What I got from a failed experiment

6 months ago, I set out on an experiment.

I wanted to test the idea of reciprocity for real.

To do so, I decided to offer all my online training programs for free. The idea was that if those people who signed up for the programs felt they got value from them, they would reciprocate with a donation.

I remember how excited I was about the experiment.

I really wanted it to work. It was something I simply had to do. I needed to put this belief to the test, regardless of how foolish it was. I wanted to see what the forces of abundance and reciprocity would do to my business.

It turned out to be a naive idea...

Opening up all the content for free didn’t attract more signups. In fact, it did the opposite. It worked much like a ‘kill switch’ for the business of the online BD Academy!

Over a period of 6 months, we had fewer sign-ups that we would typically have during a week! Even less people bothered to make a donation.

What is even weirder is that, a couple of weeks ago, I again switched on the regular pricing for the programs and new students started trickling in again!

How bizarre…

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining here. Rather, I’m quite fascinated with the outcome of the experiment.

You know the cliche ‘never let a good failure go to waste’, right? And that is exactly what I am going to do with this one.

There is much we can learn from what happened here. Here’s where my thinking is about it:

Kicked in the behind by the 'quality bully'

First of all, it may be about the content. It just may not be good enough. Assuming that this may be the case, I take it as a healthy kick in the pants to take my game to a higher level. It’s always helpful to get beaten up by the quality bully.

Yours truly is now motivated to take it higher. So, if you are interested in the stuff I like to focus on, the good news is that is some awesome material coming your way!

With that out of the way, let’s focus on a couple of real lessons learned here:

‘Value for money’ really should be ‘Money for Value’

This is nothing new. Most people believe that you get what you pay for. We are quick to assume that what is free must be of poor quality. Unfortunately, we seem to be stuck with this for now. After all, us humans are mostly pattern recognition machines.

Every here and there it works. For example, contrary to what happens in most places around the world, in the US, tipping is part of the default programming while in many other places it is considered as an insult.

But when it comes to online products and services, it looks like the pattern we are stuck with is that free content is for marketing purposes only. In addition, ‘free’ only get’s further vulgarised in a world where they just keep throwing things at us.

My big insight about this is that scalability - a term often associated with success - might, in fact, be the formula for a race to the bottom. Ironically, in a super crowded, hyper-connected world, scarcity and exclusive seem more like the right ticket...

Forgetting to sell

One of my main motivations to try reciprocity was because I had fallen out of love with sales copy. I think I mentioned something about the ‘yuck factor’ I get from all those sticky newsletters.

The truth is that before I had this ‘indigestion’ I took a copywriting course. It is an amazing program, I not criticising it in any way, but I guess what happened is that as you learn the dirty little secrets of copywriting, you start seeing the mechanics of what all those other campaigns around you are really made of.

It’s a bit like a cousin of mine who did a summer job at a mayonnaise factory only to vow never touch the stuff again.

But the thing is that my thinking about this was plain wrong on many levels. It’s kind of difficult to put in words (which is why I find writing to be the ultimate brain training game), but I will give it a try.

I guess you could say that I have come back to my senses about the ‘sales copy thing’. It gets dangerous when you confuse ‘selling’ with ‘selling out’.

It really comes back down the basics. Would you buy anything - unless you really have to - from anyone who isn’t willing to stick their neck out to endorse the offering?

What the lesson I learned really comes down to is that successfully selling something is essentially an expression of pride in our product or service and the best way to test your integrity by delivering more than what you promise.

And because we are essentially pattern recognition machines, you’ll just have to assume that people can smell BS from miles away…