Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

The Best Way to Get a Story to Spread: Give It Away

Did you know George Washington probably never chopped down a cherry tree? And Benjamin Franklin never flew a kite with a key in a thunderstorm.

So why do we remember these tales? What about such stories makes them spreadable? If it’s not their veracity, what is it?

Give money

Photo credit: D Sharon Pruit (Creative Commons)

According to the Heath Brothers, the reason some stories stick and others don’t is because they contain certain key elements: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotional appeal, and a compelling narrative. If a story has these, it is far more likely to spread — even if it’s not true.

So what do you do if you have a story that is true or a message people need to hear… but nobody cares?

Why not give it away?

If you’re a subscriber to this blog, you know I’m a fan of “free.” Granted, it’s not the best method for making money (duh), but it can be an excellent marketing strategy, if done right.

“Free” is easy. It’s a low barrier to entry and often a surprise, which is why it works in spreading an idea. The Bible is free (thanks to the Gideons). So is the encyclopedia now. You can even find classic works of literature on Amazon for nothing.

Why do these books continue to sell, despite the fact that they’re free in some places? Because the stories have spread, and people see the value in them.

People will buy goods they can get for free (and do). The trick is making the right people aware of them. The hard part isn’t making the thing; it’s earning attention.

The cost of “free”

Charging money for your content or art makes it harder for strangers to find and then spread. If want to get your work noticed, one way to do it is to be generous.

In a world full of distractions, what is attention worth to you? The cost of a book? A few hours of your time? A free MP3 download?

Would you be willing to give up something valuable in order to get access to more people? Of course you would. This is what advertising is all about. But these days, giving away your product is way more cost-effective than an ad.

So why don’t more people do this?

The problem is fear. We’re afraid people won’t care or no one will pay us for our work ever again. But the reality is this: “free” is a great way to get noticed. And of course, that’s just the beginning.

But it’s a start.

How this works

So let’s say you’re ready to do this, to give your work away for free to earn some attention. What now?

  1. Create something valuable you could charge money for.
  2. Give it away for free (possibly for a limited time to create urgency).
  3. “Charge” people a piece of personal information in order to get the goods (e.g. an email address). This will make them value it more and help you measure success.
  4. Use that info to build trust with your new fans and slowly turn them into customers.
  5. Keep creating awesome stuff to both sell and give away.

The job of an artist is to earn attention, build trust, and deliver value. If you do that, you most won’t go hungry.

Examples of “free” that work

  • Songwriter Derek Webb did this with his record, Mockingbird, in 2006. In a few months, he collected over 80,000 email addresses and used that list to plan his next concert tour. He now helps other musicians do this with Noisetrade.com
  • I did something similar when I gave away an eBook to get people interested in an online course I was building.
  • Paulo Coehlo did this when he gave away The Alchemist and it eventually became an international best-seller.
  • My friend, Max Dubinsky, is doing this right now with his new novella (with the help of a network I helped create).

Everywhere you look, people are finding interesting ways to get their work noticed — even if it means giving it away.

What this means for you

Most artists struggle with getting their work noticed. They have a marketing problem. This is especially true for writers — they just can’t seem to get people to read their work. If that’s you, here’s a reality check:

Until you stop being stingy with your art, you can’t feel frustrated at your lack of audience. [Click to tweet]

So if you’re upset that more people don’t care about your work, ask yourself, “What do I have to lose in being generous?” Why not give away a piece of work in exchange for some eyeballs?

Free isn’t a guarantee of success, and you can certainly cannibalize your market. But if what you really care about is spreading a story — and you’re determined to figure out how to make money after people start caring — it’s a legitimate strategy for earning attention.

What you do after that is up to you.

Have you ever benefited from “free”? Did it make you a fan of something newt? Share in the comments.

Want a free book? Go grab Max Dubinsky’s new novella on Amazon and see how he’s using “free” to build a tribe of readers.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • I decided to put one of my poems into an animation and share it on my blog here:  https://multicolouredsmartypants.com/2012/11/02/49/ … it’s a start, at least 🙂

  • Story Cartel sounds like a great idea. Any notion of when it will be live for authors like myself to use? I’ve got a book headed to Kindle in the next week.

  • Hi Jeff. I am working on a nonfiction ebook and plan to give it away free to build my audience. I notice a lot of people make relatively short ebook as PDFs. I was doing mine as a ePub for kindle, iBooks etc. Would the PDF route be better?

    • David, it depends. I’d do as many formats as possible — give people options. Amazon is a great distribution network, though.

  • Jeff, I love this article.  So many times we hoard our “babies” in an attempt to squeeze out the most profit.  It’s a very “scarcity” driven mindset.  When we are able to step back and think about our real goals of getting our message across and helping others, we see that giving our best away is really the key to success.  I love the famous line by Zig Ziglar: “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”  I’ve been living by that philosophy for 5 years and it has never failed.  Thank you for your intelligent thoughts and sharing yourself with the world.

