark, thank you and enjoy your travels.

  • I love this post! Last year I started a weekly video broadcast where I teach what I know and have invited others to be my guest and do the same. I have been criticized for giving away information for free and creating competition for myself. Now, I can send my critics to this post! Awesome!

  • Nabla765

    This is really counterintuitive Mark! But I’ve started to trust you and I
    want to give it a try! What have I to lose? I’m nobody in the Internet
    world! Thank you for your suggestion. Let’s see what happens now….
    sometimes reality overcomes our best fantasy… Thank you for this suggestion!

  • Claudia Licher

    Cor… wisdom? It must be because I turned 40 last month 🙂

  • ross_boardman

    Hi Maureen, I think the genuine author has nothing to fear by giving away good content. After all they have so much more to give. It is very much those who copy and misuse other peoples’ work who really have the most to lose. Would it be safe to break it down into those who have written the book, those who have read the book and those who just own the book?

  • MaureenMonte

    Hi Ross! Yes, I think that a genuine author (love the word genuine) has nothing to fear because the well is very deep. The problem of those who copy and misuse is one we can do little about, and is (hopefully) minor in relation to the benefits gained by sharing our awesomeness. I’ve had it happen and I’m not even that important. When I see it, I challenge it – “Isn’t there a phrase that would better describe your unique value proposition?” (I help people build them and they often choose mine and share it with their manager/teams because they like it and say they are “like me.” ) I offer that at best I am a poor imitation of them, and then I try to help them explore it in a way that is more telling of their unique value prop. Once in a while, I’ll escalate (this may be hard to see without the context of the work I am referring to.) But to your point, I think there is one more category – those who have read the book and implement its ideas in their own world. Those are the most rare folks of all… Most people miss the fact that the jewel in the process is making it their own journey.

  • Love that analogy and I think that same gripping fear is probably common in this space too! Thanks, Craig!

  • Ha!! Love that. Well said Jay!

  • Awww, that is awesome Randy! You made my day with this comment.

  • It takes vision and courage to do what you’re doing Sherry. Good job and stay true to your vision!

  • Thanks for taking the time to comment and best of luck with your efforts. PS yes, this is really me : )

  • Mark,

    You got it, but I meant to say, “does not mean.” Good post. Ideas are very cheap; actions are very expensive.

  • Nabla765

    Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaark!!!!!! WOW!!! I’m so so so so so so HAPPY to hear from you! I love the book I’m reading (The TAO… just the first 😉 I love your blog, I love your ideas! I know I took a while to trust you, but now you have a follower that will never leave you! Looking forward to reading all your books and blog posts! 😀 You are great Mark W Shaefer!

  • It’s a very good point. I do the same. Theoretically my clients could read my blog and get much of my advice for free. But at the end of the day, most don’t have the time to become subject matter experts on what I am already. Gladwell’s 10,000 hours be damned.

    Given that, the blog serves as an ongoing demonstration of what I know, and what I’m focused on.

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  • Beautiful point Sean. Said it better than me!

  • : )

  • DebbieO

    Mark,

    I think you hit the nail on the head. The conundrum the traditional marketer faces with letting go of content that they and their organizations see as so valuable. But true value can only be determined by your client or audience. And in today’s collaborative society, content that is not shared has no value.

  • That is so wise Debbie. We need to ignite the content. I recently had this same discussion with a company that relies on print media and has no social media presence. I tried to point out that their message gets tossed in a trash can every day when it could live forever on the web (and save a few trees too!)

  • Hi Mark, As always a great post. We have certainly found that giving away our content is an awesome driver for our sales. I grew an online parts business from a simple vacuum repairs business by creating videos of my repairs so they could do it themselves. I was worried that I would lose my repairs in my local territory but it never even dropped. People spread the word after seeing my videos and often order the parts from us but amazingly people frequently watch the videos and because they trust my skills decide to send the repair to us to do. In fact I don’t even want to do the repairs any more but I just keep getting asked all the time.

  • Love it!

    thank for sharing Mark – I think this is one of my favorite posts 🙂

  • Andrew

    Very interesting post, but if you are giving everything away, how come you are selling a book?

  • Ha! Great story Alec.

  • Awwwww. Thanks!

  • I didn’t say I give everything away. I said in the post that I sell lots of things. Money is a good thing.

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  • Peter Winick
  • Bussolati

    My firm works with associations who lock away about 90% of their content behind a member paywall. I believe in the approach you describe so well – even for them. You might not be surprised that saying working in this space is an uphill battle is an understatement. In time, associations will come around and their content model will evolve. I do not see an entirely free model, but certainly locking away the stuff that most readily proves their worth will not continue. Good post Mark, thanks for beating the drum.

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  • NickWestergaard

    Great post, Mark! Talk about an answer to a frequently asked question. This is one that we often hear on the client side when we advocate for them to create content. Being in the Midwest, this often manifests itself with the turn of phrase, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” As you note, it’s much more complex than that and part of an overall plan of building trust. Again, great post.

  • I would answer them, “Where’s the beef?” That should befuddle them enough to buy time for a more cogent answer : )

    Thanks Nick. Glad it helped.

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  • Eric

    Mark I have been trying to contact you for some time now!!! I have a deep desire to speak with you or send you an email!!

    Can you give me your email? or tweet it to me? or let me know how I can contact you?

  • I can’t imagine why it would be difficult to reach me since both my email and phone number are on the “Contact” page of the website. I look forward to hearing from you.

  • Jayden Chu

    I do not think that giving away content is giving your business away. I mean, you are giving people tips and is nothing wrong with that. Yes, they might read it however, they cannot purchase an idea from a blog but from someone.

  • Great article. The biggest fear for people not ‘being useful’ and giving information away is the fear that someone else will fill our shoes.

    In the marketing industry, there is nothing that is totally unique that will reinvent the wheel, we all just do things a bit differently from each other but package it up in our own ways.

    What is the overall ‘win’ is providing information that your competition aren’t with the aim to prompt the final selection by being seen as approachable, knowledgeable and helpful.

  • Richard F Hendricks

    What if your product is books? Would that fall into a different category from services?

  • I have written three books. Many people read my books through a library, which also “loans out” digital copies for free. A lot of my sales are through Amazon, which does a robust sale in used copies of my books. Many people may have a copy of my book that they share with friends of office mates. At least three websites have illegally scanned my books and are selling them for their own purposes on their websites.

    Taken together, this probably represents the bulk of the distribution for my books. I receive no revenue from any of those sources. Make no mistake, most of my books are read for free.

  • Richard Hendricks

    Mark: Thanks for the reply. I see your point about that. It seems in my old days of B2B sales, that’s what i did. Most of the time it worked in my favor, although sometimes it didn’t. Overall, it was a good thing.
    BTW: I read the Tao of Twitter, and it’s a good read.

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