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How giving away free content can help you sell more courses

You can use the incredible power of free samples to drive your course sales through the roof, and this article will show you exactly how to do it.

Walking through a wholesale market can be a nightmare on your diet.

You say you’re not going to browse the free samples, but before you know it, you’re swooping by the cart for a third (or fifth) meatball while pretending it’s your first.

And, chances are, you end up going home with enough meatballs to support a small soccer team.

That’s the power of free samples. Conversions from sample to purchase can be as high as 25% to 30%.

Content works the same way for online products. Preparing a platter of your tastiest, richest content clues people in to the opportunity, and before they know it, they’re going back for their fifth sample, too.

Not to mention this little fact: by 2019, revenue from content marketing is expected to break the $300 billion ceiling.

So how do you get in on that?

Today, we’ll walk you through exactly the steps you need to make free samples work for you -- without the calories.

But first, let’s start with the quintessential question: what should you be giving away?

What type of content to give away (And why)

To understand what content you should give away to sell your courses, you need to start at the beginning of the journey. Specifically, the buyer’s journey.

Free samples -- of meatballs or content -- pull the buyer into the first stage of their journey, awareness. They let the customer know there’s an opportunity for them to capitalize on to fix a problem (pain point) they may or may not be aware of just yet.

For example, the pain point for someone looking at a realtor’s website may be the need to sell their house, while the sticking point for someone shopping for online courses may be the need to gain a new skill.

Another way to look at this is through the sales funnel. This is the same principle as the buyer’s journey but breaks down the steps into smaller, more intensive increments as you get closer to conversion.

Here’s an example of a marketing-specific funnel.

Content marketing funnels can be broken down even further. Your free samples -- your promotional materials, lead magnets, blog posts -- are at the top of the funnel where prospects first enter.

At its most basic, creating and giving away content is key to generating sales. But it can’t just be any content: it needs to be quality.

In fact, it needs to be your best products with little to no risk for the customer.

You can see this strategy in action with Warby Parker’s “Home Try-On” program.

Low risk, convenient, and a quick-win for both the business and consumer, this is free sampling done right.

Why do I say it needs to be your best content?

Because you wouldn’t give away your lowest quality product to entice leads, would you?

Content products are the same way. If it’s not making people salivate at first bite, you may not get a second one.

For proof in the pudding -- I’ll stop with the food metaphors now -- look no further than Neil Patel.

Giving away high-quality content helped Neil grow a client’s business by 290%.

OK, so it needs to be your best in order to get visitors into the sales funnel or awareness stage of their journey, but none of that explains why it works.

In short, it makes people like your business more. Just one week after reading informational content, your trustworthiness goes up 9% with users.

And you should always aim to have your content be informational and accurate.

Entertaining and beautiful content resonates less strongly across all generations, though millennials place a somewhat higher value on aesthetics.

Let’s check out some examples of free content that you can give away.

Templates are a great start. This sales template by Salesmate provides instant value for users while giving customers a taste of what the full product, a sales customer relationship management (CRM) suite, can offer.

Ebooks and guides are another type of content you can use to incentivize customers into checking out your courses.

Free mini-courses are even better.

You can see how Sally Twellman sprinkles these into her site here.

If users love her free products, they’re much more likely to shift out of the awareness stage of their journey and into consideration for her premium products.

If the 21-day ritual journal helped, they’ll want to know what the 30-day reset can do, too.

Chantel Arnett of Blog Biz School uses a similar approach. Making a $197 commitment to an unknown isn’t always easy, but grabbing a free calendar and tracker?

That’s a no-brainer.

If the planners are everything they promise to be, they’ll have that much more reason to make the leap from consideration to intent in the sales funnel and sign up for her course.

Which brings us to a pertinent question: free content may be a way to get more course sales, but how do you generate top-notch content without losing more money than you gain?

Do you have to spend days or weeks pouring your heart and soul into free content in the hopes of landing leads?

Not at all. You just need to create one really, really stellar source, and then mine as many types of content from it as possible.

In other words, you need to COPE.

Create once, publish everywhere

The COPE system of creating once and publishing everywhere is a highly scalable marketing strategy for selling online courses. Out of marketing tips for small businesses, repurposing content is probably the most cost and time-effective.

The process itself is pretty simple. You start with a blog post, then push your content through social media and email.

Using COPE as your model is a highly agile way to promote your course: as you get feedback and find out what resonates with your audience, you can reshape your strategy while still working with the same source content. Laura Roeder, the founder of MeetEdgar, says repurposing content is a flagship part of her own strategy.

It’s also a great way to keep your marketing budget down. 65% of brands say content marketing is too pricey for their budget, and if you’re just building your business, any expense -- even a necessary one -- can hurt.

Which is the second beauty of COPE. You get multi-channel marketing goodness without the multi-hour investment.

That was the case for public information officer Maurice Chaney of Roseville Environmental Utilities.

