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How to Make Money by Giving Away Content for Free

An entrepreneur gives nitty gritty details about how he bootstrapped two successful companies via content marketing.
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Earlier this year Inc. columnist Dave Kerpen wrote an article titled "How to Make Money Blogging on LinkedIn," which so far has been shared on social networks more than 7,000 times. One thing some readers asked for: Even more specific advice about content marketing.

If you're not familiar with the concept, it involves giving away for free quality online content in the form of white papers, webinars, blog posts, videos, how-to guides, case studies, study findings, and more. The goal? Get people engaging with your brand and eventually paying for whatever you're selling.

Gregg Pollack, CEO and founder of the programmer training website Code School as well as the web consultancy Envy Labs, knows firsthand content marketing can be profitable.

He explained it to me via email:

I started a consultancy, Envy Labs, about eight years ago building web applications. Then I started a developer blog which covered Ruby and Ruby on Rails. On the blog I posted tutorials, video talks and a podcast. Doing this definitely led to some great consulting gigs over the years. About five years ago I started experimenting with selling educational content videos on the blog. It was good, but still just supplemental income.

Every year I'd still release lots of blog posts and free videos. I love creating educational content.

Then about three and a half years ago... I created another free property, Rails for Zombies, which was the first time I combined videos with coding in the browser. So many people liked this that I decided to create Code School, where I could create and sell educational courses that I loved making.

Because I had built up so much social capital I was able to spend $20,000 on producing a course, and get back $40,000 within two months. I repeated this, just selling one-off courses until October 2012 when we switched to a subscription plan. (Note: 20 percent of Code School's courses are still free, with the other 80 percent behind a paywall.)

Now Envy (the consultancy) still builds web applications and has 13 people, but they're a separate company from Code School, which now employs 27 people. Neither company ever took funding.

In my opinion a great deal of our success revolves around building social capital and hiring talented people.

Interesting stuff, but I wanted more of his advice. Here's part of our phone conversation.

Do you think video as content is better than, say, a written blog piece or does it depend?

It kind of depends on your audience and how your audiences enjoys consuming information. Obviously people who are video podcasters find an audience of people who enjoy consuming video in that way.

One [piece of] advice that I give people is try to reuse your content as much as possible. Some people like listening, some people like writing, some people like watching. If you can take the same content and reuse it there is nothing at all wrong with putting on a podcast, posting it to a blog, emailing it in an email newsletter and making a video of it. You can take the same content and you can repurpose it in many different ways because everybody is different as to the way they prefer to consume it.

How do you suggest that people transition into getting paid for their content?

Well, I think it's good to always [charge for] something from day one even if it is a small part of your content. It doesn't have to be a lot. People sort of over estimate how much you really need in order to start charging for something, even if it is just a 10-page PDF on how to do something. There's still people out there that are going to give you [money] for it. It could be just five bucks.

It's also pretty important that you have free content that leads into paid content which we do a lot of. We will have one topic that will be introductory and we'll teach people a bunch of stuff for free and that will lead into a paid advanced topic.

Is some kind of monthly or annual subscription in which a user gets to eat as much as he wants better than buying content per piece?

I think it's good to start out [selling content] piece by piece. It makes it really easy to test and you're not going to piss off customers. Usually that's the way to get started.

But once you get going, doing the recurring revenue model tends to be a lot more lucrative in the long run, which is what we did.

So, that's always going to be where you want to go just because you're going to get more consistent income, you're going to have people stick around for longer, and you're going to be more profitable that way if you get people to drive [revenues].

And that's what we did with Code School. We started out where you could buy individual courses, and from there once we had enough content we switched over to subscription where it's one price and you get all the courses.

A lot of developers like to produce free content in the form of tutorials. But what if you're a PR consultant or a fashion retailer or a Yoga guru? What kind of content could these people put out?

Well, I think it's funny you ask. My girlfriend does a really very popular finance blog about how to save money and I think no matter what discipline you're in you're always going to be able to figure out what kind of content other professionals like you would consume. [Whether it's] marketing, PR or whatever you're doing there's probably a whole blogging community around it. That's really the simplest thing that you can do is to start up a blog, start up a mailing list. There are 10-step programs out there that show you how to get that done and start publishing and self-promoting [your work].

Do you post content on other websites that link back to your site?

You know, I've never done a whole lot of that but what we'll do a lot of the time to publicize our courses and our content is go out and we'll ask people to review. So if you're putting out content--and this goes for anybody publishing about anything--go out and find other bloggers or people in the media and say 'Hey, I have this blog or content or video. I would love to give you a free copy if you would review it. Just give me your honest feedback.'

How important is social media in getting people consuming content?

Yeah, social media is the easiest way to get started with exactly that. It goes along the lines of finding other people that are also bloggers that might be interested in your content. The easiest way is to find the people who are also publishing in your community [and] reaching out them on social media. You can easily start retweeting their tweets when they publish things to give them publicity and hopefully they'll return the favor.

You can also create a Facebook page [so that] people can like you on Facebook. Facebook is a great way of starting a conversation. That's where you go to develop a conversation and if you can ask good questions, than people start answering those questions and having conversations. You get on not only your friends' walls but your friends' friends' walls and start getting a lot of publicity.

So certainly learning to leverage social media is your cheapest way to get traction and publicity and drive people to your content.

I always tell people it's not good enough to just create content, even if it's free content. Creating content is 50 percent [producing it] and 50 percent self-promotion. You have to be willing every time you create a piece of content to take time out of your schedule and publicize [it].

I also encourage people to not only go onto social media but [use] email. So if you know somebody that writes or creates content of the same type that you are creating, there is nothing wrong with sending them an email saying 'Hey, I really love all that one article you did that one time.' So give them a big compliment because they probably don't hear it enough. And then tell them about your articles, tell them 'I just created this piece of content. I would love to have your feedback on it.'

Start a dialogue with these people and eventually they may help promote. You can even ask them to help promote.

What other advice do you have?

Well, obviously you don't necessarily have to just create a new island on the web. A good place to start developing a name for yourself is always guest blogging, finding people that talk about your content, or even people that create the same kind of paid content that you want to be creating and then instead of creating your own platform, create content for them.

Even on Code School we encourage people if they want to create screencasts for us just as an independent person we will pay them to create independent screenasts and put them up on our website. So they get paid for creating paid content, start developing a name for themselves and don't have to worry about publicity at all, we take care of that.

Want more advice on content marketing? Check out How to Drive Sales With Content Marketing.

Last updated: Jun 25, 2014

CHRISTINA DESMARAIS

Christina DesMarais is an Inc.com contributor who writes about the tech start-up community, covering innovative ideas, news, and trends. On Google+, add her to one of your circles. Have a tip? Email her at christinadesmarais (at) live (dot) com.




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