iBrand Blog

The taking economy

The content marketing myths and half truths the “gurus” tell us that we know deep in our hearts — and in our rational minds — just aren’t true


“I don’t understand, Lyn,” said the voice on the other end of the phone, sounding genuinely puzzled.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well you keep downloading our stuff, but you don’t want to buy any of our products….” Steve, the “ACME” software salesman’s voice trailed off. There was an implied question. He wanted to know the answer but was either too polite or cowardly to ask.

I had an answer but was either too polite or cowardly to offer.

If we both had the guts, here’s how the conversation would have gone.

Steve: Why do you keep downloading our free reports if you don’t want to buy our products?

Me: You don’t make a product I want to buy. Your free reports however, seem useful. If you made a product I wanted, I’d be happy to buy it.

That conversation never happened. We had a polite exchange and ended the call — Steve feeling frustrated and I feeling guilty.

I felt guilty because I built a business using many of the tenets of content marketing and following the advice of the top business and Internet marketing gurus.

Some of their advice makes sense. Some of their counsel, I knew deep in my heart — and in my rational mind — was just a bunch of hooey.

Yet, because someone has a popular blog or a New York Times bestselling book, they peddle us the same trite cliches disguised as new strategies based on their ‘real-life experience.’

We read hundreds of comments on their blogs from people “just like us” praising the author’s genius and professing that this shallow advice changed their lives.

I can understand why Steve was confused. He read all the same advice I had. He’d consumed the same rubbish and was now confronted with a real truth. Effective content marketing is a bit more nuanced than give away your best stuff for free and people will gladly pay for it.

Or this one — spend thousands of dollars creating useful apps and people will think of you first when they are ready to make a purchase of a product like yours.


Why the myths work

It sorta makes sense. When I was growing up, our next door neighbor would always edge our lawn whenever he was mowing his own. He was a decent man. I can’t say that I knew him well, but what I knew of him I liked and respected. He was a police officer, so he had that built in trust. But his giving nature is what swayed us.

Early in the morning, you’d wake to the sound of his lawnmower. You could smell the aroma of freshly cut grass.

When he finished, he’d take out his edger and shave sharp right angles around the entire front of his lawn. Then he did something unexpected.

He would continue to edge all the way down the front of our lawn. Then he’d go up each side of our driveway. After that, he’d put aways his tools and go into his home.

He never asked for anything. He never declared why he was doing it. We assumed he was being neighborly.

An interesting thing happens when someone just gives you something useful freely and doesn’t ask for anything in return. You feel indebted. You start thinking “I should be doing something for this guy. How can I pay him back?”

If he ever ambled up to our front door and asked for a favor (which he never did), I’m certain my parents would have been all over it.

Instead, my Dad always returned the favor. When Dad mowed our lawn, he’d edge our neighbor’s, too. He instructed me to do the same. This routine played itself out for almost 20 years. Our neighbor was generous with us, so he built up a sense of loyalty.

Content marketers tell us the same phenomenon works in a giving economy. We give away something useful and helpful, and the people we help will feel indebted to us. They will feel so loyal that when they are ready to purchase, they will naturally come to us with a fist full of dollars.

It makes sense because in the neighborhood where I grew up that was the way we behaved.

It doesn’t always work that way in the Internet world, and as much as we would like to believe it did, our experience tells us it isn’t true.


But we keep buying it.

We keep buying the premise that if we keep giving, we create loyalty. What we experience instead, is that when we keep giving we create a marketplace of takers. Customers now expect to download your free reports and attend your free webinars because they are entitled to your information and expertise.

When they are ready to buy, many still go out and search for the least expensive option. They’ve consumed so much free information — from you and your competitors — they have no loyalty. In many cases, they don’t even remember where they got the info.

You are now expected to compete for the business with all the other people who gave away free stuff. Giving away free and useful information is no longer a differentiator, so it doesn’t buy any extra loyalty.


It’s more like a half truth

I call it a lie, but it’s more like a half truth. Because we know half of the story to be true, we buy into it. It’s the other half that trips us up. Many bodies and products are buried in the content marketing graveyard because the half truth we knew allowed us to ignore the half we knew to be false.

Here are a few of my favorites myths.


Myth: If we keep producing incredibly useful content, when they need something, they will buy from us.

Marcus Sheridan is a likable fellow with a heartwarming story. He was a pool guy in Virginia who was going out of business. If you know his story, you know that he turned around his business and became an internet sensation with a simple strategy — answer every customer question.

That’s it. Answering questions.

Marcus wrote a blog where he took every question he received and turned it into a blog post, list or some other useful resource for his customers. He positioned himself as the honest broker, even discussing the benefits of his competitors’ products as he educated customers on their best options.

Customers were so delighted with this approach that they proved their loyalty with sales. They bought from him, and the guy who was on the verge of bankruptcy became the top seller in his category.

