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Learning From Free Content… And why it’s Not Always Enough

Recently Sheryl Schuff contacted me to thank me for referring her to a paid course here on ProBlogger. Her email came a few minutes after I read a comment from another reader saying that they’d ‘never pay for information online’ because ‘everything is available for free already’. I thought that the striking difference between the comment and the email called for a little unpacking so I emailed Sheryl back and asked if she’d be interested in writing about her decision of paying for the course and to talk about why she felt it was worthwhile. Here’s what she came back with.

I’m a big advocate of learning as much as you can from free content, especially when you venture into a new area, particularly in business. I say this both as a producer of free content (articles, reports, blog posts) who encourages entrepreneurs to bootstrap their businesses using free software and services and also as a consumer of free content.

I usually have three or four dozen library books checked out at any one time (almost entirely non-fiction) and I currently have 60 RSS feeds flowing into my Google Reader. I subscribe to (and regularly read) several dozen blogs and ezines.

Every year, I meet some of the continuing professional education requirements for my CPA license by attending free on-line seminars. As helpful as I have found all the varied sources of free information to be, they’re not always enough.

Most of the free on-line resources I’ve used have done a good job of discussing what needs to be done in a specific subject area. Many have also included explanations of why certain things need to be done.

But let’s face it. We can’t expect the authors and consultants to give away all the specific details of how to do things. For one thing, if technology is involved, the how changes pretty rapidly these days. The experts spend a lot of time on research to keep themselves current and competent. They explore the vast amount of information available in their topic area, aggregate it, evaluate it, filter it, and package it in ways that make it easy for others to actually use it. They transform raw data into knowledge.

I know firsthand how much effort is involved to keep current in my field (business startup and taxes), so I’m willing to pay other experts to bring me up to speed in their niches.

It was a no-brainer for me to join the Teaching Sells program when Darren emailed his list to tell them about the launch in October 2007. In 2008, I extended my charter membership and then jumped at the offer to turn it into a lifetime membership.

Brian Clark and Tony Clark developed some amazing courses to teach folks how to create interactive learning environments and membership sites. They shared philosophy, strategy, business models, and methods of content creation. They produced text, audio, and video showing their students in great detail how to use various software and services to develop their new sites.

I learned a lot about educational psychology and the tools available to me to build membership sites. And I also became part of the Teaching Sells community by participating in the forums that were part of the program. The information shared there and the other students I met were every bit as valuable as the course material.

Just to give you an example of how one thing leads to another (and another)…someone at Teaching Sells mentioned the forums at StartUpNation as a place for me to hang out to see what new entrepreneurs were talking about…which lead me to information about HARO…which led to my being interviewed by Donna Amos…which led to my being asked to participate as the tax expert for the International Association of Entrepreneurs…which led me back to Twitter and all sorts of new connections…and a reconnection with Darren…and, well, you get the idea.

I’ve used what I learned at Teaching Sells to develop a couple of membership programs, the first of which I’ll be launching very soon. I’m also discussing two other possibilities with two different potential partners. And late last year I joined Brian Clark & Jon Morrow’s Partnering Profits program, an investment that I know will help take my business to the next level.

As you plan for your personal and professional development this year, I encourage you to think about what motivates you to take action and stay focused.

Are you the type that pays more attention to something you’ve paid for than something that’s given to you for free? Do you stick to your fitness resolutions better when you prepay for ten sessions with a personal trainer than when you try to do it alone? I know I concentrate more on the material in tax training courses that I pay several hundred dollars for than the ones I get for free.

Do you understand how much time you save when you invest in training courses from experts in their fields? And how much more likely you are to get current, credible information from paid programs than from free sources?

Someone who wrote a free report last year on how to use WordPress, for example, doesn’t have much incentive to update the report every time a new WordPress upgrade comes out. Premium content producers like Brian Clark and Tony Clark listen to feedback from their students and spend months revising and reorganizing their courses to keep current and provide superior customer satisfaction.

Read their free report. If you’re interested in creating information products or any type of continuity program, consider joining Teaching Sells when it reopens (update: it just has reopened for the next day or two to take new members).

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. Elliot says:

    Great point!, I cant tell you the amount of free reports I have lying around un-read, but if I paid for it, it usually gets read in a couple of days. I’d love to join Teaching Sells, but just cant scrape together the entrance fee at the moment:(. one day tho;))

  2. I like to read as much as I can for Free. There is plenty of useful information and wonderful insight.

    Continuous education in any field is a must. That applies to blogging. The internet changes from one day to next, that you must stay informed and implement what you have learned. Finding a blogging buddy is ideal.

