‘Free Content Has No Value’

When free = worthless.

The other day I happened to speak to a marketing director who laid out the details of the brand’s distribution of thought leadership content. The firm in question has a solid reputation for producing high quality pieces and, as I learned during the discussion, seeks to imbue them with an air of exclusivity–meaning that they print and deliver hard copies to the target audience by snail mail. No email blast, no pdf posted to the web. In describing this particular strategy, the director emphasized how this exclusivity reflects the characteristics of a premium brand, adding that “and of course, when you give information away for free, it essentially means that it has no value.” The corollary: only paid content has any worth.

When you give information away for free, it essentially has no value…

Premium content.

There’s a certain attractiveness to the idea that top content comes at a price. After all, paying for content does indicate premium value: think cable/satellite television, industry/client market reports, the Michelin guide (their green guides for travel or the red one for restaurants), stock research, sites with paywalls, etc. So people do pay for content, and in general that content tends to be of higher quality than the free version. Most firms do give it away for free, so those that can convince clients to buy it clearly make a compelling offer. In a sense, creating content that people will purchase could be seen as the pinnacle of content marketing success. Yet, by most accounts, content marketing should provide content for free (or at negligible cost).

Are innumerable marketing professionals damaging their companies’ bottom lines by creating something of value (with a price tag) and simply giving it away?

Widespread panic.

Here I’ve spent years trying to refine content marketing efforts for financial services firms–which relies on providing useful information as a service in order to gain the trust and credibility of prospective clients and eventually make a sale. If we break it down to price per word, the customer paid…absolutely nothing. Was that a mistake? Could content marketing, which has been recently garnering a lot of interest across the intertubes, be a hoax? Or worse, are innumerable marketing professionals damaging their companies’ bottom lines by creating something of value (with a price tag) and simply giving it away? Surely, these questions merit serious investigation.

Multiple response.

While I find the notion that valuable content should command a price on the market compelling, this seems a very high bar that few firms actually meet. It’s hard to imagine an average or even above average marketing team convincing management and sales teams that monetizing their output takes precedence over brand building, lead generation and other key marketing objectives.

So the contention that free content has no value misses the mark for several reasons:

  1. One need not conflate price and value. They’re not the same thing. I value many things that do not have a price. Within a corporate paradigm, a firm may find it more valuable to provide content to its customers than not provide/create it–precisely because it’s appreciated by customers, bringing reputational benefits to the firm along with a more robust sales pipeline and perhaps even more revenues–which would clearly be more profitable than keeping the information locked away in a dusty archives.

  2. There is a cost/price paid, but it’s not paid to you. When someone takes the time to consume your content, they pay an opportunity cost–that is, they choose to spend their time doing that rather than something else. A key goal for marketer’s is to facilitate a purchase, not put up paywalls or roadblocks at every step along the way.

  3. It’s free anyway. The brand in this example prides itself on exclusivity–but doesn’t go so far as to charge for content–since that’s not the main business. Rather, they achieve the appearance (or illusion) of exclusivity by artificially restricting distribution of their content (offline only). Clever, but still free to consumers.

  4. It’s costing you. There’s a danger that the brand has effectively limited the upside to its content (that is, restricted the potential benefits that could have been gained from it) by limiting distribution. Perhaps the firm in question could  achieve more with the same amount of content by effectively recycling it online. This could include pre-release using the current method (snail mail) and later running online efforts (teasers, sign-up drives) that could be conducted without damaging the brand’s exclusivity by using equally exclusive online channels, such as native advertising, invitation-only forums, etc. Movie distributors have shown that carefully staggering content across multiple channels can multiply the rewards (a paid content example, but worthwhile nonetheless). Online distribution means more than simply posting a pdf to the web.

While some brands may find that a paid-content business model works well, the trend in journalism and elsewhere clearly suggests otherwise. The majority of firms must find ways to make free content work: the financial success of companies like Google suggest that it can be done. But an ad-supported revenue stream is not the only option. Firms that combine content marketing with consultative selling (most professional service firms) could charge for workshops or staff training, while some may decide that the benefits of having an audience engage with their content is reward enough.

What do you think? Is paid content the zenith of content marketing? Does monetization align or conflict with other marketing objectives? 

How Asset Managers’ Thought Leadership Creates Value for Investors

Not everyone is convinced that an asset managers’ thought leadership content in its various guises–email, video, slides, events and long-form articles–can add value for its audience of investors.

