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Portioning Your Content: For Sale or For Free?

November 15, 2010

I’m thinking about what we, as business creators, decide to sell versus what we decide to share for free.

How do business owners decide what content to sell and what to give away for free? Free content versus paid content. How do entrepreneurs decide which is which?

You’re probably familiar with the recommended formula for wooing prospects on your email list with free content:

1. Create a valuable piece of content that visitors receive when they opt-in to your e-newsletter. Your piece of content could be a report, an e-course, a downloadable Mp3, a workbook, or anything else that you think would get your right people inspired and moving in the right direction. Key: your content should be closely related to the service you provide or the goods you sell. Design it as a taste of what it would be like to work with you. Brian Clark from Copyblogger says in the first episode of Internet Marketing for Smart People Radio that “the fundamental rule of content marketing is to give away what people want in terms of information in order to sell them something related.” And make it really good. But don’t spend ten hours on it. Maybe five. Maybe two.

2. Once someone has opted in to receive your free content, he’s also opted in to receive ongoing email communications from you. You can call this your e-newsletter or something else more rockstar. It’s your job to keep in touch with your list and give them reasons to stay opted in. Meanwhile, promote your free Thing {see No. 1 above} here and there as a way to market your e-newsletter to new subscribers. Tweet the link to your sign-up every once in a while. Weave it into a blog post every now and then. Definitely make sure your sign-up box is prominent on every page of your site, attractive, and user friendly.

3. Keep your list fed and they’ll keep you fed. You share great resources with them, they come to see you as an expert or a great editor, you help them solve their problems, they keep you posted on how their business grows, you make them offers, some of your list takes you up on some of those offers, your business grows, you share with your list how they helped you grow your business, they get new information and inspiration out of what you’ve learned. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

But one of the bigger questions that gets lost in the oh-my-god-I-have-to-create-something-free-for-my-list shuffle is

How do I decide what expertise I sell, and what I give away for free?

When you’re a knowledge worker, a coach, a consultant, a healer, or anyone else who delivers a somewhat amorphous product with widely variable outcomes, this can be especially hard to pin down. It’s all your knowledge, it’s all your wisdom, it’s all your understanding and experience — and therefore it’s all equally valuable in your eyes, so how do you arbitrarily segment out pieces you give away rather than charge money for?

Here’s how I divvy up the stuff I sell and the stuff I give away.

By “sell,” I mean charge good money for, either in the form of a service or a product.

And by “give away,” I mean explore in a blog post, share in regular e-newsletter communications, make a video or audio about, mention in an interview, Tweet as a tip, divulge in a casual email to a prospect.

Stuff I Sell: knowledge stemming from anything I spent lots of time, money, or energy learning; understandings that are not easily accessible through surface research; stuff I’m über-talented at, way more so than the average person; stuff I teach that aligns with a perspective that very few others are teaching, or teaching well; advanced learning that extends from my evergreen content.

Stuff I Give Away: knowledge about anything that’s not one of my core competencies; knowledge about stuff that’s better handled by another creative professional than by me; knowledge that I know people can easily find by Googling; other knowledge that is widely accessible; entry level evergreen content, such as my fabulous {if I do say so myself} free e- course on Creating a Truly Irresistible Niche. I put a lot of time, thought, and passion into my e-course because A} like a manifesto, it helps spread my message and enhance my brand platform, and B} it’s good, grounding stuff that I wish all my clients could understand coming into a project with me.

Keep in mind that your thoughts about what is worth selling and what is more effective when given away will evolve over time, the more clients you work with and the more you recognize where the true value in your business proposition lies. Watch your Inbox. What do prospects, fans, and clients email you about most often? Is it what you’re currently selling, or what they want to buy from you? Remember those right people? They know a thing or two.

How do you decide what to sell versus what to give away?

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Valerie November 16, 2010 at 6:05 am

Hi Abby, thanks for sharing your approach to deciding what to share and what to sell. I’m a sewer and an accessories designer, so I post free patterns for simple things to make on my blog, but this has me thinking that there are things I could sell (and give away) beyond just more complex patterns. Thanks!

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Abby Kerr November 16, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Yay for revelations!

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April Bowles Olin November 16, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Hey Abby,

I’m always struggling with this concept. Right now I’m creating an ecourse for artists/creatives on blogging {not the technical stuff–but all the other stuff}, because I constantly get questions about blogging. I’ve realized that I keep answering the same questions and giving them same advice, so why not put it all together? The entire time I’ve been working on it, I’ve been saying that it’s going to be free–but I’ve put A LOT of work into it, and it’s not close to done. So, now I’m trying to figure out if I want to make it a paid product.

Thanks for this post. It definitely got me thinking in different ways about free versus paid content!

