What do water slides and summertime fun have in common with content marketing and your business?
Nothing? Not quite.
Imagine for a moment, you’re a seven-year-old.
You walk into an indoor water park with your parents and look up, up, up to the tallest indoor water slide you’ve ever seen—a twisting, turning yellow tube wrapped three times around a lighthouse replica ending in a heated pool surrounded by a towering reproduction of coastal rocks.
You tear up the curving staircase to the top of the slide quivering in anticipation as you wait your turn. You finally make it to the front of the line when the lifeguard turns to you and says, “Wasn’t that fun? You got to see the slide! Next time you come in as a paying customer, you’ll get to try it yourself.”
For 18 months in 2009 and 2010 I was, in fact, the manager of the tallest indoor water slide in Oregon. Prior to the facility’s grand opening, and leading up to the big day, we hosted numerous “soft openings” to gauge customer flow, train our staff, and generally prepare for the main event.
What we didn’t do during these soft openings was tease potential customers by just giving them a glimpse of our best features.
We actually let the kids slide down the water slide and run through the water obstacle course. We encouraged adults to play basketball and test the treadmills. We harnessed and belayed anyone willing to wait in line to give our rock wall a try.
We held nothing back, AND we gave it all away for free.
We knew it was the best possible way to garner buzz, test our systems and whet potential customer appetites for their next (paying) visit. It was also a way to gain feedback from customers to learn what they appreciated, and where they thought we flubbed.
If you think online business is somehow different—that it’s smart to hold material back so that only paying customers get your “best”—#sorrynotsorry, but you’re wrong.
Doing Business Online is Always a “Soft Opening”
Of course online businesses aren’t exactly the same as brick and mortars, so while not all principles apply, I stand firm on my contention that every day you run an online business is a day you’re hosting a “soft opening.”
That means every day you run an online business, you need to give your best content away for free.
I can hear the grumbles, “But Laura, I want people to pay for my best content. Why would I give it all away?”
Look, I get it. I do. But let’s say someone lands on your site after searching “how to master a handstand.”
If you think, hey, I know how to do a handstand. I could just offer an article that talks about handstands, then sells the product, “Learn to do a handstand in three days.” If they want to learn to do a handstand, surely they’ll pay.
They’ll go somewhere else, because someone else is offering the content they want for free. And the person offering the content for free is the one developing a relationship—potentially a paying relationship—with a customer who could have been yours.
If, instead, you think of this potential customer as someone attending the soft opening for your business, you give them everything they’re looking for. Walk them through the handstand process with detailed step-by-step instructions, and maybe even a supplemental video showing the breakdown of steps.
You don’t hold anything back because you understand this is your opportunity to connect—to show your expertise and develop a relationship.
Then to keep the relationship going, you wrap up the article up by saying, “If you need more help, sign up for my Daily Balance email, and I’ll send you a free guide to help you master five popular handstand variations.”
Just like that you said, “Hey, I’m an expert. I’ve got what you’re looking for. In fact, I’ll walk you through the entire process. If, at the end, you’re still looking for more, I’ve got that for you right here. Let’s keep this relationship going.”
Every article, podcast, or video you put together has the power to create a long-term connection with a future customer. And by giving away your best content for free, you’re tapping into the very real “psychology of free.”
The Psychology of Free
On a recent morning, I woke up to a headline, “Free ice cream! Dairy Queen giving away free cones.” Instantly I thought, “Ohhhhh, where’s the closest DQ?”
Which was bizarre.
Bizarre because I don’t eat fast food. Not to mention, I haven’t had ice cream in months. And I’m quite possibly Celiac (undergoing testing now),, so there’s absolutely nothing about ice cream served in a gluten-containing cone that should be at all appealing to me.
And yet, FREE!
People love free—myself included. And marketers have long known that people are influenced by free, in large part due to the law of reciprocity. When you receive something of value, whether a product, service or information, you feel indebted to the person giving it away and want to return the favor.
This law applies, even when you’re not consciously aware of it.
Take, for instance, doctors. My brother happens to be one.
About a year ago my brother, a doctor, shared something he learned in one of this continuing education ethics classes regarding the gift-giving rules pharmaceutical reps have to follow.