    Sharing your knowledge is priceless, of course there is so much that can be offered for free.

    Thanks for the link to Teaching sells. I am heading over there now. :)

  3. Sometime the free stuff can come in handy. It may not always be the best, but you can get things out of it.

  4. I totally agree, being informed is really important especially in this niche. In blogging we need to be knowledgeable about everything. I’m subscribed to about 50 blogs and it’s essential for the type of blog I run. Having a Blogging Tips site means you need to read a lot, and there’s so many people who know more, who can teach you.

  5. Puspanjali says:

    I think at the beginning of blogging venture one should go through all the free stuff available………..And there are really a lot out there……..
    And this site is a gold mine of free information.But yes learning is a continuous process.And paid courses are the next step.But there a lot of them out there.So you have to prioritize what you need at any one point of time.

  6. Free is Good… Good Free is Better and Really Good Free is Great! :-)

  7. Darren Fauth says:

    Wow..four links to “Teaching Sells” in the article with the “ref” tag? Wouldn’t want people to miss that hunh?

    Maybe I’m a little hyper-sensitive to that right now because Brian (Copyblogger aka Teaching Sells) sent out 3 emails in the last 2 days about the program. It’s an interesting marketing ploy to say “oh darn I messed up and have to resend you this email” two times in a row.

  8. Well let’s admit it, people are more attracted to free stuffs by nature. Only then we check whether “Free” really means “Free” :)

  9. Gennaro says:

    I was wondering who had all the books checked out that I needed :)

    A combination of free and paid resources are usually the ideal for learning. Though in today’s world, free information is saturating the market. Much of it is of a great quality. That’s likely the route of the coming years. Profit will come from other avenues (advertising, for instance).

  10. Kalle says:

    I was dissapointed to find out this was just a promotional post to sneak in a few affiliate links. I’m sure Teaching Sells is a good program the affiliate benefits must be great, but please – don’t try to combine instructional and commercial content. It can never be taken with face value and the reader can easily feel cheated.

    I really don’t mind a promo once in a while, when the nature of the post is clearly articulated.

  11. Gary says:

    Where I live free is always fishy. Something always has to be in the background, a paragraph written with 1px letters or after a certain period am asked to pay a fee for the service. It’s very rare to get something real good for free.

    On the net however most of the good stuff is free. See Yahoo search, the almighty Google or Problogger if I’m already on this blog, and I do use daily dozens of services which are actually free.
    But there are also services which worth the money. I payed for Microsoft to be a certified professional and am glad I did it. I pay for AdWords and am glad I’m using it.
    There is no rule which says payed/free service is bad or good. It depends on the service provider and its quality guidelines.

    A new blogger or entrepreneur should choose wise when he/she takes in consideration whether a lesson is worth or not. There are many sites which provides information, many times for money, which are absolutely nonsense. See Google Cash e-book/program. There are blogs which talks nonsense just to get in the focus of the attention. There are so many booby-traps on the net and is so easy to get lost…

  12. Orlando Baker says:

    Learning anything, at the very least, requires a personal investment of time and committed effort. it would be nice if you could read one book, view one video, take one course and “know” everything you need. The reality, as you’ve nicely articulated, is that it is not a “one and done” phenomena. Even the experts who happen to also be generous, gifted instructors are constantly researching, revising and even learning from the people they teach–who further enrich the knowledge with new discoveries or connections. In this context, nothing is really “free”.

    So take what you can from whatever sources that are available to you (free or otherwise) and as you learn you will be in a position to better evaluate where to best spend your resources–particularly your time.

  13. Darren Rowse says:

    Kalle – sorry if you’re disappointed but this isn’t ‘just a promotion’ post – in fact it’s a topic that I’ve wanted to write about for a while with a current and topical example to a course that I’ve posted about recently by someone who contacted me recently to thank me for referring them to Teaching Sells.

    When she thanked me for referring her to a paid course I thought it would make an interesting post because these sorts of courses are often critiqued for charging for information that is available online for free. I thought hearing from someone who had paid for such information would be an interesting post.

    The fact that I have aff links in the post is simply because its a course that I recommend and have previously posted about. I saw no reason not to link to it with the links and don’t think it really devalues what has been written about.

