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Free Content Is King: Baby, Give It Up

FREE Content Is King

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Image by DavidDMuir via Flickr

I recently watched a TED Talk, A Kinder, Gentler Philosopy of Success by Alain de Botton and emailed the link to Karen Hartline and Tara Hunt.  Tara watched the clip, tweeted several quotes linking to the video and published a post entitled, What Is Success, with the embedded video of the TED Talk.  When Karen and I discussed how quickly a single link spread, she suggested that I write a post about free content.  One person emailed a single link that lead to several conversations both online and offline, dozens of tweets and the creation of two blog posts. Not bad exposure, especially considering no one received a dime to promote the content.

I share this anecdote to demonstrate how giving away content allows for the promotion of content in ways that are unlikely (if not impossible) with paid content.  Free content is more viral, leads to the creation of new content, in this case, Tara Hunt’s blog post and my blog post, and increases good will, or “Whuffie”, for the organizations and individuals giving it away.

What Are TED Talks ?

As Virginia Hefferrnan, explained in Confessions of a TED Addict in the New York Times Magazine: A TED talk begins as an auditorium speech given at the multidisciplinary, invitation-only annual TED conference. TED then creates videos of the speeches and puts them online so they can find a broader audience — and usurp my life. Ms. Heffernan jokingly considers herself an “addict”, but I consider her an “evangelist”, or an individual who passionately supports a product, idea or company without any expectation of financial gain.

Empowered evangelists drive value and form communities of evangelists, or fans, when organizations give away content.  Self-proclaimed “Tedsters”, or fans, forget that they are not invited to the pricey conference when they are given access to the content and the tools to share, promote and enjoy the content in their respective communities.  TED has spawned thousands of enthusiasts, a Facebook fan group dedicated to TED Talks and dozens of  blogs focused on reviewing, highlighting and celebrating TED Talks.  Furthermore, the conversation continues on TED.com long after new content is posted.  Would people pay to view TED talks?  Of course, but the talks would not be the viral marketing tools they are today if viewers were required to pay to view the content.  The speakers, the fans and TED itself benefits from the viral nature of the talks and the goodwill associated with sharing such valuable content.  In line with the slogan, Ideas that Spread, TED figured out that giving the content away was far more valuable that charging a fee.

TED is not an isolated example.  Look at Radiohead, who gave away their album and Girl Talk who followed Radiohead’s example.  Hundreds of companies in a many industries benefit from free content, and they all share something: they maximize free content by leveraging vocal evangelists’ expertise and a variety of tools that allow widespread dispersion of the content.  Evangelists, or fans, and the growing number of tools available to share, personalize, discuss and add to content have given free content a life of its own.  The companies, brands and individuals willing to experiment with the options and engage evangelists are creating new ways to build a brand and promote their products.

Much of what I have said is anecdotal, and I recognize it is useless without action items.  Here is the rundown, in case your boss laughs at you when you suggest giving it away.

Why give it away?

  • Free content is more viral, and its value increases as others add insight. A speech, video, article is made far more valuable when it has been questioned, analyzed, praised, and, yes, critiqued by others.  It not only becomes more viral, it also becomes the inspiration for new content.
  • Let your evangelists work for you, and trust in their ability to do what they do best. Evangelists know how to promote and spread content and enjoy sharing free content with others. In fact, they thrive on it.  Give them the tools, and they will make the content viral, reach new audiences and convert new evangelists.
  • Free content creates Whuffie, reciprocity and those warm, fuzzy intangibles that actually matter today more than ever. You all know what it is like to feel ripped off, but it is rare that you feel like we have gotten something for nothing.  When you do get something valuable at no cost, you see the source of the gift in a more positive light, and, if you are like me, you may even want to pay it forward, by telling others about the experience.

How can you maximize the value of free content?  TED takes an “all of the above” approach, which, if you can afford it, is great.  If not, I included a list below, so do what you can.  Do not be afraid to get creative.  Here are the basics to get you started:

  • Provide a prodigal kitchen sink of tools. There are dozens of ways to share, discuss, personalize and contribute via email, social networks, bookmarking apps, play lists and RSS feeds.  Do not forget offline options either!  Offering options gives the content more “legs”.  I may want to send a link to a friend with a personal, private note, while someone else may prefer to embed a video on a website or blog.  Trust that your audience knows their audiences best.
  • Facilitate content download to ensure viewers can capture exact quotes, and make it easy to link to the original source. TED provides transcripts, and NPR recently decided to release free transcripts.  If you do not give users this information, you risk botched quotes and lose the opportunity to draw others back to the original source on your website.
  • Connect the audience to others with similar interests to increase the depth and duration of the conversation. This can be done on a website with a comments section, but there are also many other ways to connect members of the community.  Allow users to create a profile, favorite items, create playlists and share information with each other both within and outside of your community, online and offline.
  • Replenish content often, and alert your audience when new content or functionality is available. Keep the source of information dynamic and fresh, so that users return and find value each time.  Ask for feedback often, float new ideas and respond to comments as quickly as possible.  Your evangelists will tire if your website feels stale, and, since they are not on the payroll, there is no way to force them to promote old content.

FYI, if you are new to the game, there are dozens of amazing professionals who know how to maximize the value of free content and engage and create evangelists.  Let me know if you would like some names.

Baby Give It Up

None of what I am saying is groundbreaking.  How many years ago did The Cluetrain Manifesto teach us that markets are conversations?  What IS new is that there are many new people who are initiating and leading the conversations, or, as Tara Hunt says in The Whuffie Factor, ‘picking up the torch’.  Armed with new tools and technology, these evangelists, know how to promote free content, and, what’s more, they do it at no cost, but only if you are willing to trust them.

As KC & The Sunshine Band said, Baby, Give It Up Try it out, stick with what works, change what does not work.  Look to your evangelists for ideas, and if you have none, free content is a great tool to create evangelists.  “Free” is not a dirty word if you know how use it to your advantage.

Liza Sperling | Connect with me

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