The world sure has changed since 1995 when I founded my digital marketing agency: Hashtags back then were pound signs; dial-up Internet tied up our land lines; and Web 2.0 hadn’t yet shown its full potential. But we have evolved with the times, adopting tactics that once seemed ludicrous or impossible, before the renaissance of shareable content began in earnest.
Today, your marketing doesn’t stand a chance unless your strategy embraces a singular fact: Traditional, sales-heavy ads will often be far less engaging than quality, shareable content distributed for free. Need proof? According to the Content Marketing Institute, 200 million people use ad blockers; and, content marketing not only costs 62 percent less than outbound marketing, it yields three times as many leads.
This is one of the lessons that led me to find examples of this practice — which yields powerful results. Two obvious companies in this space are Patagonia and Dollar Shave Club.
Patagonia, the outdoor apparel giant, puts what I’m sure amounts to thousands of dollars of time and work into its catalog, and the result is far more than a simple sales brochure. The Patagonia catalog features in-depth, magazine-quality stories from people who actually use these products. The publication puts its customers—not the company—in the spotlight and simultaneously conveys the spirit of the brand.
Add some high-quality photography, and the catalog is a publication that people would pay for (but don’t have to). Even better, the content itself is largely contributed by the audience it targets.
Dollar Shave Club, the company for rebellious facial hair aficionados, has become known for its quirky online ads. However, it’s the Club’s “Bathroom Minutes” tips series that I find most effective in terms of shareable content being given away for free. Though not written by Dollar Shave’s customers, this series still speaks directly to its audience.
From “The Plumber’s Guide to Not Clogging Your Sink When Shaving,” to “5 Non-BS Health and Grooming Life Hacks,” this is content that could easily be featured on Men’s Health; yet Dollar Shave Club is giving it away without a subscription fee. Why? Because it is valuable for the audience and will result in clicks, attention and, hopefully, brand awareness that will lead more people to that “buy” button.
What giving something away for free gets you
What can other businesses gain from giving away quality content for free? If my company’s success is any indicator, quite a lot. Three benefits immediately come to mind:
1. Public relations
The more you do outside of the confines of your product or service, the more the media’s ears perk up. Except, perhaps, for an exciting new menu item at your restaurant, or the announcement of your real estate firm’s big new project, your public relations people will have much more to run with if your brand positions itself as a thought leader in its field.
In our case, that’s meant my book, Formulaic: How Thriving Companies Market from the Core, and events we centered around it. Though the book is for sale, we’ve used it as a marketing tool and launchpad for multiple blogs, speaking engagements and events that not only inform our audience, but help us assert our place as leaders in marketing strategy. You can do the same by creating content that speaks to your audience in the format they most often use, whether that means podcasts, online tutorials, printed catalogs — nothing is off the table.
2. Global search traffic
SEO is a major influencer in everything we do. From crafting web copy to writing blogs, we do our best to ensure our content is following the latest search-engine standards, while remaining a good read for the audience. Creating quality content that can be shared across multiple channels brings your brand to a larger audience, simultaneously increasing your global online coverage and searchability.
That’s why we regularly produce blog content and share a monthly newsletter with clients and industry contacts; we’ve seen large increases in website traffic as a result.
Would you buy the third-best cereal from your town’s fifth-best supermarket? Credibility is key to building confidence in your brand’s quality, but you can build this trust even as you’re doing your job well. Through sharing content with your audience members for free, you allow them to witness your expertise; and you plant your flag as a go-to resource in your specialty. The one-two punch of quality products or services and free, quality content is often a formula for credibility and long-term success.
As a small business owner myself, I absolutely understand the reluctance to give away anything of value for free; businesses are run on hard data and ROI, after all. But assets like PR opportunities, global-search engine traffic and credibility should not be discounted in lieu of demanding that marketing directly drive sales.
Through committing to viewing your brand as a publisher instead of strictly a salesperson, you can provide free, creative and highly shareable content that will hold the attention of your audience far more effectively than those pushy, “BUY NOW” ads of old. Your choice.
A version of this article originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com. Copyright © 2017 Entrepreneur Media, Inc. All rights reserved.