How Associations May Make Money with Free Products and Services
This is a topic I have spoken about on many other occasions in other sectors: how free products, free services, and free content can make money. This is a difficult pill for some to swallow, and associations and other not-for-profits are not exceptions. But why is it so difficult to accept that sometimes you need to give something away for nothing to get something of value in return?
To begin with, as a not-for-profit, an association has far more restrictions than a typical for-profit regarding how it makes decisions, obtains funding, and how it must use its finances. This is likely a policy regarding the sort of information the association can make public and how this must be done. Such policies are usually designed to protect the organization's integrity, brand, and ability to monetize its resources. Typically, this means the word "free" is used very carefully so as not to weaken the brand or dilute potential revenue sources.
But this viewpoint is very short-sighted and likely the result of the common belief that nothing good comes for free. Furthermore, expenses are always a concern, so associations are always asking "how are we going to pay for this?" when it comes to new initiatives, updating and maintaining infrastructure, and so on. And because the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, organizations have difficulty picturing how taking the long way using freebies can also get the job done.
The Myth that Free Products Devalue a Brand
Many charities are ahead of the not-for-profit sector in this regard because the former have long since figured out that "free" can serve as the first step on the road to income. Charities frequently offer free products or free services as a way to get potential donors and customers looking their way. Once the freebie has fulfilled this role, it is then up to the charity to do the rest of the job of converting that person into a sale in some other regard.
Why then do so many associations seem unable to do the same?
"You get what you pay for."
I'm sure most of us have heard someone say this in reference to something that is free, or we've said it ourselves. This is indicative of the (incorrect) premise that free products, services, and the like cannot hold value in and of themselves. The common perception is that anything given away for free is merely a part of a whole that one must buy into to gain any value, like a food sample that requires you buy the whole box of food to satiate your hunger. For an association that relies on its brand carrying a message of professionalism and dignity, such a perception can be too risky to ignore.
So, how can associations dispel this myth and embrace the idea of "free" being synonymous with value?
Attaching Value to Freebies
To begin with, associations need to take stock of everything they offer their audience / market so they can evaluate what they can afford to give away as free products and services. A possible list may look something like this:
- Membership: Take a loss on a free membership now to gain the opportunity for future dues and other membership-only monetization opportunities.
- Publications: Newsletters, periodicals, and other forms of publications that target the organization's core market.
- Services: Insurance, consultancy, legal benefits, and the like are often among the benefits offered to an organization's members.
- Content: Free advice, templates, and stories of shared experience provide help while bringing attention to your website.
Of the above examples, content is probably the easiest to give away for free and has the most potential for the least investment. However, it is also the least predictable and most indirect. Free products, free services, and free membership are easily assigned a value to the recipient because the usual price tag immediately communicates savings. Valuable content, on the other hand, is far more subtle. This means creating value with free content has to be very tactical and planned out. Ensure the content is always pushing people towards something.
Monetization by Way of Freebies
Typically, an organization's first thought when it comes to freebies is how to create value from them in the form of actual income. How can giving away things for free lead to inbound funds?
Start by giving samples. Did you record a previous event by the same speaker or on a similar topic? Offer the video for free with an accompanying message of "like this recording? Get more of the same value at this upcoming event." Use the previous experience to push registrations for the next event. You don't even have to release all of the recording for free. Edit it to only present brief, on-point quotes that illustrate the quality of its complete contents.
You can also apply free products to "pad" the value of other purchases. For example, the common "buy two get something else free" marketing technique uses the latter product to incentivise a purchase of two other products. This is helpful for increasing the appeal of products that are not making a lot of sales on their own and can help clear shelf space for new products.
Providing free products can also help drive interest for something that people are otherwise wary of. If you are hosting an event that may be too "outside the box" for your typical audience, but you feel it would deliver real value if you can convince people to show, try attaching something free to the deal. Let your audience know that registering for this event will give them free access to another, always-popular event, for example.
When trying to figure out how to monetize free products, focus on what they are pulling towards -- there must be an endgame to the offer.
Giving Something for Free Can Mean More Return than Money
For an association, "value" means more than funding. By this, I mean that there is more to be earned by giving something away for free than otherwise creating an opportunity for monetization.
Not all benefits are represented by dollar signs. By giving away for free certain things that have a monetary value, you can strengthen your brand or otherwise improve your audience's opinion of your association. You can offer something of value to your members, for example, without attaching it to their dues. This creates a perception of "getting more for your money" than what is stated in your membership package.
Giving away free advice, information, and other resources can be useful for strengthening a brand and building trust. Using free content and the like, your association can position itself as a source of authority and relevance to your market. You can then divert this recognition towards other goals, including expanding membership and other means of monetization.
Free but Not Without a Cost
It is also important to keep in mind that giving something away for free does not mean you can't ask for something other than money in return. For example, if your association provides online resources useful to its audience, you can put them behind a "gate." This means requiring a visitor complete a task that serves as the gate before they can go through and access your content. This gate typically takes the form of providing an email address and agreeing to future communications. As much as people say they don't like this technique, gated content works and is a useful tool for building mailing lists and the like (which is especially relevant given the consent rules of the Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation.)
Don't go crazy with gating all of your content or you risk losing your audience's trust in your association and will make them question your organization's intentions. You also don't want to take too much information with your gating (or abuse what you gather.) Be strategic about what you gate and how the information you take is used if you want to retain trust in your association.
If you are looking for more ways than offering free products, services, content and the like to your membership, you should have a look at Donald Belfall's book, Creating Value for Members: A Strategic Guide for Associations. This CSAE publication will help you deliver more value to your membership by first helping you understand how that value impacts member perception and then suggesting steps your association should consider taking.