Borrow from Home Depot's 'Free' Expertise Strategy

Several years ago I trained Home Depot (HD) employees who were designated television spokespeople in their local cities. The company knew that the key to garnering media attention was to provide free how-to tips that were heavy in practical advice and light in self-promotion. Recently the company has extended this approach to its YouTube channel. Home Depot has uploaded more than 100 short—2 minutes, 30 seconds on average—video clips that teach viewers everything from how to install a ceiling fan to how to save energy at home. Home Depot dispenses plenty of free help and how-to advice to build its brand, and so should you.

Give away your "secrets." Deborah Roberts owns and runs a landscaping company in Stamford, Conn. In addition to the route taken by many entrepreneurs—maintaining a blog—Roberts started teaching adult education classes in nearby Greenwich. She literally gives away most of her secrets in class. "I'm offering advice that could put me out of business," she told me. But a funny thing happened on the way to building a brand by giving away advice: Her business grew. The exposure Roberts gets in the course catalogue online and in print (a catalogue is mailed to every home in town) has helped position her as an expert in the field. She's not the only landscaper in town, but she is the only one offering a free class that teaches people professional skills without having to hire a pro. She has also been invited to share her ideas in local newspapers and magazines. Her new clients are homeowners who want an expert but who don't want to learn to do it themselves. As a side benefit, Roberts' classes act as mini focus groups where she learns how to create messages that resonate with her prospective clients.

Free is different from thought leadership. There's a lot of buzz these days around the word "free." But don't confuse giving away a free sample, a free gift, or a free white paper with offering how-to advice on a consistent basis. Simply offering "free" stuff doesn't necessarily translate into becoming known as a thought leader: someone who shares such interesting and innovative ideas that people will eventually pay for that person's expertise. Think about the Home Depot example. You might never have the need to install a ceiling fan, but when you need advice on what type of flowers to plant in your garden, you might turn to the experts. By appearing on local television shows and on YouTube (GOOG), the company positions its people as thought leaders or experts. This is a different concept than offering "free" products to anyone who brings in a coupon from the Sunday paper.

A slow growth strategy to build lasting brands. "The give, give, give before you ask in return strategy is a slow-growth strategy that requires a lot of patience before you see the benefits," says Pasadena (Calif.)-based Brenda Stimpson who started a needlepoint Web site that, for a year, offered plenty of advice and no products for sale. Stimpson's needlepoint hobby helped her identify a niche need for inexpensive patterns: Needlepoint stores in the U.S. were offering very expensive canvas prints while in her native New Zealand she could buy complete, inexpensive kits. Stimpson launched her site in September 2005, and it averaged just 14 visits a day. But over the next year, traffic grew by more than 500%; only then did she start selling products. Today she makes money selling kits and other products on the site, in addition to giving advice. "Many entrepreneurs lack the patience required to see this strategy through because, as entrepreneurs, we want fast results. I prefer to build a business this way because, as opposed to guerilla marketing tactics, I think it's a way to establish more enduring and loyal customers," Stimpson told me.

Stimpson and Roberts are on opposite ends of the coast, offer completely different advice to completely different markets, but they do share one thing in common—they didn't have a lot of money to start their businesses. It's a dilemma that can be partially solved by doing something that seems almost counterintuitive: generously give away your expertise.

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