The free food fallacy (and where content helps)

This evening, I gave a talk at Case Western Reserve University on financial planning. 

Well, actually, I didn’t. Because nobody came.

It doesn’t bother me. As a residence life alumnus, no-shows are a fact of life. In fact, this experience in residence life has made me a better analyst — but we’ll save that for another post.

Instead, I want to talk about the free food fallacy.

Free is not the answer (unless it is)

Tonight I remembered that I started posting on LinkedIn about a year ago. My first post was about what I’d learned self-publishing a couple short reads on Kindle.

In that post, I mentioned how even free content won’t convert audiences if they wouldn’t have paid for it in the first place.

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My non-guitar friends could have cared less about my guitar book. But guitar-loving strangers bought my free book. Had I stayed in the guitar niche, I could have turned them into customers.

An ebook about guitars, even if free, meant nothing to people who wouldn’t have paid for a guitar book to begin with.

This point brought me to tonight’s no-show.

There was even free food at this thing! That’s the old college standby — free food will bring them in. Well, not necessarily. 

If students wouldn’t have paid for the content (with their time), free food won’t make a difference. I saw this plenty in my own RA experience, but never made the connection until I wrote that blog post, about a year ago!

But what if they should care?

Obviously students should care about financial planning, and most of us a few years out of school would love to get these opportunities back. But how do we get students, or audiences generally, to care about things we know would help them?

This is where good, approachable content marketing comes in.

I didn’t get to advertise the event informally, using language and memes students are familiar with. Instead of talking with the audience, the advertising seemed to talk at them.

If I wanted to get friends interested in a guitar book, I could have got them talking about past musical experiences, or showed ways that music makes a great hobby.

Just offering a preachy how-to book wasn’t enough.

The free food fallacy: students get enough lectures — free food isn’t worth another. 

Get the conversation going first — get them caring — then the freebies generate demand and conversions. Otherwise, the free food fallacy will leave you with an empty room and cold pizza.


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