Why Free Content Is The Heart of Success

I set out to explore the difference between free content and paid products and services. What I found amazed me. 

If you are like me, there is a little bit of a fuzzy understanding of why offering so much free information and guidance is a good idea for online businesses. People like Seth GodinGary VaynerchukMarie Forleo, and Evan Carmichael put out an endless stream of high-quality social media advice regularly. In a purely economic sense, it doesn’t make sense. Why would anyone buy anything if they could get it for free? To repurpose an old saying: “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

I wanted to think about why the concept of giving away free stuff seemed to work so well. 

Exploring Some Possible Reasons That People Post Free-Content

Is it a matter of bait-and-switch? Are people who offer free content giving you something for free so that you get so far down a path that you will never switch? Even though some software-as-a-service companies try this, this is not the purpose of the free-content-first approach. 

Are people who give away free content giving away second-rate material and keeping their best knowledge to themselves? Is it a way to hook people by partial information or unactionable passion? Then when the consumer is ready to take action, they find that the only step that they can take is to purchase a product from the person offering the free content. Many people have this approach (the next YouTube video I play will probably introduce me to another one.) This also is not an effective and true free-content-first approach. 

Why Giving Away Content First Works

Giving away content first is about putting people first. Free content means that you think that people are amazing and have the potential to have a huge impact. The people who are giving away free material know that it is more important that you have a chance to succeed than it is for them to make money from you. And they genuinely believe this. 

“But wait,” you still may be saying, “doesn’t this make them a charity? If all they do is give away content and advice, how do they may any money?” This point I had a moment of realization. The content and knowledge are free for the taking, but sometimes there are times when you would be willing to pay someone to take action on your behalf. Three of these times are: 

  1. When you want someone to organize and focus your thoughts on the right thing.
  2. When you need someone to present the content in a particular way. 
  3. When you need someone to do the work that they are good at so that you can focus on your best efforts. 

Let me expand on each of these areas

Paying someone to organize the content. 

I feel confident that I could find all every single piece of advice that Seth Godin gives regarding being a Linchpin. But if I want a consolidated document presented in a way that will help me most effectively to understand what Seth is trying to say, I’m going to buy the book. It is knowledge curated explicitly for a specific audience and a particular purpose. If I am that audience, or am looking to solve that problem, I will buy the book. I’m not obtaining the information; I could find that online for free – Seth has already shared it. I am purchasing the curation, organization, and the additional personal care that Seth has given the book to focus my vision in a specific direction. 

When you need to present the content in a specific or personalized way

Sometimes having a one-on-one teacher, or having a presentation in a particular way is the way that is best for you to get the information. Evan Carmichael shows us an excellent example of this. You can watch all of Evan’s videos, learn from his free content, and immediately act on everything that he teaches. But even with having access to all of Evan’s knowledge, you might want to show up for a three-day small group with Evan to learn more about what you can do individually. The presentation of the content is a form of curation, but a conversation or a small group gives you the same information in a much more personalized way.

Having someone work in their area of expertise

Gary Vaynerchuk constantly shares about how to use social media to benefit your business. You could probably spend hours every day watching, listening, and reading his content. You can learn how to do any social media promotion yourself. But sometime you might want to hire Vaynermedia to do it for you. You might have the best product, idea, distribution, and employees. Maybe you don’t want to spend energy on your media, or perhaps you need someone to do it so that you don’t have to learn it. Even though you could learn it all from what Gary says and posts, it might be more effective if you hire his company to take you to the next level.

How It Works Practically

So how do you start giving away free content? And when do you start making money?

Give away as much free content as possible. In fact, since the Pareto principle seems to work so well everywhere else, I’m going to try for myself to use the Pareto principle for content. I wonder what will happen if I spend 80% of my energy on free content, and 20% on paid work and material. (I also expect that I will get 80% of revenue from 20% of activities.) Does that even make sense? Let’s find out. 

Focus on giving away your free content. Remember, giving away what you know is about equipping people to succeed. People succeeding is your end goal. Produce lots of content. Give away everything that you can. Make sure that you are helping people get to the next level. Start filling your 80% from the bottom. Don’t even think about making any money from what you are posting at the beginning. 

How will you know that you are on the right path? You will see that what you are giving away for free is helping people. Maybe it will be that more people sign up for your email list. Maybe there are more follows, or comments with questions about specific topics. Keep on sharing free content to answer all of those questions. 

And when do you start making money? 

There is no hard line between giving away what you know for free and making money. It is a continuum. Sometimes you will have to charge people to give them what you need because you couldn’t do it otherwise. (This could be a speaking engagement, or a product or service offering.) Sometimes there will be a curation that you put together that has value to a specific group of people. (Like a book, course, or a membership site.) Sometimes someone will want you to do the work because you are an expert. 

The only difference between the quality and information in your paid work and your free labour is a small step in the continuum. If you can only do the job if you are paid for it, people will pay for the work that you offer. If you can give it away for free – you should.

This post might raise the question of whether I am advocating that you work for free. I’m not advocating free work. You should work, and increase your economic position. There is no ceiling to what you should earn. If people are willing to pay for the value you give, take it. But make sure that you are delivering a value that you couldn’t offer for free. If you have money, you can live and give with abundance. 


Any time I look at a business model I am curious to know if it has been done before. It might seem like the create-free-content model is new to social media, but it is not. Many parallels have been happening for years. Think of a musician or a comedian. These artists spend years creating, sharing, refining, and providing their content for free. Bands play in bars where there is no cover charge. Comedians do open mike nights. Both of them give their content away for free until they get to a point where they have to charge for it. It costs money to run a stadium tour, or create an album. 

There are even more nuanced examples of the free-content model. A master mechanic will spend their teenage years fixing every possible car they can get their hands on – for free. They will help friends, neighbours, and extended family. All because of the love of cars, and because they want to see others learn, or have their car fixed properly. Eventually, the mechanic may open a garage. To be able to keep giving service, they will have to charge for their work. But the free advice, good ideas, and weekend small jobs for free in their driveway don’t stop. 

Giving away your knowledge and experience for others doesn’t make you weak. It makes everyone stronger. You are part of the community that supports each other. 

A Tangent Thought

People tell you to use content creation for search engine optimization (SEO). Creating content certainly will increase the ability for people to find you, but make sure that the content is useful, not just for SEO. What you write with a real passion for seeing people grow will get many more hits than something that you write to trick people into clicking on your articles.


Keep producing free content as much as possible. It is clear that people reap what they sow. And if you invest in the improvement of other people, you will undoubtedly reap a return from this. Remember that you are people-focused. Your end-goal is that other people can do the work better than you. And if each of us grows people who are better than ourselves, then the world can only become a better place. Give away as much as you can, share out of abundance, and the same generosity will come back to you.

I look forward to seeing what you share and create.

Written by: John van Dijk

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on February 10, 2019. See the original article here.