According to critics, thought leadership amounts to a mundane, me-too effort that succeeds only in killing trees and filling pixels in a way that provides sales teams something to shove in front of prospects and clients–just like the competition does. While these naysayers may often be justified in their cynicism, especially regarding mediocre content, it’s not always the case: successful thought leadership can create value for investors.

Thought leadership, simply defined, is a company’s effort to communicate innovative and compelling analysis/information that proves useful to the audience, thus driving the business relationship forward. It’s necessarily differentiated from that of other firms, because it’s meant to support that particular company’s relationship with the intended audience (often a specific type of investor). The firm expends time and resources, and expects a return on the investment in the form of higher profits in the future. It’s a fine proposition for the manager, but what can it offer investors?

An asset manager’s thought leadership can deliver three kinds of value to investors:

  1. Technical value
  2. Personal value
  3. Social value

Knowledge, or technical value.

Financial markets evolve constantly, with new types of investment strategies and even asset classes emerging from the sheer force of innovation. Investing today is not the same game it was 50 years ago, wen investing in timber meant that you had a pile of wood, and quantitative computer models that generate buy/sell lists or machines that trade at fractions of a second were not readily available (to say the least).

Thought leadership provides investors with information about new strategies or product offerings, along with explanation of how they work and how to put those products to use within a broader investment plan. To be effective, it must be clear, well-structured, and explicitly tie the key messages to the investor’s objectives. Successful thought leadership in financial services hinges on investors’ needs and paints a full picture of both the risks and potential rewards linked to a given trend, strategy, or asset class.

Successful thought leadership in financial services hinges on investors’ needs and paints a full picture of both the risks and potential rewards linked to a given trend, strategy, or asset class.

Reassurance/confidence, or personal value.

It would be as mistake to categorize investors as simply rational. While sophisticated investors tend to be quite rational, comfortable with models and financial calculations, there is an emotional element to even the most rational psyches. Providing a case for investment or current macro economic analysis that supports their way of thinking can reassure them in feeling that they have made the right decision (to invest or not, choice of product, timing). The audience can use this confidence to persuade other people (especially other members of the decision-making unit such as investment committees) to accept their view.

Acknowledgement/notoriety, or social value.

Thought leadership can, and often should, engage the audience in the discussion. A case study, for example, where a firm goes out and interviews clients could be distributed as part of a thought leadership effort. The interviewee, giving answers if not also ideas, receives recognition of his/her peers. It also provides recognition that the company 1) really listens to its clients and 2) has experience addressing the needs of that type of investor.

Taking a look at these three kinds of value (technical, personal and social), the impact of thought leadership will vary depending on the particular audience member and the effort the firm makes to leverage the value created. In most cases whether a household or large institution, the investor is not a single person, and the decision-making process involves multiple individuals in multiple roles, such as those acting as a gatekeeper, providing advice, approving the final decision, etc. Whether it’s a member of an investment committee, an adviser, or even a spouse, the individual can make use of technical, personal, or social value—or a combination thereof—in the way they see fit.

Whether it’s a member of an investment committee, an adviser, or even a spouse, the individual can make use of technical, personal, or social value—or a combination thereof—in the way they see fit.

A company well-equipped to aid them in realizing this value will engage the audience by delivering pertinent content as part of a broader consultative selling process in order to grow the relationship. In financial terms, the consultative selling process backed by successful thought leadership can, but does not always, translate value into better financial performance (risk-adjusted return, better diversification, avoidance of loss) for the investor.

So, what do you think? Do you know of any other ways that asset managers’ thought leadership can create value for investors?

Origin Story

Que la lumière soit.While I’m certainly a fan of some of the grittier reboots of fictional character narratives (i.e. Batman), there is something more pure to be unearthed in the traditional origin story. This new website — by definition a beta launch since I’m learning much of it along the way — springs from several related interests including content creation, online sharing and the tools of social media.

Curation as introduction.

This is not, however, my first rodeo. My initial foray into online content began with curation (think of a museum curator without a museum) focused on the topic of thought leadership, which I dubbed Cogitation Supremacy. I set out to explore the extent to which these nebulous ‘online communities’ of complete strangers sharing about their common interests do, in fact, exist (they do). For beginners looking to curate, I can heartily recommend Scoop.it.

The New Platform.

This new endeavor offers me a chance to go another step further in creating and packaging content that is my very own. This space will serve to showcase updates and thoughts that may be of interest. I’ve enabled comments and sharing in order to allow for discussion and exchange. For those interested in finding out more, the horizontal navigation at the top of the page will take you to Activities and About pages. Feel free to contact me via the contact form or find me in the Twittersphere.