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Abby Kerr November 16, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Awesome, April! It’s so tempting to want to give everything away for free. Until you realize that some of your best content is FREE content and then you’re like, um, what’s up with that? Maybe you should consider segmenting some of your finished product {once it’s finished} into a free sample but putting a nice price on the whole enchilada. Especially if it’s something your fans and readers ask you about a lot, they’d probably expect to pay for it! Your insights are of value to them!

Happy creating!

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Tori Deaux November 16, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Ohh the free it vs sell it question is a tough one – almost as tough as pricing (which I find to be just about the most difficult issue around. ouch)

Reading your helpful approach, another useful question occurred to me: What do I most want my customers/clients to know before they buy my Thing or book my time? In other words, what are the prerequisites for my Thing? Is there a way I can teach them the basics so they’re prepared for the deeper stuff? Is there a way to give away the one thing I wish *everyone* could have, so that my paid Thing becomes support for the free thing?

Abby, you mentioned Brian Clark – I took his Teaching Sells course when it first started up, and I remember the concept a lot of people really seemed to struggle with: the advice to *give away* the best material. It seems so counter intuitive, but it works. At least, it certainly did for him.

Thanks for sparking my mind again, Abby!

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Abby Kerr November 16, 2010 at 3:44 pm

I’m starting to think of giving away great free evergreen content as similar to a church encouraging its members to read the holy scriptures for themselves. Yes, the messages can be taught from the pulpit {or wherever} every week and the principles can be understood and even applied without ever reading the scriptures themselves, but reading them gives the member/reader *personal* revelations, understandings, and connections. I think we need to start thinking of our free opt-in content as a brand evangelistic tool!

Always been curious about Teaching Sells — I know they have a lot of free pre-launch content out right now. Brian Clark, Sonia Simone, and Dave Navarro are three of the best when it comes to giving away quality stuff for free.

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Anonymous November 16, 2010 at 7:56 pm

I’m still cleaning up the coffee I spittled on myself when I read that I should have spent two or five hours on my free report. Really?!? I’m on week two over here and it’s still only half done. I think you have officially made me rethink giving it away. perhaps I have written an ebook, not a free report…lol? I do think that the bit about Brian Clark saying that is pretty funny, considering I just finished a 34 page sales sheet for Copyblogger’s ‘Teaching Sells’ course. I’m guessing that took longer than two hours.

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Abby Kerr November 16, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Illana –

Truth? I spent 20+ hours writing on my free e-course. Possibly even 30 hours. But I assume that I overdo things. I usually do. :) I know I could be selling that course as an ebook {with great layout and graphic design, of course}, but for the reasons I shared in my post, right now it’s a free offering. Maybe not forever, but for now. If I were ever to launch a new site or select a different offering, I might create something smaller but still high quality to give away as free opt-in content. {I also wish I’d thought to do my e-course on my site as a blog series instead of opt-in content so that I could be getting SEO and inlink value out of it. May decide to do that someday if I make a new free offering.}

And by the way…the bit about spending two hours, or five, on a free giveaway was mine, not Brian’s.

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Anonymous November 16, 2010 at 8:31 pm

Glad you cleared up the Brian Clark bit:)

See, I always struggle with the visuals. I probably spend half of my time formatting and doing the graphic design because I look at free content as a taster of what they can expect from my larger products, so I want it to be really representative of my more in-depth work. An interesting point to ponder….

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Abby Kerr November 16, 2010 at 10:07 pm

Yes! Same here. I have high production values for everything I put out there, but don’t do my own graphic design, so anytime I want to put forth a product into the world, it’s an additional expense for me to have it designed. BUT I can also look at that as additional impetus to make my content truly fantastic so that I can earn back my design investment quickly! :)

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Miriam November 22, 2010 at 12:48 am

This is something that we are still working out with the launch of our new blog. I’ve noticed that the more people share online the more they create a trusting and engaged community and I think that always translates into sales in the best possible way – i/e not manipulative, snake-oily or gross. Sharing and giving helps ppl identify how your expertise can be applied to them and then makes them more likely to be able to determine whether your thing/service etc is of value to them. When I find a ‘right’ person online whose churning out valuable content for free it always makes me think ‘gee, I wonder what gold this person offers to paying clients?’ and that can be a grand (and authentic) incentive.

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Miriam November 22, 2010 at 12:49 am

I’d be really ineterested to hear what people nominate as the best free product/free piece of content they’ve found online as well as the most valuable thing they’ve spent money on online.

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Abby Kerr November 22, 2010 at 1:28 am

Hi, Miriam –

That’s an excellent question.

For me, the best free content I’ve come across is Dave Navarro’s workbooks, available at http://www.thelaunchcoach.com/.

The best paid content so far, for me, has been Action Studio: http://bit.ly/9nkAJt {and yes, that IS my affiliate link} :) I share what I believe in.

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