One of the more common questions I get as an online business owner who creates content is, “How do you decide what content you put out for free and what content is paid?”
If you’re putting out a bunch of information on social media, YouTube, a podcast, or blog, why would someone buy from you? Wouldn’t giving away all the goods hurt your bottom line?
That’s the line of questioning that typically comes up when we talk about free versus paid content.
And I just want to assuage your fears – putting out free content will not kill your sales. Actually, the more you give online, the more people will purchase from you.
And the reason for that is trust. By giving away high-quality free content that actually solves your ideal client’s problems, they grow to see you as an authority in your space. If you can clearly understand and address their problems with your free content, they’re thinking, “How great must the paid content be??”
So in this post I want to give you six tips for understanding the differences between free and paid content and how they play together.
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Please note that I am an affiliate for some of the following products. If you click my affiliate link and make a purchase, I may earn a percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
What we cover:
#1: Free content gives a taste, but paid content solves a problem
If you’re worried that giving away high-quality content for free will hurt your bottom line, it’s time to release that fear.
You can give away almost everything you know for free and still have people buy your paid products and services.
How can that be?
It’s simple, really.
The free content that you put out is often dripped out in a very piecemeal way, with different formats on different platforms.
While each individual piece may be helpful in its own way, it’s not cohesive. People still have to do a decent amount of work to dig through all of your content and try to put it together themselves into some sort of actionable plan.
And this is where the value of your paid offerings comes in. Your paid offerings solve a clear problem in an easy-to-access way.
Here’s how each type of paid content solves a problem
If you’re offering a paid digital good, like an ebook or a cheat sheet or a checklist or templates, usually what you’re doing is boiling things down for people into clear actionable steps.
You’re giving them a framework to work from that they don’t have to create themselves.
The key point here is you’re saving people time and mental energy and people will 1000% pay for that, even if that information is technically available for free elsewhere on the internet.
People are overwhelmed with the amount of information available online and many of them are strapped for time. Time is money, so if you tie everything up for someone in a nice pretty bow and just say here, follow this and you’ll get results, that is valuable.
If you’re selling an online course, it’s likely a lot more in-depth than your free content and also clearly organized and easy to follow. A course has a starting point and an endpoint and a clear outcome that you’ll achieve by following the teachings.
There’s no fluff or uncertainty about whether you’re tackling things in the right order or missing a step. You just show up, you consume the content, you follow the steps and you get the result that you’re looking for.
And again, that is valuable and people will pay a lot for that service to be provided for them. You’re saving people time while also teaching them something that will serve them moving forward.
If you run a membership site, a lot of times what people are actually paying for is community. Access to a group of similar people that they can connect with and lean on for support.
In this case, your paid offer meets the need for connection that can’t be found elsewhere.
Additionally, membership sites often release content frequently, so members know that they don’t have to worry about personally keeping up with the latest news, tips, research, or whatever in a certain topic area.
They can just show up to your membership and get what they need. That’s just another thing that they don’t have to worry about and they will happily pay you for this convenience by being part of your membership site.
If you provide a service, then what people are really paying for is accountability, personalized advice, and/or a done-for-you outcome, which definitely isn’t provided by consuming free content.
No matter how many followers you have consuming your free content, there will always be a subgroup of people who will happily pay to work with you one on one, to hear the guidance from your mouth, to help them apply it to their specific situation, and to give them the accountability piece and check-ins over time to help them implement.
Long story short – no matter your business model, your free content is really not competing with your paid content. Your free content attracts people to you and while it might solve one-off micro-problems, your paid content adds value on top of that.
#2: Free content both serves your audience and grows your audience
The goal of your free content is to both serve your audience and grow your audience.
So we want the content to be valuable, but also strategically created to attract the right people to our brand. People who might eventually be interested in subscribing to our content and purchasing our products and services.
In the blogging space, the best way to create posts that both serve people and bring people a large number of people to your site each month is to do keyword research before you start writing.
