There’s one question that content marketers hear from businesses of all kinds:

“How much value should I give away in my content? I don’t want to reveal all of our company’s secrets – so how much is too much? How little is too little?”

And it’s a great question. You’ve spent years building up your business and (quite understandably) holding your cards close to your chest. Why would you want to share your closely guarded secrets online – and for free?

It’s this debate that we’ll be exploring today. And spoiler alert: you can probably be a little more generous than you may first think.

The Undeniable Importance of Content Marketing

Firstly we need to establish why content marketing is a “thing”. Why is it so popular? What benefits does it provide?

The interconnectivity of the modern internet has made many elements of modern life much more sharing places. Where we would once rely on recommendations for companies from family and friends, we can now seek recommendations from total strangers in an instant. Where previously we would have to take something in for repair or otherwise ask for help, we can now look up instructions online and at least attempt a solution for ourselves.

Content marketing plays into this giving online ecosystem and it can work for both B2B and B2C markets. I could bang on about the benefits of content marketing and blogging until the cows come home, but they can be boiled down into three main factors:

Let’s look at an offline example. If a good mechanic gives you a vital bit of advice for free, you’ll be more likely to go back to them later down the line for a paid service. Their generosity and expertise sticks in your head and entices you back.

So bringing that into the online sphere, let’s say you’re looking for answers to a certain HR conundrum. For argument’s sake, we’ll also assume that you don’t have any preferred providers or in-house resources for HR either. So naturally, you Google your problem. In the results, you find a blog post from an HR company that happens to answer your query precisely and succinctly. As you read, you also get a feel for the company and whether they’d be worthwhile to team up with in future. Even if you don’t pick up the phone to them there and then, their name is likely to stick in your head as a useful resource and someone to reach out to if needed.

The (Perceived) Problems with Sharing

Whatever type of content they choose to provide (blogs, videos, or what-have-you), some companies can feel quite uncomfortable about sharing actionable advice and information in the name of content marketing. There’s an understandable concern that sharing your “secret sauce” freely online will impact the business’s bottom line.

This concern tends to involve one of two hypothetical scenarios, either:

However the real question here isn’t “should we bother with this content marketing malarkey?”. It’s “where do I draw the line on the value I share?”.

The Content Marketing Balancing Act

Good content strategy is a bit of a balancing act. You want to give enough away that your content is genuinely helpful, but not so much that you’re simply telling people how to do your job inside-out (scenario A above) or showing your whole hand to your competitors (scenario B above).

Both of these concerns share one common denominator: giving too much away. When the information you share is too valuable, it can go against you. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve got to eschew content marketing altogether. You’ve just need to work out the delicate balancing act between putting it all out there and being a completely closed book.

The Spectrum of Generosity

It might help to think of this balancing act as a kind of spectrum. At one end, we’ve got giving it all away – maximum value for the reader, but most risk to you. At the other end, we’ve got a complete embargo on sharing; safest for you, but least useful for your reader. And if you’re not doing content marketing to share value, then what’s the point?

Jen's spectrum of content marketing generosity.

Let’s look at the “giving away too much” end of the spectrum first. Giving a full on blow-by-blow account of what you do, how, when, and why is the ultimate in generosity, but it can come back to bite you further down the line. Some experts argue that giving everything away can help to illustrate just how much work is involved – making your reader go “Woah! That’s kind of a lot! I don’t have the time or energy to do this – I’ll just ask this person (i.e., you) to do it.” But I believe there’s too much of a risk that your readers would feel encouraged to do it themselves. It’s also a huge way that your competitors can “copy your homework”.

Then, we’ve got the opposite end of the spectrum – totally clamming up and not giving anything away. This comes with its own risks. Not producing content at all is an option, but if your competitors are already using content marketing to great effect then they’re reaping the benefits and you aren’t. If you do publish content, but dial down the value therein, there comes a point where you’ll consistently release flimsy filler content that skirts the real issues. Nobody’s going to find that useful.

An Example: My Own Approach

Let’s look at my own content as an example. Early on in Obsidian’s life, I could be quite cagey, but now I err more on the side of generosity. I’ll never be tempted to give away a complete, A-to-Z, blow-by-blow account of what I do, but I try to be fairly open-handed. I’ve shared a large chunk of my approach to content strategy, my ways of coming up with content ideas (twice!), and all sorts of wordy goodness on both the Obsidian blog and the Obsidian YouTube channel. But you’d never find me providing the full minutiae of my entire writing and strategic processes for free.

Finding Your Sweet Spot

Unfortunately I can’t tell you where to draw the line. That’s a decision that’s got to come from you, your attitude to risk, and your awareness of how things are done within your industry. However, being aware of this balancing act should help you find your own content sweet spot – the place where you give just enough away to provide value, whilst minimising risks from competitors and “DIY-ers”.

Be mindful that you owe it to your paying customers to keep some of your “secret sauce” behind a paywall. It’s a bit of a letdown for them if they’ve paid for expertise they could have accessed for free. I believe that you should never share the entire minutiae of the who, what, when, where, how and why of what you do – if you do want to give that away then you should charge people for the privilege.

The true balancing act here is value vs. risk. You do want to provide something of genuine value, but you’ll naturally need to keep some cards close to your chest. How that translates into reality is up to you.

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