How to strike a balance between giving content away for free and earning a living

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I am the first person to tell you that blogging and podcasting can completely change your business.  It has done gigantic wonders for mine:  brought clients, partners, a book deal, friends, press coverage and intense joy since I love to write so much.

This is not to say that it is not hard sometimes to balance “giving information away for free,” like writing long blog posts or producing podcasts or twittering or writing ezines, with “real money making activities” like coaching or teaching or writing for pay.

So here is a simple structure to help you balance your “be a mensch and help people” instinct with “pay your mortgage and car note” instinct.


Start with “The Thing”

When you talk about writing content for business purposes, you need to have a focus.  I find the best possible place to look for this focus is right in the center of your gut, for the kinds of things that you find totally compelling, fascinating, important, infuriating or exciting.

Your “Thing” may be:

The key here is that you must find something that you care enough about to devote a substantial amount of time thinking and writing about it, and you must have a hunch that there are real, live humans somewhere on the planet who have enough dollars or euros or rupees or pesos to pay for it.

This is where some people can get tripped up, when their “Thing” has no real chance at “monetizing” which is the hip word both marketers and parents like to say when they really mean “Nice hobby, slacker. When are you going to get a real job?”


Define “The People

Finding your area of passion and interest in is a huge step.  But it will be irrelevant unless you can define the specific characteristics of the people you want to talk with about The Thing. There are a million ways to describe your people:

  • Demographics:  Age, race, geography
  • Common Interests:  Religion, Politics, Red Bull, Social Media
  • Professions or Education:  Engineers, Stanford grads, Life coaches
  • Psychographics:  glass half-full, optimistic, heretics, humorists
  • Life Situation: Empty nesters, parents of ADD children, single moms, recent college grads
  • Hobbies:  Jets fans, knitters, martial artists

When you create a really clear picture of the kinds of people that you would love to work with, it makes it much easier to decide what kind of content to develop for them.

For example, if you were a career counselor, wouldn’t it be easier to reach 25-30 year old finance majors who graduated Summa Cum Laude from a top 10 school who live in the greater New York area, rather than “Generation Y?”

Many people wiggle when asked to choose a particular group of people to work with since it feels restrictive.  My thought is if you don’t stand for something, you will go for anything.  Consequently you will grab no one and earn nothing.

If you gain traction with one group, you can always expand to a broader audience.  The opposite is much more difficult.


Define “The Content

Once you know The Thing to talk about and The People to talk about it with, now comes the fun part:  Deciding what to talk about.

In my own experience, this is not something that needs a whole lot of guidelines or planning.  When you care about what you are talking about and enjoy the people you are talking with, ideas flow, many times more than you can actually capture in a blog post or ezine article or podcast.

If you do get stuck, I always lean more towards the needs of The People vs. my passion for The Thing.  What do they care about?  What do they want to know?   I use the following content guidelines for people who read this blog (that’s YOU!):

  • What problems do they face?
  • What really scares them?
  • What is not being said on this subject on other news sources or blogs?
  • What can I share that will make their life easier?
  • How can I make them feel more supported and confident?
  • Who can I put them in contact with (via links or references) that will give them good information and advice?
  • What will be fun and interesting to write about?

While we are talking about written and recorded content here, realize that this information is the source of every product or service in your business.  You should never spend lots of time developing content that is not directly related to work you want to do with The People.  Good content can be re-purposed, repackaged, enhanced, digitized and/or turned into a book or workshop or presentation.  When you share great information freely with the right people, it becomes your research, marketing copy, sales collateral and branding material.

When people complain about how long it takes to write a blog post or record a podcast, I always ask them where else they would rather spend their time.  Usually it is something very professional sounding, like “generating leads for my business” or “marketing.”

To which I usually encourage them to stop writing the time-consuming posts (which demonstrate competence and expertise in their area of specialty) which are sent to annoying people (like those that have been naturally drawn to their content and blog or ezine and have willingly signed up to receive more information) since it is so burdensome (hitting “publish” and instantly reaching thousands of subscribers is so tiring) and focus on something really effective like making cold calls to people on a list you purchased for $5,000 who have never heard of you.