Keyword research is basically doing your homework before you write a blog post. Rather than guessing about what to write about, we want to use data to find topics that a lot of people search for every month, but that haven’t been written about by a lot of high-authority websites yet.
That way, we know the free content we’re creating has a chance to rank towards the top of the Google search results and get lots of people to click over to our site, for free.
Doing keyword research gives you clarity and an action plan. The data tells you exactly what your people are searching for en masse, so that you can be sure you’re creating something valuable for them online.
You don’t need to guess what they might be looking for, or worse, assume that you already know. Let your ideal customer TELL YOU what content to create.
If you create content on YouTube, you can also do keyword research to see what keywords people search for specifically on YouTube so that you can create strategic video content to meet your people’s needs.
If you’re a podcaster, there is no keyword research at this time, but one way to serve your audience and grow your reach is by interviewing guests on your podcast. If those guests share the interview with their audience, you have a shot at getting in front of new listeners.
If you’re mostly focused on social media, you’ll want to create content that has a high likelihood of getting engagement. Things like likes, reactions, shares, comments, and saves.
That usually means creating a mix of content that solves people’s problems, connects with them emotionally, capitalizes on trends, and that makes them feel like YES, this person GETS me. I have to follow to get more.
If you do it right, you’ll create content that both people and the social algorithms love, leading to better reach and an engaged and growing audience.
#3: High-value free content can grow your email list
If you sell something online, you probably know the insane value of an engaged email list.
The people on your email list are usually the ones who are most likely to purchase something from you. So anything we can do to increase the number of people joining our email list is time well spent.
So what kind of free content can you create to grow that list?
Here’s an idea: Create opt-ins around high-volume, high-difficulty keywords in your niche.
These are topics that you know your people are interested in, but that you don’t really have a good shot at ranking for with a blog post because all the websites currently ranking at the top of the search results are super large and authoritative already.
While you might not be able to rank a blog post around those topics, you could always create a really high-value email opt-in that you can offer to people once they arrive on your site via other pieces of content that you’ve created.
For example, if you’re a low-fodmap dietitian, perhaps you’ve created a ton of content on your site around long-tail keywords addressing people’s really specific questions about fodmaps. But you haven’t written a blog post with a low fodmap food list because the competition is way too steep and you don’t want to waste your time creating content that will never rank.
But what if instead of creating a low-fodmap food list blog post, you created a low-fodmap food list PDF and sent it to people automatically when they joined your email list?
This is an excellent way to be sure that your email opt-in offer is something that’s in demand (nearly 15,000 people search for that every month, so your ideal customer is probably also interested in it) and increase the chances of someone joining your email list once they land on your site.
Another popular way to create free content that grows your email list is to have your email opt-in expand upon the topic you’ve written a blog post about.
For example, if you wrote a blog post on the 10 best gluten-free items at Trader Joe’s, perhaps a good opt-in to go alongside that would be a comprehensive shopping list of your favorite gluten-free items at Trader Joe’s, organized by aisle for easy shopping.
And finally, a third creative way to use free content to grow your list is to bundle together various blog posts, tips you’ve posted on social media, and other content you’ve created into a high-value ebook that people can download in exchange for joining your list.
If you’re new to email marketing and aren’t sure which platform to use to set this up, I recommend ConvertKit. It’s what I use for all my websites. You can set up a free ConvertKit plan and give it a spin today! (If you click this link and make a purchase, I may earn a commission.)
#4: Free content should be quality and consistent
Creating free content is amazing for attracting people to your brand. It would be a mistake to focus all of your time on your paid content and then skimp out on what gets put out for free.
Your free content is a marketing tool. It’s meant to show people how amazing you are and attract them to working with you or purchasing something from you.
And content marketing is awesome because you don’t have to spend any money on ads to build a thriving business, although, of course, you could also do ads. It’s amazing if you can do both, but content marketing is available for everyone at no cost.