  14. Bean says:

    I am so glad to see this post! It dovetails with Liz Strauss’ Open Mic last Tuesday http://tinyurl.com/d88alo about was is Best and Worst about Free.
    Free is great, but it isn’t always valued. Most of us treat things with more time and respect when we have invested something into it.
    When it comes to learning, it is easy to find free resources to read. It is much more difficult to find resources that are accompanied by instructor and other classmate interaction for free. My 6 week classes are only $25, includes instructor interactions and reviews, classroom participation and the lessons are updated every session.
    If you can learn just by reading, that is great! But, if you learn more effectively when you get individualized attention and the opportunity to interact, then it seems logical to pay for those additional learning opportunities.

  15. I think the author makes great points. Finding information online isn’t difficult, but wading through the inaccurate, useless stuff is difficult. At least if the material is free, I don’t feel bad about wasting a few minutes skimming it; if I’d paid for some of this stuff, I’d be upset.

    Some people do respond only to something they’ve paid for, so that’s also an important point to consider.

  16. jules rosen says:

    PAYING FOR INFORMATION IS SMART ..

    We all use cpa’s for our taxes and go to Doctors who themselves have spents hundreds of thousands of $$$ for information (its called a medical degree).. SO why don’t some people spend on information when some one else has the experience.

    You can’d do it all and knoe it all. In my company . I know I can’t learn all there is about links andseo so I hire smarter people than me .. its basic to business.

  17. Julia Lilly says:

    I too had the mindset that I could learn everything on line for free, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that all the information I was taking in was missing some of the finer details. It became apparent pretty quick that just reading a blog post and taking free webinars wasn’t going to make me an expert.

    Purchasing/renting books has been my next least expensive course of action,but I know that where it counts I will need formal training.

    I agree that you spend a lot of time, money and effort on your training and you should be allowed to monetize it. I think that is why people in general push themselves so hard in the first place. They want a better life for themselves or their kids. There is no shame in monetizing on your education or in your blog post on occasion.

  18. Will Lowrey says:

    I see this and I think about going to college. I paid a pretty penny for my education. Could I have learned all of the same information through books, trial-and-error, finding willing mentors – yea, maybe. But, could I have finished it in 4 years with the level of expertise that I did without forking over the big bucks? NO WAY!

    Paid-for content is not just about the content. It is the experience that excellerates the learning. I was a member of Teaching Sells in the beginning. I found that it made it so much faster to learn how to build a membership / education / training site. It gave me access to forums, to others that wre doing it, and to content that was not easy to find in a single location.

    I left Teaching Sells when I needed to focus on some other parts of my business – but it was not because TS was a bad investment. I would be much further behind in my training if I hadn’t taken the time and spent the money to invest in my own education.

  19. SEO Tips says:

    An excellent point to make stuff that you get free is often mislayed or never read where as if you purchased a guide or some sort of information material package then its more likely that you shall read it.

  20. Teaching will always sell and never go out of fashion, i do occasionally write posts that allow the reader to make up their own mind when it becomes a choice between free information and quality paid training resources. I agree with what you say, but there is a whole lot of people out there that just cannot afford these training courses. A lot of people can only rely on decent free resources that point them in the right direction and motivate them to research their interests.

    Thanks’ for the read

  21. There is free information on the net to learn, yes. But it can take time to reach it. A course will have it all ready for you, you save time by spending money and then you earn money and save time, so you win some and win some more :)

  22. Rachel says:

    What’s free is free and almost every one knows, what make’s your work special and deferent is about your unique knowledge and how you apply this information.
    learn from others experience (even if it costs money) is better than experience it yourself (and it could cost you more money)

  23. Scott says:

    Here is my take.

    Yes, you can learn everything you need to know for just about anything with free online content. However, you will not always find everything you need all in once place.

    First, you will have to scour the web and find all the bits and pieces of info that will successfully and fully answer your question, but even after you find all this stuff, you then have to filter out fact from fiction – believe it or not, not everything you read is correct! Many people get their facts wrong, so you need to double check many things.

    If you pay for content, you may be more likely to get all the info in one place, and depending on the source, the info may be more likely to be correct, but you probably should still double check your facts, cause even the best paid researchers make mistakes.

  24. I suspect that if Darren had primarily wanted to promote Teaching Sells, he would have started blogging about it back on January 16th when Brian Clark began openly publicizing the re-opening. Instead, Darren posted this item 5 hours after the re-launch began and after most of the 500 new spots had been taken.

    I don’t think that Brian either needed or wanted his JV partners and affiliates to do much to promote Teaching Sells. He had over 15,000 prospects on his waiting list.