Choose “The Vehicle(s)

There are a lot of ways you can distribute content freely and effectively these days.  In broad categories, using things like:

  • Blogs (these days I am an overwhelming Wordpress admirer even though this blog started on Typepad)
  • Podcasts (you can record using a paid service like Audioacrobat or a free one like Skype, hosted by a whole range of companies, my favorite being Libsyn)
  • Video or Vlogs (from the popular YouTube to Viddler, there are many other options which smart, technical people can tell you about)
  • Ezines (basically, an electronic newsletter which can be sent to your list anywhere from once a week to once a month. I use Infusionsoft to manage my list, although when it was smaller, I started with AWeber)
  • Webcasts (using things like UStream, where you can simultaneously share and record video, audio and chat)
  • Good old fashioned mail (someone, somewhere, must still appreciate getting a hard copy of news from you).

The way to choose your best vehicle(s) is to think about the consuming habits of your People.  Do they spend a lot of time on the internet?  If so, a blog may be the answer.  Do they own iPods and commute long distances on public transportation?  Podcasts may do the trick.  Are they more old-school email users, who get wigged out with too much technology?  Ezines may be a good solution.  Are they more versed in video than Chris Pirillo?  Do a webcast.

Depending on the needs and interests of your audience, you may choose a variety of these communication vehicles to regularly broadcast your juicy, useful and interesting content.


Position “The Sticky

Unless you are Kevin Costner, “Build it and they will come” is not necessarily a common occurrence on the internet.  “Build good stuff for the right people and make yourself easy to find” is a bit of a better strategy, but not without a good, well-placed equivalent of fly paper, to forge an ongoing connection with people who stumble upon your site.

You certainly don’t want to jump in someone’s face like an over-eager door-to-door vacuum salesperson, but at the same time, you want to make it crystal clear how to subscribe to your blog or join your ezine list.  Some nice examples of clearly placed and obvious “sticky spots” include:

  • Social media wizard Chris Brogan.  Notice how clearly his subscription button stands out on the right-hand side of the page.
  • Finance expert Ramit Sethi, who I talked about earlier, has a super-clear newsletter box right at the top of his blog
  • I am going to tease my friend John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing a bit, since I don’t think his subscribe button necessarily jumps off his blog page.  But check your eyes when you visit:  he has 225,000 subscribers!  Holy smokes, Batman, something about this is working.

The key is to not make new waves of visitors have to scratch their heads and figure out how to stay connected with you.  Create a clear, compelling sticky part of your website or blog, so that you can start to communicate with Your People on a regular basis.

Once you build a list of subscribers, feed them with good stuff, nurture them, ask their opinions and be of service.  Just don’t become the internet version of a jewelry salesperson on the beaches of Acapulco. I totally understand everyone needs to earn a living and rich, fat tourists are good prey.  But it can be exquisitely annoying to be approached every five minutes when you are trying to lay on a beach, get sunburned and read a John Clancy novel. The same is true for your list.  An occasional “would you be interested in this” message is fine, but constant vending will make people either get really rude or run screaming. I only send a maximum of two messages a month to my list, and I still get people unsubscribing due to email fatigue.


Execute The Commerce

If you have set up all of your Thing, People, Content, Vehicle and Sticky elements the right way, your business should flow like a silk nightgown skimming a beautiful woman on a Saturday night.

Hopefully, you haven’t hid the fact that you write about web design and usability because you are a web designer.  Or that you write about social media and Hawaii because you are a Hawaiian social media powerhouse. Or that you write about location independent living because you run a guesthouse in Culebra or travel the world teaching people how to live and work anywhere. Or that you write about productivity and organization because you are a productivity consultant.

Don’t be embarrassed to tell people what you sell!  If you have been delivering good content over an extended period of time, most people will be more than happy to support and promote your business as thanks for all the great stuff that you provide for free.

As for those who will call you a sellout the first time you sell an ebook for $5.95 after spending years helping them for free, that is why God created comment moderation and the delete key.  Haters thrive everywhere, and you cannot let their selfishness get you down. You have every right to make a living and should not be ashamed to sell your products or services.

As for a (there isn’t any but why not throw out a number anyway) magic formula between sharing content freely and charging for it, I like the percentages Robert Middleton told me many years ago when describing the philosophy he termed being an Infoguru:  Give 80% of your information away for free and change a premium for the remaining 20%.

This seems to have a nice “good karma vs. pragmatism” ratio and will allow you to live with yourself while you make a living.


