This is the 11th edition of This is Not Advice—a “not advice” column for premium subscribers of What Works. If you’re not yet a premium subscriber, you can upgrade for just $7 per month. Or, enjoy today’s excerpt!
Today, I want to tackle a conundrum that I hear quite often among generous, caring people who make stuff online.
It goes something like this:
I'm just really tired of making valuable content that people consume for free and then never pay me.
And look, I get the disappointment and frustration here. You make a podcast, a video series, or a newsletter. People listen, watch, or read. You also offer a product or service related to the content you create. If they appreciate the free content, then why don't they buy the product or service?
Underneath this question is an assumed quid pro quo: If I make you free stuff you like, then you should pay me for more stuff. The vast majority of people I've heard this complaint from would not cite that reasoning. They would claim to make free stuff for various reasons: as a creative outlet, to help people who can't afford to buy, as a way to demonstrate their credibility and expertise, etc. But all of those reasons—including the underlying quid pro quo—can be true at once.
This all begs the question: What do the people you make stuff for owe you?
And that gets to the question at the heart of any human relation: What do we owe each other?
Before we get to that much bigger philosophical question, we need to talk about what content marketing is—and how it fries your brain.
I'll preface this by acknowledging that I've spent most of the last 15 years either explicitly in the business of content marketing or something adjacent to it. The reason I say content marketing fries your brain is that once you've been indoctrinated into the content marketing mindset, you seem to see the world as a series of quid pro quo opportunities. You recognize that certain stories, emotions, logical arguments, and twists of text can get you what you want with confidence. And you start to expect that creating and sharing generously entitles you to a compensatory response from those you create for.
Let me offer a definition of content marketing. Content marketing is the practice of using written, visual, audio, or video content to attract, build trust with, and ultimately sell to customers. Just because someone is creating content doesn't mean they're practicing content marketing. The difference between creating content and content marketing is primarily in the intent. Is the content created with the intent to sell a related product or service? If so, then it's probably content marketing, but there is plenty of gray area.
You may have heard people offer the advice to show up on social media or an email newsletter and "give value" as a way to build an audience or customer base. When "giving value" is in the form of content, that's a kind of content marketing.
The idea of "giving value" gets to the heart of the quid pro quo on my mind.
"Giving value" sets up a scenario in which you think you're being helpful so that others will either pay attention to you or pay you for something. I'm sure some will argue that that's not why they offer help or advice in online spaces. But I'm not making a case about why you do what you do. Instead, I want to argue that the this-for-that logic is like a tiny larva that eventually grows into 3-inch brain parasite.
A couple of weeks ago, I was part of a panel about podcasting generally and pitching podcasts specifically. All in all, it was a good panel, and I largely agreed with what others on the panel shared (which is by no means a given at this point). That said, I certainly came at the craft of podcasting differently than the other podcasters involved—namely, I don't use my show (or newsletter) as content marketing 98% of the time. That's not to say that I don't think about editorial strategy, calls to action, and offers I want to make. But I very rarely think about using content to make a sale or woo a potential customer.
I make content because I have something to say. And I make offers because I have something to sell.
I spent years learning how to connect those things, in spite of the fact that making content and making offers in an ad hoc, disconnected kind of way had changed my life for the better.
Okay, back to the podcasting panel. As I said, it was going pretty well. But as we got to the end of the discussion, the panelists were asked for tips on pitching oneself to podcasts as an interview subject. My main tips? Don't lie. And don't pitch yourself; pitch an idea for an episode.
One of the panelists said that they advise people to leave a 5-star review for the show they're pitching, then screenshot that review and include it in the pitch email.
Reader, it took all of my willpower to keep from screaming.
I have gotten these emails. I've had people pitch What Works (typically without having ever read a single episode description) and include a screenshot of their 5-star review.
Do you know what I do with those emails? I trash them. Immediately.
First, this tactic breaks my first rule of podcast pitching: don't lie. I don't want your 5-star review if you made it to get my attention. Your review has no credibility, and now your deceptive review is front and center for those who might genuinely be looking for information on my show. Your review is a lie.
But more to the point of today's subject, that screenshot says one thing and one thing only to me: Look at this nice thing I did for you—won't you do a nice thing for me and have me on your podcast?1
I know that not everyone will agree that this is a (not-so)-subtle attempt at establishing quid pro quo. Maybe this doesn't piss you off as much as it pisses me off. That's fine.
But I wanted to share this example because this is the 3-inch long brain parasite. Writing a few social media or blog posts designed to attract attention or sales seems harmless enough (and it can be), but soon, we start to see the whole world as transactional. Every interaction is an opportunity to give something and get something in return.