You just have to understand the strategy. All it costs is your time to create the content, but it can and does work for all businesses of any size, whether you’re just starting out or you’ve been around for years. There’s a reason that people put out content to serve their audience. It works. It’s a great, great way to grow a brand.
I also think that content marketing feels good to a lot of people. You can genuinely help people while simultaneously attracting them to you for free.
And if you put out evergreen content in the form of blog posts, it’s basically just like a never-ending asset that just keeps growing. Every time you publish a new post, it’s another opportunity to get found via a Google search and become visible to a brand new person who’s Googling something. So your goal is to create the highest quality content that you can with your free stuff.
You want to find that sweet spot where you are able to put out high-quality content on a consistent basis. If we’re talking about blogging, posting one or two times per week is a great goal.
Not every single piece you create needs to be an epic manifesto on some super technical topic. Actionable posts like roundups, lists, checklists, etc. can be quicker to put together and still do great in search as well.
Just always want to keep the user experience in mind. What are they looking for and how you can provide them with exactly that? The last thing you want is for someone to not like the information they found on your site and then actively avoid clicking your website in the future because they assume all of your content is low-quality as well.
You don’t need to aim for absolute perfection. There’s definitely a balancing act there, but you do want to make sure that every piece of content you create genuinely meets the needs of your reader.
Pick a publishing frequency you can realistically commit to and push yourself to show up. If it doesn’t come naturally, consider bringing on some help, outsourcing, joining an accountability group, or even hiring a coach to help you.
#5: Use your free Content to lead People Along the Customer Journey
Chances are good that someone discovering your content for the first time will not be ready to buy from you.
So what do they need to know, believe, or understand in order to be ready?
Those are excellent areas to focus your free content around.
Where is your audience right now and where do they need to be in order to want to buy from you?
For example, my audience is wellness professionals. They’re highly knowledgeable about their area of expertise, but they probably don’t know very much about starting a website, blogging, or creating digital income streams because they aren’t taught that in school.
So I need to do a lot of educating before someone may be ready to buy from me to learn how to blog, monetize, and set up email funnels.
They need to understand why having a website and an online presence is important and how it can help them achieve their deeper goals.
They need to understand what digital income streams are available to them and also how email marketing can help tie all of these things together.
From a practical standpoint, they also need to have a website in order to implement most of the things that I talk about.
So that’s a lot of different topics that I could create free educational content around to help people understand how my paid stuff can help them and get them excited about learning and implementing it.
So here’s an example of a step-wise progression I have in my business right now:
I have a free Facebook group, blog, and podcast where I educate, inspire, create connections, and attract people to my brand.
Once people are in my ecosystem, many of them sign up for my free start a website tutorial, where I walk them through creating a self-hosted WordPress website, 100% for free.
Why did I take the time to create such a valuable offer for free?
This free offer serves multiple purposes:
- It is genuinely helpful and sets people up for success. By the end of the free tutorial, they will have a functioning website. This really helps people get over the initial roadblock of not having a website and feeling completely overwhelmed about creating one. Rather than allowing people to give up and turn away, I guide them through how to get started, step by step.
- It builds trust with my audience. When someone follows along with the tutorial, they experience my teaching style and can decide whether or not they like learning from me.
- It grows my email list. When people join the free tutorial, they are added to my email list so that I can continue to send them high-value content all year long and also present them with opportunities to buy my course or other special offers.
- It sets them up to be ready to buy. Once someone has a website, the next logical thing that they should be focusing on is how to get people to come to the website, which is exactly what I teach inside my signature course, SEO Made Simple.
So this is an example of how you can create free content that is almost irresistible to your audience and that prepares them to be ready to work with you.
This type of content works in conjunction with my informational and inspirational free content on my website and podcast and inside my free Facebook group, which attracts people to my ecosystem in the first place.
#6: Dont Forget You can still monetize free content
It’s crucial to understand that free content means free for your readers, but it doesn’t mean you won’t see any return on that time investment that you put in.
