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
  • 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.