The Free Line: Does Giving Away Valuable Content for Free Hurt Your Business?

February 3, 2016 , 40 Comments

Online course creators face a tough question: where do you draw the line between your free content and your paid content?

Anyone selling online courses or selling information products of any kind needs to answer this question. After all, content marketing is all about providing useful, valuable information for free...

But when are you giving away too much of your information for free? How can you do content marketing without cannibalizing content that goes into your premium information products?


Where to Place the “Free Line”

Eben Pagan, who built a large information product empire, coined the term "free line". The free line is basically the line that delineates you free content from your paid content.

No matter what business you are in and no matter what you are selling, you have a free line.

On one side of the free line is anything and everything your potential customers can do without paying money. That may be as simple as visiting your website and reading some information on it. Even a local business has a free line: you can enter a store and browse products for free. You can pick up a brochure for free. You can maybe try some free samples.

On the other side of the free line is anything that is behind a paywall. That includes any product you purchase, including information products such as online courses.

The Stingy Approach to the Free Line

One approach to setting your free line is to be relatively stingy with your content. In other words: you guard your valuable content and give away very little of it for free.

I'm sure you've had some negative experiences being on the customer side of such an approach. Maybe you clicked on an article with a promising title, only to find that it provides little to no useful information. Instead of delivering on the headline, the article simply pushes you to make a purchase.

To me, the worst offender in this category is the pitchfest webinar. The webinar is advertised to teach something valuable, but it ends up being nothing but a long-winded sales pitch.

But the stingy free line approach doesn't have to be all bad. A more positive way to do it is to use the "hot tip" method. That is when you give away something that is small, but valuable. For example, you could offer a cheat sheet with many valuable headline formulas. This can be a highly valuable offer, but it wouldn't cannibalize an entire copywriting course or a copywriting service.

The Generous Approach to the Free Line

Even if you follow the "hot tip" approach described above, you might still face a problem: a hot tip makes for a good opt-in offer, but it's not going to generate traffic and build your audience.

Unless you're paying for traffic, click by click, you need to create more content. This is where content marketing comes in. The idea with content marketing is to push back the free line. To offer more information, more value for free. On the extreme end of this we have ultimate guides and skyscraper content. These are massive content pieces, making large amounts of information available for free.

Being generous with your free content can have several benefits for your business:

  • It builds trust: ideally, your free content can provide your readers with real value and real "wins". Anyone who's gotten real, tangible value from you already will be much more willing to further engage with your business and become a customer or client.
  • It drives traffic: highly valuable content is shareable, attracts backlinks and is more likely to be listed at the top of relevant Google searches than thin, simple, low-value content.
  • It builds an audience: this is different from just driving traffic. Highly valuable content encourages people to subscribe to your mailing list, to comment on your blog posts and to truly engage and interact with you. This is a hugely valuable asset for any business.

Okay, so creating generous free content has all these benefits, BUT...

...if you create such content, will you have any information left to place beyond the free line? Or will you have given away everything you wanted to include in your online course?

The Solution

Here's the good news: there is a solution to this problem. And I really mean a complete, reliable solution. The distinction between your free content and your paid content need not be fuzzy or uncertain at all. And you can have great, highly valuable online courses and information products AND be generous with the placement of your free line, at the same time.

Watch this video to see how:

Exercise: How to Implement this Strategy

After watching the video, take a moment to think about your own business and answer these questions:

  • ​In your market what's an example of a neat "package" of information that would make a good blog post or video that you use for content marketing?
  • What's an example of a complete system, step-by-step guide or "integrated" information that would make a good information product?
  • What's an example of something more involved where people seek hands-on help, one on one coaching and similar things that could make a good high-priced offer?

If you struggle to answer any of these questions or if you don't know how to apply this kind of thinking to your market, leave a comment below and I'll help you out.

Shane's Signature

About ​Shane Melaugh

I'm the founder of ActiveGrowth and Thrive Themes and over the last years, I've created and marketed a dozen different software, information and SaaS products. Apart from running my business, I spend most of my time reading, learning, developing skills and helping other people develop theirs. On ActiveGrowth, I want to help you become a better entrepreneur and product creator. Read more about my story here.