You can monetize free content in the following ways:
1. Display ads
If you get at least 50,000 visitors to your website every single month, you can join the premium ad network Mediavine and automatically place display ads within your blog posts. If you place ads on your site, you can earn ad revenue simply from people reading the free content that you have produced.
It’s pretty typical to earn $1,000 per month and up, in ad revenue, once you are accepted into the ad network.
2. Affiliate links
Don’t forget that you can also put affiliate links inside some of your free content and make money. that way.
So for example, inside my free start a website tutorial, I recommend hosting providers, themes, and plugins that I include affiliate links for.
Of course, you must always disclose affiliate links so that it is clear to people that you may profit if they purchase through your links, but if you are actually helping someone take action through your content, chances are good that a certain percentage will click and buy.
To date, over 2,300 people have signed up for my free start a website tutorial and I have earned over $20,000 in commissions from the affiliate recommendations made within that tutorial.
So even though that tutorial was “free” it has definitely more than paid for itself in both affiliate income, trust, and eventual course sales in my business.
3. Sponsored Content
And then the third way you can monetize “free” content for your audience is by doing sponsored content.
With sponsored content, you are paid outright by a brand to create content featuring their product. So unlike affiliate income, where you don’t actually get paid upfront, but get paid if people purchase through your link, with sponsored content you get paid a flat fee upfront for creating the content in the first place.
For example, if you are a low-fodmap food blogger, perhaps you create a whole holiday menu featuring a certain brand of low-fodmap products. Pair that with some social media promotion featuring the brand and you could get paid 4 figures for your work.
It just takes a little creativity and persistence and outreach to these companies to find these opportunities. But if you have trust with your audience and they actually listen to your recommendations, then a sponsored post with a brand that wants to reach your specific type of people could be a great opportunity.
Bonus: Bundle free content into a paid offer
If you’ve created some really epic free content, maybe in the form of a content series on social media or a free email challenge or something like that, you could also totally bundle that content into a small paid offer like a recipe ebook, educational ebook, or checklist or templates that people can purchase from you.
Because again, it’s not even about the information. It’s about the convenience and the packaging of the information. Information is out there. If you want to Google something, one thousand percent it is probably out there somewhere on the internet. There’s not really any secret information that no one can find.
It’s the help with organization and implementation that people are paying for. They’re paying for the convenience of you packaging it all up into an easy-to-follow format and for explaining it in a very cohesive and comprehensive way that speaks to them.
The bottom line
The reality is, sometimes people are scared to put out free content. But once you understand the bigger picture and can see how free content strategically leads into your paid content, it becomes clear that content marketing is actually insanely valuable and essential to building an online brand.
You can’t just hide behind a paywall, you have to be out there serving your people in public to start to build your online brand.
To summarize, free content gives people a taste of what you have to offer, but your paid offerings are what really solve their problems.
Free content serves your current audience, but it also grows your audience so you can reach even more people.
Free content can be used strategically to grow your email list so that you can build a real relationship with your followers and make evergreen sales.
It’s important to create high-quality content, but consistency matters as well. Try to find that sweet spot. I know you can do it.
Some of your free content can set people up to be ready to buy from you. What do they need to know, believe, or understand in order to be ready to take action?
And don’t forget, just because content is free for the end consumer, doesn’t mean it’s not monetizable in other ways, like ads, affiliate links, sponsors, etc.
But seriously, you can give away almost everything you know in various ways within your free content. And that content is insanely valuable for people who have tons of time and very little funds. They can likely gain some insane value if they take the time to organize your information themselves.
But there will always always be people in your audience who want convenience, accountability, and personalization who will be ready, waiting, and excited to purchase from you.
So in short, free content and paid content are both valuable in their own ways and they play great together.
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Erica Julson is a registered dietitian turned digital marketing pro. She has over 12 years of experience blogging and building online businesses and has taught over 900 wellness professionals inside her signature program, SEO Made Simple.