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Why Associations Shouldn't Be Giving Away All Their Content for Free

Written by Julie Dietz on June 8, 2016 at 8:30 AM


As a marketer, I'm accustomed to giving content away for free in order to attract people to our website. Apparently, this model is not best suited for all markets.

Which content should and should not be given away for free is actually a contentious subject. As I was researching this blog, I came across many conflicting opinions, including articles titled Why Giving Away Your Best Content is Wrong and Stupid right next to Why You Shouldn't Charge for Your Best Work.

It's safe to say they didn't agree on much, as I'm sure you could tell by those titles. What they did agree on was that content is a valuable resource. For associations, content has long been a top member benefit. Journals, research, training, and guides are only rivaled by networking as an enticing member benefit. Traditionally, associations have had plenty of content. That also means that they have faced tough decisions in the age of content marketing and free information online.

Association executives know that their content is one of their top member benefits, and that making some of that content freely available to the public shows expertise and value to prospects. Many believe that the bulk of your association's content, however, should be kept behind a login to your AMS system or online community.

Only members should have access to your full content selection. It is one of the top reason that they remain members.

However, there is a strong case to be made for giving away a lot of information for free to get found by prospective members, legislators, the public, and the media. With the pressure mounting for associations to compete with other information sources online, it is easy to go too far in your public content distribution.

Sometimes you need a little backup to bolster your side of the argument. The following are three of the biggest reasons why your association should not give away all of your content for free online.

3 Reasons Why Giving Away All Your Content for Free is a Problem for Your Association

Reason #1) It Devalues Your Association and Its Membership

If they can get your information for free, why should people bother to become members? Your association, its members, staff, and expertise are valuable, so treat them as such.

If you're giving away expert advice that professional consultants would charge for, then you should charge for it as well, or make it available only as a member benefit. By charging for your expertise, you clearly articulate value and show why people should join your association – to get full access to that value.

Membership value also comes in the form of exclusivity. Poet and activist Maya Angelou may have explained the concept best: People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Everyone wants to be special, feel special, and get an experience that other people don't. Free content doesn't provide that exclusive feeling, while content attained through a paid membership does. When you require that people purchase content or become a member, you make them a part of something important. Now they have access to content and experts that other people don't.

Expert Tip: Create exclusive content with information that gives your members an advantage in their lives or careers. That content will not only make members feel special, it will help them pinpoint exactly how your organization helped them.

Reason #2) It Causes Your Association to Miss Out on Revenue

Whether it's in the form of dues revenue or content purchases, if you give all your content away for free, you don't make any money off it. That's underutilizing a valuable resource, and harming your association at the same time.

Could you increase your membership by turning your best reports, advice, and research into a benefit only members can access? As new members join to get access, your revenue grows. You can also monetize content with an online store, which may be included in your membership management software.

An online store can quickly open up a new non-dues revenue stream by providing content purchase options members, non-members, or both. This might include printed copies of your material, as well as digital downloads.

Giving members access provides them with the opportunity to make additional purchases while non-members will gain another window into your organization. They might be more willing to pay $9.95 for that webinar than $99 in annual dues. An extra bonus? If they love the webinar, they may be more willing to join.

Reason #3) It Sabotages Dedication to Your Organization

When something is free, people don't always feel obliged to show up, use the service, read the book, or otherwise follow through with the content you're offering them. They're not personally or financially invested, so it's not as important to them.

Having people pay for content is one of the simplest ways to ensure that people are investing in your organization. It motivates people to participate and follow through with their purchase. This has been proven time and again, including recently with Teachable, an online education platform. Online training website, Teachable, found that only 9% of students complete their free courses, while purchased courses have a 36% completion rate.

Your association's purchasable content works in much the same way. Put your best resources, including ebooks, professional education courses, webinars, and expert discussion forums behind a login, and you instantly clarify their value. You also motivate your members to consume that content, and participate by posting their own comments to discussions. That in turn drives more engagement with your benefits and dedication to your association.

You Can Have It Both Ways

It can be challenging to walk the line between free content and exclusive member benefits, but modern technology makes it easier than ever before. The tools you need to use content as both an exclusive member benefit and to attract prospects are likely already present in your AMS software.

The best tools for content distribution are member-facing areas of your website like an online community and store in your AMS. Use the community to create members-only areas full of exclusive content, as well as prospect sections that contain just enough content to entice visitors to join your association. The store can monetize content and make it available to both groups, or only special membership types.

Since your content still lives in your system (such as an AMS, online community, or CMS), it is easy to manage and can be updated at any time. Members and prospects will also have an easier time accessing your content because it will be available 24/7, from any location.

When you can have it both ways, why let your organization and your members down by not doing something that's become very easy?

Free Association Content and Member Benefits Takeaway

Ultimately, which content associations give away for free is a judgement call, but your association's future is too important, and your content too valuable, for everything to be given away for free.

Put the majority of your content behind a login, so that it's an exclusive member benefit. Your best ebooks, expert Q&A forums, and educational courses, for example, may get the most engagement when they're available only to members. Other pieces of content, or even just teaser sections of content, can be made available to the public.

Your publicly available content encourages people to join for full access, and it's also crawlable by search engines, thus contributing to SEO. Blog posts, white papers, and some member-to-member discussion forums in your online community are options for enticing visitors to become new members.

Explore the options in your software to find a happy medium between giving away too much and hoarding. A balance will help your association gets the best results in terms of SEO and prospects, while maintaining exclusive member value.

The most successful membership managers practice these 11 habits.

Topics: Associations, Member Experience, Marketing Automation, Online Community

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