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  • I agree completely – nothing worse than getting half the info and having to pay for the rest. Free and paid should be completely independent.

  • Excellent information and strategy to monetize blogs Shane, thanks for sharing. I am currently working on a project with a lot of information and I was finding it difficult to determine where the free versus premium content line should be drawn. Invaluable!

    • Hi Faye,

      Good to know that this came at the right time for you!

  • Hi Shane,

    Once again a very good contributes / Video. Everything in a nutshell.
    That’s how I do it and it works.

    I write a blog post impressive and collect about the leads a.
    Later I sell my premium product or sell the free product an upsell for under 10 €.

    The Brian

    • Thanks for your comment, Brian. Good to get a confirmation that this model works for others as well.

  • I’ve had most success using a rather odd combination: 1) Attract potential buyers using blog posts. 2) Capture the lead w/ a live training offer: A chance to see someone just like your lead be coached, live, via a live “Clinic” webinar where a volunteer is diagnosed and treated (coached to achieve better success). 3) In between the time your lead opts-in and the live event, share VERY simple tips that can be applied in a few minutes and IMMEDIATELY tested.

    Here’s the most important piece: The tip must create actual success.

    No matter how small, if your tip “moves the needle” it creates an immediate hunger for more success — more of your free and PAID content. More incentive to actually show-up to the webinar free Clinic webinar (training).

    This tees-up a tempting paid offer made at conclusion of the free Clinic webinar. The offer is low-cost but gets the prospect actively investing.

    Again — same model. Create a small amount of success through a very small $ and time investment. This tees-up the higher-priced up-sell.

    Hope this helps! This is an important subject, Shane.

    • Hi Jeff,

      This is a fantastic comment! Thanks a lot of adding it. The principle of delivering a quick (small) win is excellent and I 100% agree with it.

  • Very good answer on this question!
    I wonder how to build the bridge between the free blog content and the big-picture-coaching-service or training-program? Most people will never consider getting a pig-picture-help on their own, will they? So isn’t it necessary to tell them this would be helpful? In the end a blog should be a step to any paid product or service…

    • Jeff Molander says:

      You can use a call to action and tell them. But what is more effective is to ATTRACT the buyer to the idea of buying — by proving the investment is worth it.

      Your blog will deliver 2 kinds of buyers: Immediate and future-term. Many folks who land at my blog are actively seeking answers (training, coaching) they will pay for. How much? That’s the trick. What works best for me is making it a “no-brainer” to enroll in a training that is FREE… and then leads to a “nearly no cost” (for me this is under $99) means to access what is needed to experience more success.

      This is how it flows for my business:

      This is very much like what Frank Kern teaches.

      1) Customer hits blog — enrolls in free Webinar training AND actually tries tips.

      2) Customer experiences better results. Small but anything counts at this point.

      3) Customer is now motivated to show-up for the live, online event. Because of the success they just experienced — not your “quality content.”

      4) Customer experiences live training event and is primed for my $99 offer — because he/she just sat through 30-40 minutes of watching me problem-solve for someone like them. Customer listens to how excited my volunteer (who I coach) is to continue getting coached by me… and/or how excited they are to rush out and try what I just suggested.

      5) Customer buys “no-brainer” promotional offer to access more SUCCESS (not knowledge).

      6) You up-sell the customer.

    • Hello Birgit,

      I recommend that you make sure your website and content always communicates about your premium offers clearly. For example, if someone’s reading your blog post, it should always be clear to them that you have more to offer and easy for them to find your offers.

      Generally, people will look for individual solutions and answers to questions and once they find a trustworthy source, they are very open to making a bigger commitment and getting a “full solution”. But I believe the trust factor is incredibly important, here.

      • Jeff Molander says:

        True. But what is a trustworthy source — when others are out there just like you providing tips for the same challenges?