    Enjoy the journey,

  • Katharine Trauger

    Give, and it will be given to you, good measure, shaken together, pressed down, running over . . .  
    Not a new idea.
    Church is free. Got a lot, there.
    Duane Sheriff, of Durant, OK, has given away millions and millions of recorded sermons and hasn’t seemed to suffer financially, yet.
    Although the new mantra is that “content is  not  king” I do think that after the first couple of seconds, content is the deal-maker. A cute blog with lotsa great freebies cannot overcome a lame book.

    • Well said, Katharine. You cannot bribe your way into people’s lives, if you don’t have something meaningful to say.

      •   I’d like to jump in here because this is word for word much of how I
        feel about it. I’m new to the blogosphere and one thing I noticed right
        away is that it’s very important to me that I not “sell out” for the
        sake of numbers. Consistent, prayer-filled content spoken, written and hand-crafted
        with the steady “voice” of God is so much more valuable in the long run than the spit
        and sputter a good many places put out there so often. I am very much in
        tune with what you are recommending here Jeff…thanks for turning my
        heart (which sadly, tends towards stinginess). Getting better; getting healed every day. Bless you Brother

  • I have had more purchases of my book, So You’re Not Wonder Woman, after making it free on Amazon. I’ve also bought copies of Kindle books that are free for the Kindle because I didn’t want to get out my original Kindle to download it. Laziness can be an author’s best friend. 🙂

  • Hey Jeff, we’ve taken your advice and are giving our first ebook away for free. Since launching it 10 days ago, we’ve gotten 116 new subscribers (compared to just 20 subscribers we gained by blogging for a year). 

  • Lisa

    Well, I have downloaded all your free stuff, Jeff, and have enjoyed it all immensely! And it has really shown me in a practical way how this concept works. But I agree, the key is to have the quality to back it up. I am in the middle of reading “Wrecked” (my free copy) and already I know I am going to buy a copy to give to someone else. Thanks! 

  • Good suggestions, Jeff. I am giving away free ebooks every 3 months. I have given away four already. These are all around 5,000-20,000 words. I have about fifteen more books that are already written, they just need editing, typesetting, and covers. 

    As a result, I see my email newsletter growing every single day.  My main problem is not enough time to write!

  • I’m doing this right now. Giving my manifesto free on Amazon, hoping to do just what you’ve written about, create a bigger presence. 

  • sometimes. 😉

  • This is a very, very important message, Jeff!!  I gave away a free eBook on my website and asked friends to give it away on their websites, including a free-eBook website, the title is “10 Things I Hate About ADHD”. A very simple, short, humorous take on a serious issue. At the end of its run it had over 100,000 downloads, and continues to spread (even though I’ve taken it down). At the moment my agent is pitching the idea of a longer version to publishers. I still give the eBook away to those who ask for it and here’s the kicker, it wasn’t polished and pretty. Back then I was just learning the whole free eBook thing. It was created in power point for Pete’s sake (well, that’s not so bad because I still use PP lol).

    Well, what’s the result of this free eBook strat, let’s see ADDer World has perhaps the most readers of any independent website on the subject, I started a social network for others who share the condition with me and we are reaching 5000 members (incredible for this niche of people who are also challenged by the “stigma”,) it helped my first book, One Boy’s Struggle, reach best seller status, it landed me an agent and, most importantly, it gave a lot of people a much needed reprieve from all the seriousness and gave them something lighter to consider if even for just a moment.

    Keep rocking, Jeff!

  • good tips that I plan to apply 

  • “Free” made me a fan of this blog! I read all the time (though this is my first time commenting) and I get really encouraged in my writing. Thank you! I’m going to buy “Wrecked” soon, because I read your free manifesto and “You are a Writer”.

  • Jackdunigan

    Hi Jeff, Love your blog. Thanks for being so faithful to help others. Regarding the distribution of free products, how do you harvest email addresses from books given away on Amazon? I see how to do this with books or documents from my website, but don’t know how it works thru Kindle.

  • oh gosh you’re right.
    I just wrote a kindle book thanks to you! (4 of them actually …and more on the way)Now live on KINDLE  is one on learning how to boost creativity, problem solving, and experience anything you want by lucid dreaming…(waking up inside your dream, and being able to control much of it).  “SPARKY’S Go-to GUIDE for Dream Control”Until I read this I really think I didn’t I should offer it for free because it’s such useful information. [Becoming conscious for the first time in a dream is so exciting and such a “god-like” experience (Greek god, not Yahweh)  that most people get so thrilled that they wake themselves up.  But I’ve been doing since I was about 7. I usually chose to fly in my dreams, and I’ve done that over 100 times.]You’ve convinced me to let it go for free! Here goes!This Monday, it’s up for grabs, everyone!  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00A4UYVW4

  • Loco E

    I give away advice to expats relocating here to the Philippines; later they hire me for extensive consulting or joint ventures 🙂

  • J F

    Hi ,
    A friend of mine has achieved something unbelievable in the UK . He’s on 46 years old and living off his pension investments.
    I know his story and seen proof of his success, so which is the best way to spread his story so that others can emulate what he has been able to achieve ?