It’s a very inspiring story. Marcus’ ordinary-guy appeal also helps us love and root for him. The nice guy finished first. Cool.

The internet gurus look at stories like Marcus’ and extract the most simple of lessons. If you keep producing incredibly useful content, when they need something, they will buy from you.

While that worked for Marcus, you can’t rely on that simple formula for success.

What if every pool manufacturer was giving away the same free information? How might that have impacted his ability to be successful? What if every pool manufacturer’s website had a free report? What if every one of Marcus’ competitors asked you to join their email list? What if they all had similar versions of the 10 mistakes you were making with your pool purchase?

Providing free information is no longer a differentiator, it is an expectation. You don’t get much loyalty for your free report. You only get in the game. If you are the only option without a free report or some demonstration of your domain knowledge, you make yourself easy to eliminate.

Today’s truth is that Marcus’ strategy would be a tougher sell. Just making helpful information is not enough to convert potential buyers.


Myth — Give away your best stuff and people will gladly pay you for what you have left to offer.

Tell the truth; you know this one doesn’t make sense. If you give away your best stuff, why would I pay for anything less useful?

Here’s the truth. Some yahoo just talked you into giving away your best stuff. Now what are you going to sell? How will you make money? By the way, you just bought the guru’s best stuff in his book for $19.95. Irony.

Here’s The Truth — as I know it

Industries that aren’t going away don’t give away their best stuff for free.

Restaurants don’t let you eat their best steaks for free thinking that you’ll come back if you like it. Can you imagine how long Ruth’s Chris would last if they let you eat the filet mignon hoping that if you like it, you’d come back and give them money? Ask yourself honestly, if Ruth’s Chris gave away free filet mignon on Wednesdays, what day would you likely eat filet mignon?

Doctor’s and hospitals don’t give away their best advice for free, thinking that you’ll come back if you like it. There are volumes of free medical information available on the Internet, yet I don’t know any doctors giving away their best advice for free. Sure Dr. Oz will educate you every day on TV, but that’s not his best advice. If you have a pain in your side, unless you are a guest on his show, I’m sure he will have an invoice waiting for you.

Lawyers don’t give away anything for free. Ever. If you have a phone, you might have a lawyer, but that phone call won’t buy you free advice. You’ll get just enough help to realize you need more help. Once you make that decision, you are on the clock.

The industries that aren’t going away don’t give away their best stuff. The industries that do give away their best stuff will be gone in two years. Choose wisely.

The other Truth — as I know it

The businesses that use content marketing well do two things: 1) Establish themselves as the expert and 2) Provide enough information to help you make an informed buying decision.

Derek Halpern’s Bonus Sandwich is a great example. Halpern founded Social Triggers to delve into the psychology of marketing. He interviews experts to help us decide what actually motivates people to buy. It’s fascinating stuff.

Recently I heard him talk about the Bonus Sandwich. This is how you structure free giveaways to help sell your product. The first giveaway is something that helps a customer justify the purchase. The second giveaway is something strategic that would help them use your product if they bought it.

This is a thoughtful approach to the freebie. Marcus Sheridan was actually doing this in his pool business. He wasn’t giving away free pools, he was using the Bonus sandwich. He was educating his consumer with information that helped them justify the expense. He was providing information that would also help them justify their purchase after the fact.

The best helpful information assists me in making an informed decision about buying, it doesn’t replace the need to buy.


Myth — If your stuff is cute enough or funny enough, you’ll go viral, then everyone will buy from you.

Naturally a myth like this arrives with its own feel-good best practice. Will it Blend was a YouTube series that used humor and outrageous videos to create a viral sensation and sell at crapload of blenders.

Will an iPad blend? Will a golf ball? What other goofball things can we stick in a blender? With that simple premise, the internet sensation and marketing myth was born. Just create something cute and funny, and it will go viral. When it goes viral, you will be rich.

That’s like saying, just get on Oprah and you will sell a ton of books. That might be true, but “just get on Oprah” is not a strategy. You get on Oprah because you have a compelling story and a strategy to get it to her.

Making me laugh won’t make me forward your video. It won’t make me remember your product. It definitely won’t make me buy your crap.

Advertisers have been selling humor rather than products for years. I remember when Wendy’s“Where’s the beef” campaign hit the airwaves in the 90s, everyone was repeating the catchy tagline. Most people who repeated the catch phrase couldn’t recall the product.

Sometimes they’re just laughing at you.


Myth — Your free stuff is so useful that a loyal person would feel guilty buying a similar product from your competitor

This myth is built on the theory of reciprocity. It makes sense, but this statement is loaded with qualifiers that you shouldn’t ignore:

Useful. It provides me something that actually helps me. It provides information that I need. It provides that information in a way that makes it easy to remember where I heard it. It makes it easy for me to find it again when I need it.

