The ROI of Free

An innocuous question can hit you where you live. I should have expected one day someone would ask me, “How do you measure your ROI for that?”

If I’m conducting client training on measuring, testing, and optimizing performance, clients have a right to ask about my own practices. The “that” she referred to is nearly 300,000 words we’ve published online for free over the past two years. I promised her I’d discuss it in this column.

How does someone who writes “ROI Marketing” justify publishing so much content for free? Do we charge for advertising, rent our list, or bombard those names with commercial offers? No. In fact, Jeffrey, my brother and partner who handles such things, estimates we’ve invested about $100,000 developing free content for our newsletter, free white papers, and other publications. How do we measure its ROI?

We know one side of the equation: the investment. The money has been spent. What did we get in return?

We don’t have a dollar figure. What would you do? Tag every piece of content separately and track whether a commercial inquiry comes from a given article? Ask every client exactly what made her hire you? Would you devise another scheme? Let me know. I enjoy hearing about “Innovative Testing.”

We’ll continue publishing for free, as we have for the last two years. In fact, we’re doubling down. We’ve recently interviewed several part-time copywriters and even research interns. Are we nuts? That’s debatable. There is a method to our madness, though.

We set clearly defined objectives two years ago and have been achieving the milestones we agreed on. Our strategy involved “thought leadership.” An essential tactic was publishing.

Why free? When we started, who wanted to read (much less pay) for content about the importance of converting traffic, making sales, and getting results? Back then, most people didn’t dare trade results for eyeballs. With everyone talking about conversion, even now objectives, strategy, and tactics are still confused. Mistakes are made for that reason. (I’ll discuss later why best practices are not really the best practices.)

Many people have fuzzy ideas about what constitutes an objective, a strategy, and a tactic. How many? At what price? Where to sell? What to do? When to do it? How to promote it? Why are we doing this? Poorly defined objectives lead to poorly defined strategies, which in turn lead to ineffectual tactics. Here’s how we define them:

  • Objectives are what you want to do and how you will measure success.
  • Strategies describe how you will accomplish your objectives. Once you’ve evaluated the parameters and weighed possible approaches, design a plan of action for how to accomplish the objective.
  • Tactics are things you can touch — techniques that allow you to implement your strategies.

Sun Tzu wrote in his classic “The Art Of War,” “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before the defeat.” Nice thing about the classics — they continue to communicate universal truths.

Our company has concrete objectives to accomplish in the next two years. Many (but not all) of them can be measured in monetary terms. How do you put a dollar figure on expertise, honor, service to the community, or a good feeling about what you do? As part of our strategy, there are intangibles we can track indirectly with a monetary return.

Our strategy includes never making an outbound sales call and being very picky about clients we take on. We don’t do this to be mysterious or even to be perceived as exclusive, but because one objective is quality of life and enjoying who we work with. That’s why we started our own business in the first place.

Here’s where part of that strategy defines our tactic of publishing for free. What better way to illustrate our thinking, deliver our message, and share our knowledge than by giving it away, free of any barriers?

We’re not infallible (or even all that special), but we do walk our talk. Have you thought lately about what’s driving your tactics?

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