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 buttonWell, 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.

Related resources

Marketing Webinar Optimization: Five questions to ask yourself about webinars

Value Proposition: Our research team answers your questions

How to Test Your Value Proposition Using a PPC Ad

Powerful Value Propositions: How to Optimize this Critical Marketing Element – and Lift Your Results

Value Prop: Is there true value in your marketing proposition?

Photo attribution: stillwanderer

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  1. Jenny says

    I completely agree! So much of what is offered for “free” requires some form of “payment.” What we get in return frequently does not equal in value terms what we’ve been asked to “pay” (contact information, demographic information, details about our private lives, etc).

  2. Mark A Carbone says

    Great article. Yes, nothing is free and we all know that but I like that you challenge the king of message, Seth.

  3. Robert Craven says

    Snake oil salesmen send me endless emails promising to double my profits with 21 secrets of success to be shared only with people attending blah blah.

    All the usual sales tricks:
    – only an odd (or prime) number of seats left
    – full price should be odd (or prime) number of pounds
    – effusive testimonials from unheard of people (eg TJ, from Preston)
    – effusive testimonials from extremely famous (and unlikely) person

    Does anyone believe this? And who attends? And what do they expect?

    As my Grandmother used to say…
    “If it is too good to be true then it probably is…” for some 30+ comments in this

  4. Donnie Bryant says

    Great article, Daniel.

    Robert Collier said that “there is just one reason why anyone ever reads a letter you send him. He expects a reward. That is the key to holding his interest.”

    The concept is so clear, but it seems that so few marketers get it. So few PEOPLE get it.

    This fact has hit me hard recently. How often am I guilty of doing the same? Of worrying more about getting readership than rewarding my core audience with valueable content? Or not living up to my own promises, explicit or implied?

    I know I am demanding with my time. My readers deserve to be treated the same.

    Thanks for delivering on your value proposition.

  5. Paul Simister says

    I’m not sure what you’ve got against squeeze pages but i do think that getting the freebie consumed is much more difficult than getting the email address.

    There must be hundreds of things I’ve downloaded – reports, mp3s and videos – that I thought sounded interesting at the time but I’ve not given one second to since.

    I talk about the concept of return on time and I think it’s key. If you leave someone better off – financially, emotionally, spiritually – through a contact with you, then you’ll win respect and repeat attention.

    If you waste their time with stuff that’s irrelevant or rubbish, then you’re toast.

  6. Bob spelled backwards says

    This is hilarious. You state “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.” So, I clicked the link, and was taken directly to a page asking for my name and email address. It said:

    Sign up for the MarketingExperiments Journal today and you’ll receive, FREE:

    First access to $10 million in optimization research
    Invitations to four live web clinic invitations per quarter
    Subscription to quarterly research journal

    You’re right about one thing. Trick me once, and I won’t trust you again.

    1. Daniel Burstein says

      Thanks Bob (or is it boB?)

      And, ouch, that hurts a little. I’d hate to be a hypocrite.

      That popup is optional. You can click “close” and still read the Research Journal. And it’s only for first-time visitors (which you apparently are, so welcome).

      However, you make a valid point. And I think this is a challenge we all have with our own efforts (especially something we first launched months or years ago), we’re so intimately familiar with them, that we forget how first-time visitors may perceive something. I’m going to take another look at that based on your comment, and we may take it down. Thanks for pointing that out.

  7. Ellen says

    I’m not sure I agree with Seth or you about giving away a free report without asking for an email address. I look at it this way. I have links at the back of my report. If people who have given me their email address don’t use them (and they rarely do), neither will people who don’t give me their email. Unless you think that people think, “Well, I gave my email address, so I won’t click the link, because that would be giving 2 things.” I doubt that.

    If the ultimate goal is sales, in my experience, you need to develop a relationship first. Seth can give free downloads with no email because of his reputation and “attitude.” Most businesses need to get that email and offer free content over a period of time, before people will buy a product or service.

  8. Susan Melin says

    You can’t give away content if you don’t have any. Most marketers write sloppy, shallow content. The thought of giving away premium content that takes months to develop, makes the average marketer shudder.
    Rather than giving away a 172 page pdf with no email capture required, middle of the road solution might be to let your reader’s see a sample newsletter or one of the pdf pages, before they sign up.

  9. Kristi says

    So dadgum good! Getting into the customers mind and desires and giving them what they want instead of what you want is such a huge switch from traditional…marketing. you…you…you…what can I do for ?

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