Institutional Marketing 101

Is it possible to get more by giving more away?

That’s apparently what the University of California, Berkeley seems to think. It recently signed a deal with Google to distribute Webcasts of many of its courses through the video service. Students who miss class (or anyone else in the world, for that matter) can log on to the site and download audio podcasts or video Webcasts of dozens of courses.

UC Berkeley isn’t alone. Stanford University’s been partnered with Apple for a while now to offer free podcasts of lectures and courses through the Apple iTunes store as part of Apple’s iTunes U program. You can hear music, sports, readings from authors such as Tobias Wolff and Diane Middlebrook, and lectures from the likes of the Dali Lama and Larry Lessig.

And while Stanford and Berkeley have taken the a/v route, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) really been leading the way for a while now with its Open Courseware initiative. Full courses (lectures, handouts, and readings included, even some PDF versions of textbooks) are there for the pickin’ for anyone who wants to sample some of MIT’s wares. As “Wired” pointed out before the service launched, it’s now possible to get an MIT education online…for free.

Why would these schools do this? It’s good marketing. Long cloistered behind ivy-covered walls, these universities can now show off their goods (and what makes them different) by making available to the public content they probably already had laying around. Posting it makes it possible for anyone with a browser to check out what they do and leads to some pretty nice PR.

They’re not just doing it for good PR (though that’s been a pretty good side effect), and they’re not just doing it to be altruistic (though there’s an element of that, too). No, these schools are doing this as a way to build brand. They’re taking the content high ground, allowing sampling of material that already existed to get attention and show their difference.

Wouldn’t it just make more sense to keep this stuff behind firewalls or make it available only to those who already paid the hefty tuition? Why give away the product?

Simply put, they’re not.

In fact, the very difference between what they give away online and what their product actually is says a lot about how companies and their marketers need to think about themselves in the digital age. These schools have realized their content may be part of their product, but the value they offer as an institution goes far beyond the information they provide.

The brilliance of these institutions is they realize what their real products are: a prestigious degree, the experience of interaction that can only be had at the physical location, and the intangible (but very real) value that comes not from the information itself but from interactions between faculty, staff, and students. In short, they know the full experience is the product, not just the constituent parts.

How does this apply to those of us who aren’t working for a university? First, it’s imperative to ask yourself what you really sell. If you’re an agency, your product isn’t the ads you create but rather the time you take to make them and (more accurately) the expertise you bring to the table. Clients pay for the services, not the results of those services. To think otherwise means you can’t price what you do correctly, and you can’t properly communicate your value to your clients.

If you work for a company that sells actual things, examine what you’re actually selling. Is the widget really the thing you’re marketing? For the most part, the answer’s probably “no” (unless your company competes mainly on price and sells commodities). In most cases, the product is just the tip of the iceberg: your value lies in the ideas behind the products and the service that comes with the product.

The music industry is another prime example of what happens when you don’t realize what you actually sell. For years it thought it was selling records. It wasn’t. Music companies were selling music and were lucky enough to control the means of distribution through the production of black plastic (later, silver plastic) platters. Once digital distribution came along, its whole business model — controlling the means of distribution — began to fall apart. The result is the chaos (and RIAA lawsuits) we see today.

To market your company (or your clients) correctly, you must understand what you’re really selling. Once you do that, developing innovative marketing techniques that leverage the full experience of your organization can lead you down paths you may never have expected. One of the most powerful techniques may be one so many of us are the most afraid of: giving things away.

In the music industry’s zeal to crush music sharing, it’s destroying the best marketing vehicle it has: word of mouth. On the other hand, unsigned bands that use social networking services like MySpace.com have discovered that giving away music actually helps them sell more music. By driving word-of-mouth, they also drive customers to purchase that which can’t be digitally duplicated: T-shirts, concert tickets, and other physical experiences.

Think about what you really do. Take a lesson from these universities. You might be surprised at what you get when you give something away.

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