This post developed out of a talk I did at PodcampAZ in November, 2008.  My 22-year old son Jeffery Slim hand-drew the illustrations which I scanned and used as backdrops for the talk.  I think you can see that his “Thing” is hand-drawn art.  Thanks for sharing your work so generously Jeffery!  You can see how the image translated to the screen courtesy of Chris Lee:


31 Responses to “How to strike a balance between giving content away for free and earning a living”

  1. Antzhelika says:

    I want to learn as to write, communicate and work with each person as you describe. Thank you for the informative and is filled with good advice

  2. dfd says:


  3. […] How to strike a balance between giving content away for free and earning a living Offering content for free is an effective marketing technique, but you have to make money somewhere along the way. This post from Pam Slim is an oldy-but-goody on how to maintain a balance with free content. […]

  4. Absolutely stellar summation of what your business stands for. This is gold. I’ll pay for the rest.

  5. Jenny says:

    Your post is very clear and true. Content is very crucial part for any site. Normally visitors come on site for collecting information or for read your blog. Very less blogger i have seen who write there unique content.

  6. Angela says:

    Great post Pam… I have kept it unread it my reader to make sure I go through this when I come home. I recommend this post to anyone aspiring to make money through content.

    Your point about 80:20 (Free vs. premium) makes me feel better about the idea of converting some of the future projects to paid.

    Thank you so much for writing and sharing this

  7. Kathy says:

    Hi Pam! Thanks so much for a great blog…just what I needed to read today in terms of encouragement…obviously, the info ages well as I am reading this a good seven months after previous posters!
    Best Regards, Kathy

  8. Pam, Are you not only a brilliant entrepreneur, but a mind reader too?

    I’ve been scouring the web for the answer to the content-giveaway dilemma since I’ve declared a silent war and moratorium on free e-books without purpose or strategy. Your well-written and generously genius article, will be bookmarked and stapled to my laptop forever. Thank you for sharing, and I cannot wait to read more.

  9. Pam – this is wonderful information. I just started my blog yesterday and am very excited. I am going to refer back to this post as I move forward. You are so genuine & generous. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Thanks very much for the link, Pam. You’ve been a huge inspiration all along.

    Your clear description of the elements (Thing, People, Content, Vehicle and Sticky) is esp. helpful – thanks, too, for that. Related to that, the experimental approach you describe (essentially becoming a scientist studying them – a “clientologist?”) is important. The process isn’t cookie-cutter; that’s why good customized advice from you has been so valuable.

    Your formula helps a lot – thanks for it. Right away I realized an adjustment was in order.

    I’d love to see your talk next time – I bet it rocks!

  11. Eugene Chan says:

    Great article, it should be an e-book with Jeffrey’s illustration’s full page! They are amazing.

  12. Jenifer Miller says:

    Great post. I keep coming back to your site every time I question where I’m going and how to get there.

  13. Chris Lee says:


    Thanks a ton for doing this blog post!

    I really enjoyed the session at PodCampAZ & was so bummed my wife wasn’t able to attend it. Now I’ve shared it with her & we are both figuring out our “the thing” & our “the people” before we move on to the rest.

    You rock!


    Yeah, Chris, so glad you liked it! I wrote it partially for you, since I know you wanted your wife to get the content. Thanks for the inspiration. 🙂

    And good luck with your “thing & people” 🙂


  14. Anyone who quotes Robert Middleton is top-tier in my book! I’m recommending this article to all my small business friends. One of my pet peeves is the idea that any product or service is appealing to “everybody.” I loved the bit about standing for everything, going for anything, and consequently connecting with no one and earning nothing. Brilliant! Do you mind if I (ahem) “borrow” a version of that to use the next time I’m beating a small business owner about the head and shoulders trying to get them to define their target audience to a finer degree than “anyone with a pulse and a credit card”? 🙂

    Thanks for an awesome post.

    Thanks Diane!

    I have loved Robert Middleton’s work for years — he is such a great example of ethical marketing done consistently and well.

    “Borrow” away! I wrote this post since I found myself saying the same thing over and over.

    Thanks for stopping by.


  15. EXCELLENT article!!!

    I´ve found it enormously useful for both my personal and (future) profesional interests.

    You´ve helped a lot to my future plans… thanks thanks a lot!!!

  16. kaushal says:

    Great Article!

    For us blog has been a way to put our message across and get visibility for your thoughts.

    We were really bothered with the kind of complex software that gets used in businesses and wanted to voice our opinion as business users of such tools.

    We thought a great way would be to drive our message in the form of a comic strip that we run from our blog called “U Woes”.

    You can visit our blog at

  17. Paul Chaney says:

    It’s my goal to one day actually write a post that’s at least half as helpful as this one has been for me. Great stuff Pam!