        In my experience it comes down to this. Are the tips:

        – New (have they heard them before, elsewhere)
        – Immediately DO-able
        – Actually effective (do they create a better result, faster, for them)

        In my experience, having tips that are “missing puzzle pieces” that the potential buyer has never heard before is vital to success.

        Hope this helps. Thanks for triggering the thought, Shane.

    • Jeff Molander says:

      They WILL need the big picture help. Your blog should be attracting near and future-term buyers. Thus, your blog should lead to free help. That free help should, in a matter of 2-3 days, offer a pathway to a low-cost “point of entry” coaching/training that causes a small bit of success. This creates hunger for more success… more coaching/training. Trust is built on experience. Create success, you access trust. This is the best approach. I spent years wasting time until I took action on this knowledge! Good luck.

      • Hi Shane, hi Jeff,

        wow! I’m really greatful for your detailed and engaged answers. Thank you very much, your replies are very helpful for me and I will print them out to re-read them once in a while and let them sink in :-)
        and then I’ll create great blog posts, great content, great free offers, great paid offers and great success anyway ;-)

        I wish you all the best and once again: thank you!


  • Hi Shane,

    I’m in the productivity market and am specifically targeting online marketers.

    I was wondering how you would apply this to my market?

    For example, im in the process of writing a huge blog post (its at 8000 words and I’m a bit over half way… seriously..) about a whole bunch of simple productivity strategies my market can use. This will be used to help drive email subscribers.

    Then once they become an email subscriber they get one in-depth productivity strategy each week for 7 weeks. These emails are around 1500-2000 words long each. There are also a few extra promotional emails in there to sell my course.

    Then my online course is about becoming more productive. It has a decent introduction to productivity and then has 3 in-depth strategies to use (that aren’t in the emails), plus some quizzes. The course costs $60.

    Do you think this is fine? Or do you think I should offer more value in the course and less value in the emails?

    Any thoughts and criticism is truly welcome :)

    Cheers, Zach.

    • Hi Zach,

      From your comment, it seems like you’re concentrating too much on volume and not enough on content and result. Really, the length of a piece of content doesn’t matter at all, whether it’s paid or free.

      For a huge blog post like that, I highly recommend that you use something like Hotjar to get access to heatmaps, scroll maps and visitor recordings. I’d want to get a very good idea of how much of the content people are actually consuming, how they’re interacting with the page etc.

      With the emails, it’s also important to track how engaged the subscribers actually are with the content.

      Most of all, I recommend that you shift your focus to the result you can produce for your audience. If you can bring a small but real result to someone in 100 words, that’s better than delivering 16,000 words that lead to nothing.

      Of course, if you can deliver a huge result in 16,000 words (which requires that you can get people to read those 16,000 words in the first place) then that’s great as well. It’s not about whether long or short content is better. It’s about what you’re focusing on.

    • Jeff Molander says:

      Zach, Shane is right.
      You should invest in Hotjar or (I use) This will help you take your long-form post and discover where people are focusing… what they REALLY want the most. Study the heatmap (scroll map). Then, re-post a shorter version (if it’s already posted).

      Also, from what you say you may be making a mistake I made — that blocked my success as a coach for 3 years.


      Do NOT over-teach. Do not over-tip. It’s instant death.

      The minute potential buyers (who need your help) realize “this is work” you’re sunk.

      All training/coaching… behavior improvement is work. The trick is to sell it less as work… more as “let me help you do this ONE thing that I know is vital to your success… DIFFERENTLY (better)… right now. Today.”

      Then do it for them. Move the needle. Many of them will literally ask you, “That worked! What’s next?” (and they’re ready to pay… because they’re ready for more success… you just proved you’re worth it)

      Good luck.

      Also, email me. Copyhackers has a post on this subject this week. Above average stuff.

      • Zach Alfaro says:

        Thanks for the fantastic advice Shane and Jeff!