“It used to be reps could give away cruises, sets of golf clubs, whatever. But now the rules are much stricter. Reps might be able to take you out to dinner, but the value of the meal is capped. And now they can’t give away gifts of significant value, except maybe a pen or magnet or something. But what’s interesting is that studies show, even these small gifts—the pens, the magnets—influence doctors’ prescribing habits, even though most doctors don’t think they do.”
Let that sink in for a second.
Doctors—well-educated individuals—are unknowingly influenced by freebies. So much so that they’re more likely to “return the favor” by prescribing the medicine of the freebie-giving representative.
And they’re not alone. Costco has mastered the art of giving away free samples to help boost customer spending. In fact, Interaction, the company responsible for handling Costco’s sampling events, reported to The Atlantic in 2014 that sales of sampled product jumped by up to 600 percent following a free sampling.
Six. Hundred. Percent.
When “free” is used appropriately and intentionally it can be harnessed for massive results.
Using the Benefits of “Free” for Your Online Business
Now, I know your online business isn’t a water park, Costco, or a doctor’s office. And I know you might think, “But my knowledge is my product—how can I give my knowledge away for free, and still expect people to pay for it?”
The answer comes back to three basic tenets of human nature: The law of reciprocity, the desire to create relationships, and good ol’ human laziness.
Let me break it down for you:
- Reciprocity. When you give something of value to your potential customer, they want to return the favor. They’re more likely to share your content, talk about your resources, opt in to your newsletter, or bookmark your page for later. You just have to be smart about crafting your call to action.
- Relationships. When your potential customer feels a connection with you and appreciates what you offer, they begin to trust you as they would a close friend. Which means they’ll keep reading your material, and listen closely to your recommendations. Check out this 2015 report from Nielson. People are more likely to make purchases based on recommendations from friends than from any other source. When you become your customer’s “friend,” your opinions and suggestions matter.
- Laziness. Because people are inherently lazy, they will follow the path of least resistance to find what they want or need. If your site is their path of least resistance, then BINGO! Your product is sold.
I want to focus on this last tenet for a second because it’s important.
According to Nobel Prize-winning economist, Daniel Kahneman, there are two basic ways of thinking that all humans employ:
- System 1 thinking operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. It’s like when you decide to go to the grocery store—chances are you have a go-to store near your house. You drive there on autopilot (and probably shop on autopilot) because you know the store, like its choices, and are comfortable with the pricing. You don’t give it a second thought.
- System 2 requires effort, attention, and complex mental computations. Let’s say a new grocery store opens up close to your house, and you decide it’s prudent to check it out. When you do, you’re going to be thinking about every step of the experience. Was the parking lot crowded? What’s the store’s layout like? Is the food selection up to par? How does the pricing compare? You’re going to actively look for reasons to like or dislike the experience.
Humans naturally want to stay in System 1 thinking because moving to System 2 requires cognitive strain, which leads to vigilance and suspicion.
When you use your material wisely—giving it away freely as you build deep relationships with potential customers—by the time they’re ready to make a purchase, they won’t think twice about who to make it from.
They already know you, and they already trust you. So why would they go through the cognitive strain of trying to ferret out other, similar products?
In short, they won’t. They will follow the path of least resistance and head straight to you.
Sales Require Intention
OK. Now after telling you all the reasons you should give away your best material for free, it’s time for a caveat.
Sales don’t happen JUST because you give away free material. Even if your material is fantastic.
Sadly, you could write a million of the best blog posts ever written and never make a dime if you haven’t approached your copy with intention.
With every post you write, you need to ask yourself three questions:
- How am I using this content to fulfill a customer’s needs?
- What else do my customers want to know, and how can I develop a call to action to meet that need with the intention of developing a deeper relationship?
- How can I package a saleable product that fulfills customer’s needs while providing added value?
If every piece of material you publish addresses these three questions, you never have to doubt the benefit of providing your best content for free. The results you experience when you open sales of your product will speak for themselves.
Over to you. What do you think about giving away some of your best content for free? Are you doing it already? What’s your experience with it? Let us know in the comments below!