The Magic of Free Information

(Listen to this post, here.)

The dirt pile next door is now a 3,000 square foot house.

Of course, it didn’t happen by magic. Or overnight.

We live in a new development: 60 homes that have been under construction for about four years.

When we moved here 18 months ago, there was an empty lot on one side of us and a 30-story (I may be exaggerating) mound of dirt on the other.

Slowly, over the months, the mound got smaller and smaller, until one day it was gone and they began building.

Today, the house next door is all done. Next week, our new neighbors move in.

In the time we’ve lived here, I’ve seen a lot of houses go up. Fifteen, maybe twenty.

I’ve watched them pour foundations and I’ve watched them do the framing. I’ve seen decks built and roofs shingled.

I’ve walked around inside (trespassing at houses under construction is a popular neighborhood pastime) and seen how they install the electrical, plumbing, HVAC, drywall, appliances and more. 

Pretty much every step along the way from dirt pile to smiling new neighbors.

Which means, you’ll be happy to learn, that I am now qualified to build a house for you.

Except, of course, that it doesn’t.

Despite having seen multiple houses built, and while I have picked up a few insights here and there, I really don’t know much more about doing the job than I did when we first moved here.

The truth is, about the only thing of significance that’s changed is that I now realize how complicated the task of building a house is and how little I know.

Which is why sharing information – lots of information – about what you know is not a threat to your business. If anything, it’s a competitive advantage.

You can’t give away too much

My clients are all small professional service firms and individuals: consultants, business coaches, financial advisors, training companies, etc.

People who sell “information services.”

They get paid (as do I) for sharing what they know.

And so when I suggest that an email newsletter filled with free, no-strings-attached, useful information is the single most effective way to grow their business, I often hear variations on the following:

“We charge for this; we can’t give it away.”

“If I give them the answer, they don’t need me.”

“You seem kind of dumb, why should we listen to you?”

My answer, in all three cases, is the following:

  1. Watching isn’t the same as knowing. 

    Your newsletter is going to help me live my life or do my job better. If it doesn’t satisfy that basic requirement, nobody is going to read it. 

    But 12 or even 24 issues a year of an 800-word newsletter isn’t going to make me a master house builder. It’s only going to remind me of how much I don’t know. If you could give away your business that easily, you wouldn’t have a business. 

    As for lowering demand for your expertise, remember that people who publish books – books which purport to explain in detail everything they know – don’t lose business as a result of “giving it all away.” They get more by demonstrating their knowledge.

  2. The freebies cost you nothing. 

    Are there people who will read your newsletter, month after month, and never hire you? Definitely. The vast majority of readers, in fact, will never pay you a cent. 

    But that’s how all advertising works; most people don’t buy. Ever. 

    Fortunately, all that matters is that enough of them do. Those are the people to focus on. And if you want them to pick up the phone and call (note to millennials: “calling” is when you use your phone to speak out loud to another person), you need to show them how much you know by sharing real insight.

  3. You’re not Coca Cola – you don’t have any proprietary information. 

    I mean no disrespect, but that “5 Point Blah Blah System” you love to talk about? Or that slide with the multi-color overlapping circles you trot out as a way to explain your “unique” approach? 

    It’s all fine, but it’s just your way of describing the work you do which, if we’re being honest, is 90% identical to what your equally capable, equally experienced, equally credentialed competitors offer. 

    You’re good – but so are they. When you guard your insights out of a concern for “the competition,” you’re keeping it out of the hands of prospects too.

Here’s the bottom line.

Am I saying you should give away custom advice and insight for free? No, that’s what you charge for.

But producing and sharing generic, one-size-fits-all information that you publish in the form of a regular newsletter? That’s just people watching you think.

And believe me, the more they watch, the more amazed they will be at your ability to turn a pile of dirt into a shiny new house.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever turned a dirt pile into something else? Send photos.

  2. Did you have to Google “HVAC,” or did you already know what it stands for?

  3. Do you have a newsletter? Give us a link so we can check it out!

If you liked this article you’ll love the next one (I’ve been holding back on the good ones until you subscribe). Click here to sign up for future posts.

23 thoughts on “The Magic of Free Information

  1. Michelle Morris, CFP®, EA

    Love your new banner Michael!

    1) No, not really into dirt.

    2) Definitely knew it — I live in a not-new house (it’s 115 years old!) and the phrase “We need to call Dave the HVAC guy” comes up frequently. He’s almost a member of the family…

    3) Why yes I do, thanks for asking! Every month I dish up practical information about money for single women and the people who love them.. I also give away a free book (usually not about money) which honestly I think people are more excited about than the actual article!