    Thanks for laying out a plan that’s so simple even I can understand it. This is doable…and I’m gonna set about implementing it.

  18. This one is getting printed out! Saved FOREVER. Now. Would you do one on setting fees? Or is it out there somewhere already?

    Thanks Kelly!

    So glad you liked it.

    I did do a post on pricing, right here!

    All the best,


  19. Gannon Beck says:

    Pam – This is hard to put into practice. There is an almost instinctive voice that says, “Wait! This is worth something and you’re just GIVING it away!” Deciding what to hold back, for me at least, has been an obstacle. Perhaps it’s best not to hold anything back — to give 100% away. Then, if the message resonates, and an audience is found, come up with 20% more.


  20. My favorite article of yours to date Pam. Thanks again for the good stuff!

  21. I love Jeffery’s artwork, much more powerful than PowerPoint bullets. Hand drawn slides for the win! 🙂

    Having a blog is a must. It’s the central mass that your podcasts, video, Twitter, ezines, etc. orbit around.

  22. stevieboy66 says:

    Thanks Pam. I’m new to blogging and have been building content with two objectives in mind: 1. To build a commercially sucessfully blog and 2. to provide a three dimensional CV for my consultancy work.

    Sometimes it feels like I am giving everything away for nothing but reading your clear approach helps to remind me that I am not completely mad. Thank you.

  23. Bsimi says:

    I listened to a woman yesterday talking to a group in my restaurant about this very topic and your post far exceeds what she had to say! Nicely done I enjoyed it.

  24. Nice! I enjoyed this article a lot. Maintaining balance is not an easy thing to do.

  25. Economy says:

    sory to write to you like this, but i could not find the contact form. I really like your blog and i was wondering if you would maybe like a link exchange with my website . My site has many good articles and gets many new visitors each day. I think we would both benefit out of this exchange alot.

    Next to link exchange i would like to offer you an option to publish some articles of yours about economy on my blog, send them to me and i will publish them. You can add link to your blog under each article and i will publish it as a source.

    Well let me know on . I would really like a link exchange with your blog (i like it alot).

    Thank you in advance for your reply.


  26. Chandoo says:

    Great post Pam… I have kept it unread it my reader to make sure I go through this when I come home. I recommend this post to anyone aspiring to make money through content.

    Your point about 80:20 (Free vs. premium) makes me feel better about the idea of converting some of the future projects to paid.

    Thank you so much for writing and sharing this

  27. Great post Pam… Strategy, tactics, and examples (plus great illustrations to boot). Can’t wait to read your book.

  28. Allan Bacon says:

    Pam – fantastic post. Thanks for spending the time to summarize these points. I’m going to forward it to all of my writing buddies…

    I have a little bit of a question regarding the “people”. It seems to me that you will naturally start to attract the right types of people if you are reaching out with your “good stuff”.

    Then, as you start to find out who your message resonates with, you can more proactively target them. If you start with a very narrow group, you might miss your sweet spot.


    Hi Allan!

    I totally agree with you that as you first establish your practice, you need to experiment with serving real, live people in different situations to see who you really resonate working with.

    What I suggest to my clients is that this is an excellent thing to do while still working and in the testing mode. I know that is not your case, so you can make it work too!

    I find it is just much harder to create a focused and effective marketing plan when you are trying to reach everyone on all topics.

    So the downside of starting like this is you might take a bit longer to get paying gigs and momentum in your business.

    Before investing in any substantial branding efforts (thorough website/blog/ezine/PR/etc) I do suggest making a choice of a niche to maximize the bang for your buck.

    Like all things, you can buck conventional wisdom and be successful! So if your approach now feels good, do it. 🙂


  29. Chris Huff says:

    Great stuff Pam – I look forward to re-reading this entry multiple times…

  30. Thanks Pam for this entertaining and insightful examination of an issue that faces many of us.

    You had me LOL envisioning the “jewelry sales people” on the beaches of Acapulco. I remember them well from my Mexico days.

    I agree with you that a balance must be struck. It seems to me that those experts and gurus, yourself included, that I admire most online all seem to be extremely generous with sharing quality information.

    This 80/20 mix makes me most anxious to receive their premium content. I know that they will always over deliver. In essence, it is the know, like and trust factor being monetized.

    BTW…Your son’s artwork is amazing and really added to this post!

  31. Pam

    That was so clear and even though I intellectually knew all that, it helped me to absorb it on a deeper level, being able to see it so well formulated in bite size pieces.

    Gurl! U Rock, thank you for that gift.