Maurice explains, “The ‘create it once, publish it everywhere’ approach allowed us to get a lot more mileage out of the content than had previously been the case.”

Old Navy deploys this strategy frequently, too. For one of their more recent campaigns, check out their homepage for their new “buy online, pickup in-store” option.

Just a simple banner from the landing page, but let’s dive a little deeper and click “learn more.”

The full page features a video embedded from YouTube, a fun little animation, and a FAQ.

Now, let’s bounce over to their social channels to see what they’re doing with this content.

Starting with YouTube, we see the same video alongside a new list.

The addition probably didn’t take too long for a copywriter to put together, but it’s just enough to make the content fresh for the platform.

Now, swing by their Twitter. This time, we see a new piece of content, a short, humorous video reusing their graphics.

And finally, let’s look at their Instagram. Here, we see the same video and graphics at play with slightly different text.

All in all, we’re looking at five different locations -- two websites, three social platforms -- with only two unique pieces of content.

If someone follows Old Navy on more than one channel, they’ll definitely enter the awareness stage of the sales funnel -- potentially even the consideration stage -- without getting annoyed by spamming repetition.

Hopefully, you’re on board and ready to COPE at this point. But while the approach is simple and beautifully systematic, there are a few things you need to know first.

Like where to get started.

Put content on your blog first

Your blog should be your first place to capture an audience and start selling your course.

“Honestly: this is your real best content publishing real estate,” says Julia McCoy, best-selling author, content marketer, and founder of Express Writers.

Email lists are where it’s at, by the way. Email marketing pulls in 174% more conversions than social media, among many other lucrative benefits.

Pre-launching his online course to an email list helped Julien Brault net $10,000 within four hours of launch. Altogether, his crowdfunded course exceeded its funding goal by 678%.

But while those numbers are exciting, Julien cautions, “Unfortunately for those who take my titles too literally, this success, as unexpected as it was, was the fruit of much more than 4 hours of work.”

Julien’s team started building and nurturing the seeds to pre-launching their online course a full year in advance.

As if that isn’t impressive enough, they did it organically, offering exclusive content and utilizing subscription boxes to grow their email list up to 5000 by the time their pre-launch went live.

Organic is an important qualifier in that statement. Because true, paid advertisements can yield you great rewards, but organic growth is the king for pulling in top-quality leads.

After all, 70-80% of users browsing through a search engine will skip straight past the ads at the top to check out the organic results below.

And just like your blog, your email lists should grow organically, too -- which means nurturing them through your content.

Organic email lists have better open and deliverability rates, an important feature when you consider that as much as 21% of all emails bounce back undelivered.

What does it mean to have an organic email list? Email lists that people signed up for expressly to hear from you, such as this example from Joeli Kelly.

Anyone who signs up to receive emails from Joeli does so because they’re interested in getting to know more about being a tech editor.

Alternatively, people who sign up with emails for giveaways, to get past content gates, or to download lead magnets are more likely to give you a fake address and never had any intention of joining your email list in the first place.

It goes without saying that any email list you buy from a third party -- as inorganic as it gets -- probably won’t reward you many qualified leads.

So, start by publishing your top-shelf content on your blog and use it to build your email list organically. Here’s a great example from online educator James Sowers, rocking both the email building game and the content game on his blog.

Then, once you’ve done that, get ready to start repurposing and recycling on social media.

Reuse and repurpose on social media

Did you write a killer blog post?

Reuse it directly by publishing it to Medium. Just reposting his blog articles to Medium (along with some awesome writing) helped Benjamin Hardy go from 0 to 20,000 subscribers in six months.

You might be thinking: wait, won’t I get flagged for having duplicate content and watch my hard-earned search engine ranking drop?

In a word, no. There’s no such thing as a duplicate content penalty from Google.

So, with that out of the way, let’s talk about repurposing your content to fit the other social networks.

More specifically, let’s look at what social media does well for marketers.

Overwhelmingly, the top metric used to gauge social media success is related to engagement, rather than conversions, at 58% and 21% respectively.

Social media rarely capture leads in the later stages of the sales funnel. Most often, social media is used to drive targeted traffic and bring new leads into the top of the funnel (awareness or interest).

Your goal when putting out content on social should be at enticing new users into checking you out with your awesome free samples, and different networks will respond better to different approaches.

Which is why you need to choose your channels wisely and augment your content to fit. Rather than saying “create once, publish everywhere,” it might be better to say, “create once, then publish where appropriate.”

But that doesn’t really have the same catchy acronym.

Since we’ve already talked about how to use Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram to promote your online course and repurpose material, today we’ll focus on two of the biggest and easiest channels to distribute your content on YouTube and email.


YouTube is the second most prolific social media network today.

So it only makes sense to utilize the most prolific form of marketing on it, too: video marketing. According to some studies, 74% of viewers who check out an explainer video about a product will go on to buy it.