  2. Jan Gallagher

    1. No.
    2. I already knew it, though I couldn’t say why. It doesn’t often come up in conversation.
    3. I sure do! Partly because you encouraged me. (In case your memory has holes like mine, no, we’ve never met or spoken. But I’ve read your e-letters for a long time.)
    My e-letter Clear, Effective Communications comes out every other Thursday. I do indeed give away what I know for free. In 10 years of regular publishing, I haven’t come close to covering everything I know!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      That’s terrific, Jan. And yes, I feel like we know each other, even though it’s just been virtual for many years!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      1. 1,000 points to you for the reference.
      2. Excellent
      3. I tried to read it on my own but, alas, my spanish is not good enough so I gave in and hit the “translate” button! Well done!

  3. Diana

    Michael – brilliant story leading to this very important topic. Loved it!

    1. I’m sure I have. When I was a kid half of our backyard was a sandbox that I loved.
    2. Nope. 🙂
    3. Yes, I do thanks to your sound advice – which I ALWAYS listen to! It’s a once a month e-Newsletter to help you create order in your life and home, titled “Turning To-Do into Ta-Da.” Past issues posted on my blog:

    I love the new e-Newsletter header graphic – and congratulations on issue 450! That’s amazing and impressive.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I read yours every month, too, Diana! Glad you like the graphic. My designer, btw, is mark tatro who is terrific:

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Great point, Don, I agree. So often people only do one or create two different pieces of content, one for each. Congrats to you on 8 years!

  4. Gina Longo

    1) I’m sure I have at some point, I’m equally sure it involved alcohol in some way, and I’m very sure I’m happy there aren’t any photos!
    2) I knew it. I’m a lot smarter than I look. 😉
    3) My monthly newsletter is “Britain Unleashed: Have Dogs, Will Travel” (dog-friendly historical travel stories with a cheeky twist) — I think you looked it up once, Michael — and my most recent issue went out on the 6th April:

    I wish I had the time and excess brainpower to start a new newsletter that would help me with my new business, but I’m temporally swamped and mentally drained (and it’s not easy to be both at once, I can tell you) as it is.

      1. Gina Longo

        Thank you! That makes me very happy to hear… I mean, to read. Lots more where that came from — I’m hard at work on the next newsletter. Or I will be when I finish this reply, anyway. 😉

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I’ve always thought your dog-travel focus was both interesting and memorable. And I know, a second newsletter is tough. Maybe a supershort version? I’ve found it helpful (and nice) to also have a short thing I post to:

      1. Gina Longo

        Thanks for your kind words about my newsletter! That’s high praise indeed, and I’m grateful. A super-short version is a terrific idea — I subscribe to your “Today I…” newsletter and really like reading the issues when they arrive. Such a great idea. Thank you!

        1. Michael Katz Post author

          My pleasure. Interestingly, the open rate on the supershort version is literally twice that of my longer form newsletters like the post above. Which might make you think that I should just do the shorter version.

          The problem, though, and I think this is an inherent weakness of social media, is that the short format doesn’t give me enough room to share a deep insight along with my personal side. I think the longer format is much more effective as a marketing tool for my business, which is really the primary purpose for any of us in publishing.

          What do other people think?

          1. Gina Longo

            Personally, I — total seriousness here — open and read all of the newsletters I get from you, so from my point of view, there’s no difference as regards open/reading rates.

            As for which is better from a marketing-tool standpoint, I’d probably agree that the longer format shows off your mad skills a bit better, but the snippets are great for giving us a quick tip to think about and use right away.

            It’s a winning one-two punch, I’d say. 🙂

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Well done on the newsletter, Erik! I love the idea that boundaries/rules matter in any “game.”

  5. Beverly Matoney

    1) In the spirit of your post, yes, we built a custom house 4 years ago this month.
    2) I knew it…see above.
    3) I also knew exactly where you were going with this topic and I couldn’t agree more. I don’t have a newsletter yet…but I’m gettin’ there!

    PS I have two prospects who sent me money just for the “free advice” I gave them to help their websites be a bit more homeschool friendly. Wow! Both have said that when they’re ready for content, I’m their go-to, without question. I follow up every two weeks to make sure they remember me.

    I seriously just told them things they could have found out on their own with a little effort. But they didn’t, and now I’m their marketing buddy. 🙂

  6. Ira Bryck

    I grew up in retail, and from when I was little, understood how the window display drew people’s attention, and then find themselves in the store, browsing, even shopping. It’s always been my inclination, as a consultant/facilitator, to freely share my ideas with prospects, as if it was the window dressing. It has been the case where those I’ve shared with seem to think “if this is what he gives away, imagine what I’ll get when I pay him.” And it’s true: once I’m engaged with them, it all gets more custom and practical. This is how I’ve managed to compete in a noisy world, giving free samples.

  7. Elly van Laar

    1. Digging out a sago-palm, then throwing the dirt back in.
    2. Something about Heating and Air Conditioning
    3. Yes, thanks to you!
    4. Loved reading it, and the reminder that if I can outcompete myself by sharing free info in a newsletter, I better start looking for a job as a waitress.


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