Loyal Person. Loyalty is not transactional, it is the result of a relationship. Are you encouraging the relationship or the transaction? Are you encouraging me to stay awhile? Are you getting to know me? Are you allowing me to get to know you? If you are just dispensing information, you’ll educate me, but you won’t earn my loyalty.

Similar Product. Are you really selling a similar product? A similar category doesn’t always mean a similar product. And if you are selling a similar product, why are you? If you go through the trouble of creating a relationship, shouldn’t you sell that?

Competitor. Who is your competitor? Jay Baer points out that in an ADD environment, everyone ends up being a competitor. You are not just competing against the person who is selling in your category. You are competing against all the other forces on the iPhone screen that distract and disrupt. You are competing against the husband, the wife, the kids or dog. You are competing against the cynicism that we use as a defense mechanism because so many other marketers have deceived us. Here’s The Truth as I know it. I’m buying from someone else, but I don’t even think of them as your competitor.

Just because we consume your content, doesn’t mean we’re loyal to your crap.


Myth — “WOW! I just asked for a few people to respond to my survey and THOUSANDS of people responded in a few seconds.”

I actually got this email from a content marketer and instantly rolled my eyes. Maybe it was cynicism. Maybe it was envy. Maybe it was a bit of both.

I’m not saying the guy was lying to me. I’m just saying there was more to the story.

In my first year of business, I decided to join the herd of businesses offering a Black Friday Sale. I planned my offer, created a sales page, and loaded up my special email that would go out first thing Friday. I was excited because these other guys told me they sent out emails and were inundated by the response. Heck, some of them even said the response broke their sites. This was gonna be fun!

Only it wasn’t fun. There was no deluge of people banging on my door to purchase my product. In fact, at the end of the day, I don’t think I sold more than five.

When my chirpy business coach asked about my week, I couldn’t hide my disappointment. “This was not a good week, Dave. I only sold five of my photo tours in my Black Friday sale,” I said.

“Hmm. How did you tell people about it?” he asked.

“I sent out an email.”

“How many people do you have on your list?”

“About 500.”

“What percentage of them opened your email?”

“Maybe 20 percent.”

“Okay, that’s 100 people who saw your email, meaning you converted five percent. That’s not too bad.”

I guess if you put it that way. It certainly felt bad.

Jim Rohn says that success is in the numbers.

“If you do something often enough, a ratio will appear,” Jim says. “If you talk to 10 people and one says yes, the ratio has begun. Once a ratio starts, it tends to continue.”

Here’s Jim’s point. If 100 people saw my email and five purchased, I have my ratio. If I want to sell 25, I just need 500 people to see my email. That means I need to send my email to 2,500 people. To sell more, I’ll need to get my offer in front of more people.

If thousands of people responded to that content marketer’s email, his offer must have gone to tens of thousands. There’s no magic; success is in the numbers. The content marketer’s bragging email didn’t mention that.


Was I a taker?

Was I just a taker? That’s what I asked myself after hanging up from the ACME sales call. After all, I downloaded another ebook knowing I would never buy their products.

It’s not that I didn’t want to purchase their software. I had actually taken a demo in hopes that I could use their product. By the end of his presentation, it was obvious it wasn’t going to be a good fit for me.

I didn’t understand how it really worked. The demo left me even more confused. There was no way to try it on my own, with my own data. There was no way to get a refund if I tried it and it didn’t work. The reviews were all over the place. It just seemed too risky, and I couldn’t find a reasonable way to allay my concerns. So I knew I would never purchase from them.

Their ebooks looked interesting, however. I downloaded one and read it. Two days later a salesperson called and tried to push another demo on me. I told him about my concerns. He hung up and went away. I downloaded another ebook, and two days later another sales call. By the time I had my last encounter, I was on my third ebook.

Yes, I was a taker.

Here’s why. After each download, there were no emails following up with more content designed to build a relationship with me. There was no survey or attempt to find out which of my pain points they might solve. There was no person at the end of the emails who I knew worked for the company.

I didn’t know them. I didn’t trust them. I wasn’t sure I liked them. So while I downloaded their ebooks, they did nothing else that would encourage me to buy.


Are we creating takers?

That made me think about how this concept might apply to my customers. How might it apply to yours? Are you creating a taking economy? Are you creating content but not a product worth buying? Are you giving your prospects a clear reason to buy? Are you removing risk? Are you nurturing a relationship?

If all you are doing is pushing out random content, don’t be surprised if all they do is take the free stuff and never come back.

It’s a taking economy, but it’s our fault.


Take aways

Build a better product — that solves my problem

Give away information to help me make an informed decision about that product

Give away information that leads me to conclude you are the expert

You can’t sell the information you just gave me for free. You need new ideas eventually.

You have to reach more people for the ratio to work for you.

Make it easy to buy from you when I’m ready.

