Giving it away free can pay off

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In an employment background-screening market fragmented among more than 1,000 specialized competitors, EmployeeScreenIQ of Cleveland has thrived. Its Web site draws thousands of visitors every week, an impressive total for a company that does little advertising. The secret? EmployeeScreenIQ gives away content that its target audience of corporate human resources professionals is accustomed to paying for. A section of the site dubbed EmployeeScreen University features scores of articles, white papers and podcast interviews that step HR pros through the legal and practical issues of background screening and employment law. Some 5,000 to 7,000 people visit EmployeeScreen University each month; one-quarter of them click through to the business Web site, delivering a constant stream of leads and new business. The value of such organic traffic “is far greater than traditional advertising,” says CMO Nick Fishman. HR pros can also click over to, a community site that delivers about a half dozen webcasts every week. Through an arrangement with the HR Certification Institute, attendees can apply the lessons they learn in the online events to earn professional certifications, leading to better jobs and higher pay. The cost to attend? Zero. The revenue stream to comes from more than 300 course instructors, who pay for the chance to get in front of several hundred of the community's nearly 190,000 members, says founder Debbie McGrath. These b-to-b innovators have learned that education is the magic elixir of online success. In an employment market in which the Labor Department estimates the average person will hold a dozen jobs by the age of 38, skills are the key to survival. Tradition holds that knowledge is something to be restricted and paid for. But in a world of seem- ingly boundless information, the organization that hides its expertise simply becomes invisible. Today's strategy is to deliver enough information to entice prospects to learn more. That's why technology publisher O'Reilly Media, which charges people more than $1,000 to attend some of its conferences, also gives away much of the content as free podcasts. The company's conference registrations actually jumped when it began the practice in 2004. The tools to publish organizational knowledge have never been cheaper or easier to use, and search engines make access a triviality. Our ability to wall off our expertise behind registration forms is falling away as companies compete to give away more for free. If people are going to find the information anyway, then better they find it on your Web site. We can no longer charge them to discover what we know; we must show them first. You may not like this new reality, but you're going to have to live with it. So grab your notebook, tape recorder or video camera and start giving. M
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