    For the record, let me be clear that I’ve been raving about this training program since November, 2007, beginning the week after I enrolled. I haven’t made a dollar of affiliate commissions from it and it doesn’t matter if I ever do.

    I realize that not everyone can afford Teaching Sells. But I think everyone needs to understand the reasons for paid training programs and the immense benefits available from them.

    I’m grateful to Darren for starting this conversation.

    And I’ll continue to produce and consume free AND paid content as appropriate for my personal development and business growth. I hope you’ll do the same.

  25. Ray says:

    Bill Masson is right, educational material is recession resistant as we are finding out right now more than ever!

    Great post

  26. Leo says:

    Hi Cheryl (and Darren),

    I would have to disagree with you here that there is a real need for paid content vs. the traditional free content that is out there. And trust me…as an internet marketer myself, I hate admitting it.

    The first thing to consider is that anyone can find literally anything that they want on the internet about virtually any subject. The key is hunting it down.

    Most of the information you find on membership sites and video tutorials are no more than well put together thoughts and musings that come from varying sites. In other words, typically what someone pays for instant access to new and scarce information BUT the convenience of having something all put together for you in one central place. Nothing more, nothing less.

    This is really the case for beginner and intermediate works…it starts to get more scarce the more scholarly you go but even then it can be found in white papers and what not.

    Case in point, I recently was poking around looking for information on qualifiable link analysis, in particular how search engines define inbound links and nepostistic links. In layman’s terms, that is pretty advanced SEO theory. I found PDF’s and white papers in abundance.

    Now, if I wanted to, as a marketer, I could probably build a kick butt book on advanced SEO methods and theories using nothing but white papers that I find here and there (which is what most of the membership sites do but they usually lower the bar and deal with beginners). The result? It would basically help the advanced SEO marketer understand SEO better. Could they find it somewhere else? Sure. But they would have to discover several different sources and then put it all together in a way or fashion in which they could easily understand it.

    My point is…..paid memberships are good IF you don’t want to spend your time hunting for the same information. But make no bones about it…it is out there.

  27. I have listened to the guys two free podcasts about members who have used their teaching sells courses to great effect and I was so inspired that I have just joined as part of the two day opening. I think it promises a lot and I’ve not been dissapointed yet.

  28. David Harper says:

    I agree with Kalle.

    Note the ending of the post: the primary objective of the post is to promote teachingsells.com

    That is totally fine per se, but you don’t cast it that way. Not cool. Erodes trust.

    David Harper

  29. seth says:

    I can agree and disagree with the post. I find that her statement about the catching up is right on. As a student I learned that the professors told me nothing that wasn’t in the books or online. The difference is that they organized it in a way that was quick, effective and easy. Studying on my own would have sent me in a million directions and lots of time.

    On the other hand, depending on the subject, lessons learned are often best when learned through trial and error. I think this is where the free online info comes in handy. You try what you learn right then on your blog… And then you can learn by seeing if it works. It is hard to want to fork out money to pay someone something you feel you can learn on your own. I guess it is all about what you are blogging for.

  30. jim says:

    Im looking for a article writer for my new soon to be live site, I need original content that will pass copyscape and not break the bank, any sugestions a great adsence ready theme is also on my shopping list. Look forward to a reply if you can find some time.

  31. Jaisne Blue Sexton says:

    Wow, Sheryl Schuff. Sure looks like you drank the Kool-Aid. How do you know that Brian Clark had ‘over 15,000 prospects on his waiting list’? Because he, um, told you? That’s also a crock about the ‘relaunch’ of the program. It’s part of the high-pressure sales techniques these gurus use to suck in gullible people like you. Ever since I saw Brian be rude to someone in his comments more than once, I wrote him off as a jerk and a blowhard. The whole point of these sites is to suck money from desparate people. It’s all recycled information. And people keep paying for it.

  32. Jaisne Blue Sexton says:

    By the way, Sheryl Schuff, you can’t be learning much because you blog is way broken. Probably should ask for a refund.

  33. Darren Rowse says:

    Jaisne Blue Sexton – you saw Brian being rude in comments….. I find that somewhat ironic given some of your comments here.

    I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Teaching Sells myself over the last few months and what Brian and Tony have put together is an amazing resource. This ‘relaunch’ is just that – they’ve actually reconfigured things considerably and now are offering a complete package rather than a course under development which is how it was previously sold. If you don’t like it or want to participate then that’s your choice – however I don’t see how being rude to others who have found it helpful to them is that constructive.