        And just for some quick clarification, that 16’000 word post I’m writing has an intro section of about 1’500 words which tells them how to take action on the post and is probably the most valuable section. Then the rest of the post is a whole bunch of in-depth productivity hacks where the reader is meant to skim through, find 1 or 2 and apply them. They’re not meant to read the entire post :)

        But I was actually just thinking about the Over-teaching part the other day as I read Grooves journey to $100k/month ebook and I think that is definitely a trap I could fall into.

        I’d love to get in contact Jeff as you seem like you really know what you’re doing! I think I need a little direction sometimes as I seem to get overwhelmed easily haha I’d be awesome if you could hit me up at . Also was this the post you were talking about?

        And again, thanks for taking the time to write to me :) I truly appreciate it.

        Cheers, Zach.

  • The information in this blog post has answered a question I’ve been asking myself for months. Thanks Shane. Great stuff.

    • Thanks for your comment, Clive! Happy to know that this was useful for you.

  • Hey Shane,

    Very helpful video. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I publish a lot of 5,000+ word “epic” blog posts that provide a lot of actionable information.

    However, as my list is beginning to grow faster now (25+ a day) I’m starting to see that I am leaving a lot of potential income on the table. I’d love to have an informational product to promote to relevant segments of my list immediately after downloading my content upgrades.

    A couple ideas I’ve been throwing around:

    1. Complete SEO strategy roadmap (audit, competitor research, link building, on-page optimization, keyword research). Building a monster course people can take and immediately implement on their site.

    2. List building bootcamp (how to optimize site for rapid list building, setting up email automation, monetizing subscribers etc)

    3. Modules (membership site with modules showing people how to execute on a large number of online marketing tactics). I’d promote each module as a low-ticket sale after subscription, then upsell full access to all modules. Probably be a membership site.

    Just a few ideas. Would love to hear your thoughts?

    To be honest, I feel like I’ve given away maybe too much for free in some of my posts.

    • Hi Robbie,

      All of those ideas sound potentially valid… you just have to present them to the right people. In other words, you should be asking your prospective customers about them, rather than me. :)

      With some surveys and 1-on-1 calls with your subscribers, you’ll quickly find out which idea is the most viable (or maybe you’ll find some completely different ideas) and you can get started turning that into a small product and later, if people buy it, a bigger product.

  • Hi Birgit,

    This is EXACTLY what I’m struggling with! Nice to read I’m not alone in this. ;-)

    I know selling a product or service is all about solving a problem for your clients.
    But having a problem is not enough: they have to perceive it as such and feel an urgent need to solve it.

    My big-picture-products solve the REAL problem, which I can see and recognise from miles away (figuratively speaking).

    For what my prospective clients consider to be their problem (I call them ‘symptom problems’), the solution is in my blogs.
    So they read my blog, think “problem solved”, leave and only (maybe) return if they encounter another symptom problem.
    Which they will.

    So the stumble along from one symptom problem to the other, all the time thinking they’re doing okay.

    How do I (do we) make our prospective clients see that there is a better way than a band-aid here and there – and that we provide it?

    I really hope Shane can put us on the right track towards the ‘ultimate solution’.

    Thanks for your question, Birgit. :-)
    And of course thanks for the blog, Shane!


    • Jeff Molander says:

      I’ve been there. For years. It was horrible. I was poor! Take a symptom and remedy it… or relieve a bit of pain. That said, the FORMAT of your pain relief is critical. If at all possible make your lead magnet a live webinar where “someone just like you” can be seen being “diagnosed and treated” for their symptoms. The larger problem is revealed in background. This part is also critical: Deliver a few SHORT (action-oriented, 1, 2, 3) tips between the sign-up date and the webinar. The webinar should not be more than 10 business days from the date of sign-up. Hope this helps. The other method I’ve had a lot of success with is a “7 tips in 7 days” drip that requires them to submit their REAL (most important, most checked) email address to access my tips. And I make my very best tip the first one… landing them on a page when they sign-up with Tip #1. (rather than making them wait)

    • Hi Renée,

      That’s an interesting point. The most straightforward solution is to add a message to the end of all your symptom solutions, telling your audience exactly what you told me in this comment. Tell them that this is a fix, but not a full solution. Tell them about the full solution you offer and why they should consider it.