You can use the same tools, and even content, as you used for your online course by repurposing your introductory videos. Or if you really want to go big, post free mini-courses and point users toward your product page to download or check out more of your products (though it's worth noting that YouTube itself isn't a great monetization channel).

Check out how Podia designer and course creator Mackenzie Child reuses free content from his site:

He posts the same materials directly on YouTube, pointing users back to his free membership program to bring them into the awareness or interest stages of the funnel and keep his leads nurtured.

The secret to succeeding with videos on YouTube? Quality and value, plain and simple. If you don’t have a free mini-course to offer, you can take your most useful video lectures and condense them into bite-sized, super-helpful shorts that deliver value for viewers.

Taking this value-above-all approach helped one husband and wife ecommerce team grow from zero budget and zero followers to three million subscribers.

So don’t stress yourself out trying to come up with new content. Take your best-performing blog posts or lectures, make a viewer-focused video, and start bringing new people into your funnel.

Then, take that same video and condense it into .gifs for email.


Users are three times more likely to engage with tweets featuring visual content. Adding animated gifs to your marketing emails can boost your open rates, too.

I’m no stranger to this tactic.

This .gif is from one of the first emails new signups at Podia receive:

Here’s another example from clothes retailer Boden that gets us perfectly in the buying (and lemonade-sipping) mood.

But if that isn’t enough, consider this:

Adding .gifs into their email marketing plan helped Dell rake in a 109% revenue increase and 103% conversion rate.

Aren’t sure how to turn your videos into .gifs? There are a lot of tools out there that can help, but few are more ubiquitous than the GIF Maker by Giphy.

To use it, just pop over to the landing page.

You can upload a series of photos or a video directly from your computer. Alternatively, you can drop a link in from your YouTube channel. Since we’re talking about reusing content, that’s what I’ll do here, using Mackenzie’s video as an example.

As soon as you drop the link in, the screen will change, and the video will start loading up.

Now, it’s time to trim our video down to a .gif. You can create a .gif at a max length of 15 seconds with this tool.

To change the duration, just click and drag the slider on the purple bar.

Likewise, to choose a start time -- where the gif should begin cutting from your video file -- move the blue slider.

As you change your options, you’ll see a live preview of your .gif on the left-hand side.

Once you’re satisfied with your cut, click the indigo “Continue to Decorate” button to add captions, animations, and other decorations.

When you first add captions, they’ll appear in the center of your gif. Hover over them to reveal the dashed box outline:

And then click and track to reposition it. You can also change the rotation of the text by clicking on the open circle above the box and moving your mouse in the desired direction.

To delete or resize the caption, drag it out until you can see the bottom right corner of the box and hover. From there, you can click and drag to change font size, or delete the caption entirely and start over.

For animation options, you may have to scroll down to see them in full. To add stickers, draw shapes, or apply filters, use the tabs located above the caption box.

When you’re ready to go, scroll all the way down until you see the “Start over” and “Continue to Upload” buttons. Select the latter if you’re ready to save your .gif.

From here, click “Upload to GIPHY” and wait for your .gif to process.

Once it uploads, you have the option to share directly to social media, copy the link to embed it on your website, or right click and save to drop it into your emails.

Just check out this .gif. It took maybe five minutes to create and reuses content that’s already been published but adds a fresh, fun new addition for email marketing or Twitter.

So what are you waiting for? Start reusing your course videos to create awesome YouTube videos and .gifs to make the most of the content you’ve already created.


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The gift that keeps giving

Giving away free content may not seem like a good business move, but free samples can draw in more sales than you think. Plus, consider this:

  • Users trust brands more after interacting with their content.

  • Content exposure helps draw new people into your sales funnel and incentivize them to move closer to paid content.

  • Templates, workbooks, ebooks, and free mini-courses are great types of content to give away. Don’t save your best for last -- hit them with a delectable sample out of the gate.

  • Quality content takes quality time, but you don’t have to spend days making new content. Instead, use the COPE model to get the most of your content and repurpose it.

  • Your content hub should be your blog (or website). Content helps you build your email list organically, which in turn helps bulk up your course purchases -- sometimes even before you’ve created the course.

  • Once you’ve put your content on your website, repost it on Medium. There’s no penalty for it, and you can get some serious traction.

  • After Medium, turn to other social media platforms. For YouTube, consider repurposing your introductory videos or offering a free course. Just make sure it’s quality-focused.

  • Then, take those same videos and create new content by turning them into .gifs to promote your material through email (or on Twitter).

The path between free content and paid isn’t as far as you think, but users will never make the journey if they don’t have a reason to explore: so go ahead, give them one with free content.

About the author

Lauren Cochran is the Director of Content for Podia, an all-in-one platform where online courses, digital downloads, membership websites, and webinars – alongside their creators – thrive. Ironically, she gets tongue-tied talking about herself, and can usually be found with a to-do list in hand.