Lynford MortonComment
Visual Marketing Today - What does a puppy and the NFL have in common?

What do a hot dog, the Radisson Hotel, a puppy and the NFL have in common? The answer has to do with visual weight, and that's what we discuss in our first episode of Visual Marketing Today.

Visual Marketing Today is the video blog where we look at the day's top news through the prism of visual marketing. 


The news

Click to read the article

Click to read the article


What's visual weight?

Photographers know that different things in the frame carry different weight. If you make eye contact with the camera, it carries more weight than if you look away. 

Words also carry visual weight. We always read words first and then subconsciously, we try to connect it to the person or action in the image. 

Here's a great example from DC and NY street photographer Greg Schmigel. The genius of his photo is that visual weight leads us to read the sign first and then connect it to the puppy looking on. 

Visual weight is also the reason the Radisson had to pull its sponsorship from the Minnesota Vikings last week.

Watch this episode. I explain how it all works.

Before you laugh, are these your generic brand messages?

This Is a Generic Brand Video is a generic brand video of “This Is a Generic Brand Video,” written by Kendra Eash for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. 

We only laugh because it's true. We've clicked on company websites... We've endured corporate videos... We've paged through official brochures….and found them all littered with these generic images.

I know it seems like a good idea at the time. You need some images and background video, so you find stock illustrations that you think matches your company themes. Guess what. They don't. Not unless you are a generic company.


Recommended reading: Use these tips before selecting your next stock photo.

Recommended reading: Use these tips before selecting your next stock photo.

Not all stock is this cringeworthy

So how do you tell if the image you are using really works? Here's a tip that you can use for any message, whether written, still image or video. If no one saw your logo on the page, would your competitor be able to use the same message without confusion?

Your ideal messages should be so specific that they would only resonate with your organization. Once you have differentiated yourself in messaging, look for ways to also set yourself apart with your illustrations. 

Authentic - that's the buzz word these days. That means that the words, images and videos you create help me get to know and understand you. Your company. Your brand. Your values.

You want your customers to connect with you, not some generic models wearing all white.


Is this your message?

Before we have a hearty laugh at this Generic Brand Video, take a moment to check. Are you communicating generic messages where you could be specific? If you are, the joke could be on you.

Lynford MortonComment
From online to on the wall, Peet's serves up Instagram photos
Peet's urges us to share our best moment using #PeetsDC. They curate the submissions and share their favorites in an in-store collage.

Peet's urges us to share our best moment using #PeetsDC. They curate the submissions and share their favorites in an in-store collage.

I wasn't online, on my phone, or even on my iPad when I browsed through Peet's favorite Instagram photos. 

In the Washington, DC store, across the street from the White House, Peet's Coffee and Tea served up their customers' Instagram images in a framed collage that hangs in the store.

Peet's asked us to Instagram our favorite moment with their brand. If they like it, they include it in the next 'on wall' gallery.

It's hard to turn down a photo challenge, so my #PeetsDC entries will be my illustrations for this post. I came to praise Peets with my photos.


A reflection of the Instagram wall as seen through the window.

A reflection of the Instagram wall as seen through the window.

Why it works

Hashing it out -- By now most social businesses know that hashtags provide an easy way to engage in a conversation with your clients and followers. Supply the hashtag and savvy customers will use it to connect with their kindred spirits on Twitter and Instagram.

Creating competition -- Nothing generates engagement and excitement like the opportunity to win at something. Peet's didn't just ask us to share our photos; they gave us a chance to be recognized. We get to win…and see our art displayed on their walls. 

Encourage return visits -- Here's the sneaky part. There's only one way to know if your photo won. You have to go back to the store. If you won, you might want to visit again with a few friends to show off your accomplishment. You might even want to tweet or share a photo of your photo in their winners gallery. The cycle continues.


What might work better

Currently the gallery of winners only shows the photo. It would be great to also include the real name or screen name of the person who submitted the image. The only thing better than seeing my work hanging is seeing a byline with my name on it.

This not only shows off the image but gives the photographer some extra exposure. Think how I would feel about Peets if my follower count ballooned because my photo was hanging in their store. It's an easy win for everyone.


Curating your customers' photos is an effective way to build your community and show off your brand. Peet's found a way to bring it full circle by posting the online images on the wall.

Happy birthday from the NFL - with a personalized jersey photo

The NFL knew my birthday was coming and knew I was a die hard New Orleans Saints fan, so they sent me a personalized jersey -- sort of.

Let's face it, they could have written a cheesy happy birthday message encouraing me to celebrate by shopping at NFL.com.  (Isn't this the part where I am supposed to receive the gifts?) 

What caught my eye when I opened this email was a photo of my name on my favorite team's jersey. 

There aren't a thousand sappy words that could have elicited the response this one photo did. This is personalized visual marketing at its best.