      • Jeff Molander says:

        In my experience, Shane is spot-on. Even better, tell your leads, “this may help the pain subside… but even when it does you should be asking yourself these 3 other questions.”

        Then list them.

        Thus, we use a blog to give answers to customers — based on questions they are asking right now. That’s how Google helps us.

        But then what?

        Make your paid product (or content upgrade) give them “answers to questions you should be asking (but probably aren’t).”

        Missing puzzle-pieces to their success roadmap.

      • Renée Daniëls says:

        I really have to thank you separately for both your reactions, Jeff: thanks! :-)

      • Jeff Molander says:

        No worries, Renee. You’re welcome!

      • Renée Daniëls says:

        Thanks, Shane!! Your reaction, together with Jeff’s, show me there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. :-)

        My motivation, which was dwindling a bit, is right up there again!

        Have a nice weekend!!

  • Great Stuff Shane, thank you!

    I know this is the wrong place, but i have a another big Problem with the Thrive Affiliate System. I see no other chance to contact you directly. No answers from Paul, no interesting to work with me? At the moment i have only a few commissions make, but I’m on the way to make a translation for all Thrive Stuff and bring a working Course for german speaking peoples.
    At this time i have doubts to go in the right direction with thrive.

    Before i go with thrive i had a big Trust in your work, but my experience in this Affiliate System and the support inside is really bad! Many peoples warning for Affiliate Solutions like this, outside from big players like clickbank etc.! Are they right?
    I have written other mails before to with even no answer. Commissions are delete with no clear informations why in the Affiliate Panel. I become a mail for payout on the thirst January but i have nothing received today! This is my last try before I completely out from all thrive stuff. So i hope you can fix the problem and help to give me the trust back.

    By the way, my Affiliate Id is 915. Thanks and keep the another great work!

    best regards

    • Hello Joerg,

      We’ve had some trouble with managing support for affiliates and I apologize for that. We’re catching up, though and getting through the previous messages.

  • Shane, there is definitely a problem w/ your commenting system — or my comments :)

    I’m trying to reply to Zach for 2 days now and unable to post a reply. Can you please look into it? I feel like some of my comments are being flagged by your system — others post immediately. Strange.

    I want to help Zach based on what I experienced in a market similar to his — with a similar product. Thanks!

    • Hi Jeff,

      Indeed, many of your comments were in my spam filter. No idea why, but I got them out and published them. Thanks for contributing so actively!

  • Thanks, Shane. Are you still based on Sofia or have you moved on to Barcelona? I’m asking because I need some help in Sofia.

    • I’m currently in Bangkok, actually. Not exactly close by. :)

      • Jeff Molander says:

        Have fun. If you know of a person in Sofia with a good business mind (who would be excited at growing an online company) please send him/her my way. Thanks for considering. I know you’re busy, Shane.

  • Shane,

    Really great video. I used to really struggle with this myself. I think there is a fine line where a couple things happen in free content.

    1. Is over-teaching to where the reader/viewer just gets exhausted and then doesn’t move on to paid content/training.

    2. Not including enough to help them.

    You’re also spot on about the complete walk-through. As someone who has bought several information products on various different subjects; I can tell you flat out that I always want the complete detailed walk-through. It’s always great to have a start here, finish here map to follow and I have always been willing to pay to get it.

    Great video and keep up the good work with Thrive.

    • Thanks for your comment, Michael! Yes, that’s a good way of looking at it. You have to find that sweet spot with free content. You also have to find it with paid content, but there’s a bit more leeway because your customers will be more committed, due to the money they paid.

  • Thanks for the video, it was very helpful! :)

    Ramit Sethi uses the same method if I’m not mistaken. He gives away a lot of content, and his free content is very specific. But he doesn’t give you a complete system, you have to pay for that.

    • Yes, I think Ramit is a great example of this. He emphasizes that 98% of his stuff is free. A lot of it is highly specific and unstructured, though and it shows that even when you give away a ton of value, you can still charge a lot for your premium products and be very successful.

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