Readers of my blog and those who have seen my talks will know that I am very critical of the old ROI (return on investment) approach to measuring marketing success, which is still popular today. In my days as VP of corporate marketing for a NASDAQ-traded B2B technology company a decade ago, we measured marketing success via "sales leads": the number of people who registered to download a white paper or tossed a business card into a fishbowl at the trade show. In other words, the only thing that mattered in our approach to marketing was how many people "raised their hands" by submitting personal information to us. These were the measures my bosses used in order to gauge my success. I'm regularly told by marketing professionals that sales leads are still the primary metric used today.
Imagine, for a moment, what would happen if a man went up to someone he found attractive at a bar and the first thing out of his mouth was, "Give me your phone number." What if a woman saw someone she found interesting at the local coffee emporium and started the conversation by saying, "How much money do you make?" If you're a famous celebrity-or amazingly attractive-this approach might work, but mere mortals are not likely to get far in the dating world by acting this way. The same goes in the marketing world.
Yet this is exactly the way many companies and marketers behave. The marketing departments apply the old rules they learned for offline campaigns to the web, requiring the disclosure of personal information before sending an interested party a white paper. Companies design inane "contact us" forms to fill out before it's possible to speak with a human. The next time you have to design a marketing strategy, you'd be better off thinking about how you would approach it if you were trying to date the buyer.
These days, the web gives everyone a tremendous opportunity to reach people and engage them in new and different ways. Now we can earn attention by creating and publishing online (for free) something interesting and valuable: a YouTube video, a blog, a research report, photos, a Twitter stream, an ebook, a Facebook page. My research into the disparity in download frequency of content such as ebooks when they are made completely free versus when they require registration suggests that you will generate between 10 and 50 times more downloads when you do not require registration.
Think about your own behavior for a moment. When you're interested in a free white paper, do you eagerly give up your email address to get the paper? Or are you reluctant, even refusing to give out the information? Now if the paper were completely free, how would you feel? Ask yourself: Would you be willing to share a link to the white paper with your followers on Twitter or via email if there were no registration? You'd be much more willing to share, right? Because you have nothing to lose. This is exactly why free content with no registration has so many more inbound links and much higher search engine rankings.
I'm always interested in metrics that help inform this debate. John Mancini, president of the nonprofit AIIM, agreed to share his experience. AIIM represents the users and suppliers of document, content, and record management technologies, and it publishes content on this subject as part of its marketing program.
Mancini released the organization's first ebook, 8 Reasons You Need a Strategy for Managing Information-Before It's Too Late ..., as a totally free download, with no registration required. In just the first month, the ebook was downloaded 5,138 times. AIIM also created a presentation version of the book and posted it, also with no registration requirement, on SlideShare. This version has had 3,353 downloads. That makes for a total of 8,491 downloads that month.
In comparison, Mancini points to one of his organization's most popular pieces of content, AIIM Industry Watch research papers, where registration is required because the papers are also used as a lead generation program for sponsors. During roughly the same period as the ebook, there were only 513 actual downloads. Although it's impossible to know for sure, since we're comparing two different pieces of content, AIIM's data suggests there is a significant advantage to be had in not requiring registration. In this case, unlocking content seems to have meant more than a sixteenfold increase in the number of downloads. What could free content do for your organization?