This is a message I delivered to a class at The University of Northwestern in the fall of 2011. I outline the web strategy that my team and I developed at Desiring God.
Hello again. Thanks for having me back.
Last time I spoke about productivity and the gospel and ran out of time before I could talk about Desiring God’s strategy for media, which is what I’m going to talk about today.
Now, before moving ahead, I mentioned last time that these two topics are not wholly unrelated. There is a connection between productivity and media at Desiring God. And that connection is this: Just as technology has amplified our ability to engage in good works, so also technology has amplified our ability to spread our message through media to more and more people around the world.
So the key connection here is technology and it’s role in amplifying the good that we should be doing anyway.
Now, let’s talk about our media strategy at Desiring God.
Talking about our media strategy really means talking about our web strategy, because the web is the core of our media strategy. When we think of media, we think of the web.
Here’s our strategy in a nutshell: Our strategy is to post everything online for free without requiring registration in a maximally usable interface.
First I’m going to talk about the goal and principles behind this strategy. Then I’m going to talk in more detail about each of the four specific parts of that strategy.
The Goal and Principles Underneath Our Strategy
Our Goal: Amplify Word of Mouth
The goal of our strategy is to spark and amplify word of mouth.
This is because we aren’t the best people to spread our message. The people we serve, who love our message, are the best people to spread it.
You can see this in your own lives. If you see a commercial on TV for a new restaurant, you might or might not check it out. But if a friend recommends it to you and tells you that they loved it and it was fantastic, you are much more likely to go.
Likewise, the people we serve are the best people to spread our message. Thus, our role is to equip and motivate them to spread the truths that we exist to proclaim.
The internet is what makes it possible for this to work on a large scale. Word of mouth has always been the most effective means of spreading anything. But before the internet, word of mouth died out very quickly and easily. You would tell a few people, but it was very hard to tell a lot of people.
As a result, companies resorted to mass media advertising to spread their message. The philosophy was this: Get your message before enough eyeballs, and a certain percentage will respond. The problem with this is that it was expensive, and so the door was closed to most smaller players—like a ministry.
The internet changed all of this. It takes us back away from the impersonal, shot-gun-blast, expensive approach of mass media back to word of mouth. The reason it can do this is because the internet amplifies word of mouth.
In other words, word of mouth no longer dies out so quickly. Instead, it is amplified because one person who loves what you are doing can now easily notify a hundred or a thousand others—who, in turn, can likewise spread the message if they are interested.
This is far cheaper than mass media advertising and thus opens the door to smaller players with less money, such as a ministry like Desiring God.
Principle 1: Be Remarkable
But the issue now becomes: How do you get people talking? How do you do that?
And the answer is: be remarkable. To be remarkable doesn’t mean to be perfect or pristine or flawless. It means being worth remarking on. It means doing things worth talking about.
Seth Godin gives this illustration. [Purple Cow.]
So the key to success online is to be remarkable. Do things that are worth talking about, and people will talk and spread your message. The internet, in turn, amplifies this word of mouth, resulting in each person being able to tell dozens and hundreds, rather than just a few. So if you are really remarkable, your message will spread to a large number of people.
Hence, no longer does money make the difference; rather, being interesting and truly useful to people does.
Principle 2: Remove Friction
Now, once you’ve sparked word of mouth by being remarkable, then what do you do? You need to help add velocity to that word of mouth by removing friction—that is, anything that slows it down.
In other words, the internet amplifies word of mouth, but there are certain things that slow it down. These are things that make it harder to spread the message—things that make it more complicated to tell someone else, make it take longer to tell them, or make it harder for them to access it once they have been told. I will give some specific examples here shortly.
Once you’ve sparked word of mouth, you will shoot yourself in the foot if you don’t remove friction and make it as easy as possible for your message to spread.
With these things in mind, we can now take a closer look at our strategy and see how these principles flesh themselves out.
That’s why we post everything online, for free, without requiring registration, in a maximally usable interface. All five of those things are aimed at being remarkable and reducing friction.
What we Post is Remarkable
First, what we post is remarkable. If you don’t have engaging content that is worth talking about, you won’t be able to get any farther. You can’t add the other parts of our strategy on the top of poor content and expect anything to happen. At DG, what’s remarkable about our content is that we seek to teach what the Bible says. The Bible is remarkable, and our aim is not to cover that up and thus become boring. By saying what the Bible says, you will be remarkable because the Bible is remarkable. I would also add that John Piper has a particular gift of communicating biblical truth in a compelling and engaging way.
We Post Everything
Second, we post everything, not just some things, because if something isn’t posted, people can’t benefit from it and share it. Not having something posted at all is the ultimate form of friction—something can’t spread if it isn’t available.
Further, posting everything is remarkable. The result is that we have 30 years of sermons and articles online. That’s amazing. There’s a wow factor to that.
Third, we post everything for free because having to pay is a barrier to accessing the content. It creates friction. Note that the problem is not mainly the price. People can usually afford a dollar for a sermon or whatever. The main barrier is the payment process itself. It is complicated and a pain to pull out your credit card and go through that process to buy a sermon. It creates friction that would result in less people listening.
Making everything free is also remarkable. The key here is everything. It would be one thing if 50% of Piper’s sermons were free, and the other 50% you had to pay for. That would be nice, but it wouldn’t be remarkable. To be remarkable you have to go all the way—you have to hit the extreme. Saying everything is free is remarkable. Saying 99% of his sermons are free would be a whole different reality than being able to say 100% are free.
[Note: For more on free as a web strategy, see my article “Make it Free: Improving Online Effectiveness by Removing All Barriers to Accessing and Sharing Content.”]
Without Requiring Registration
Fourth, we post everything without requiring registration for the same reason—going through the registration process is an obstacle to accessing the content. It creates friction because it gets in the way and is a pain.
Example of being sent a link only to see that registration is required.
In a Maximally Usable Interface
Fifth and finally, we seek to make our web interface as usable as possible because hard to use websites are also a form of friction. You cannot access or share the content if you cannot find it easily, and if the site doesn’t give you an overall sense that it is easy and pleasant to use.
[Note: For more on usability, see the resources I’ve collected here.]
Two Other Reasons
Two other reasons we do this:
It is Right
First, it is right. More and more, organizations are realizing that they don’t get free pass from the obligation to be human.
In other words, the golden rule applies to organizations just as much as to individuals: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In other words, seek to be of benefit to others before you are a benefit to yourself.
Making everything free is not the only way to put others first in how we do things as a ministry. I don’t think it would be wrong to charge. But it is right and good to make everything free because it shows that our aim is to first serve our people rather than ourselves. We exist first and foremost to be a benefit to others, not ourselves.
And thus, our strategy must reflect this. So many organizational strategies don’t—they seek to protect the organization or play it safe, and the leaders of the organization justify it on the basis that “if we don’t keep existing, we can’t serve anyone.” But that’s lame and boring and actually backfires. If you serve yourself first, you end up not doing cool and interesting things and you aren’t as useful to people. As an organization, we don’t exist to exist. We exist to serve. And we aren’t going to say that with our lips and then turn around and do something else with our actions. And, ironically, by putting yourself out there to benefit others before yourself, you end up prospering more as an organization.
It Demonstrates the Gospel
Second, it demonstrates the gospel. The gospel is free. Since the gospel is at the heart of our content, it makes sense that we would make our content available for free as well.
Again, we don’t have to do this. But our desire is to demonstrate the gospel not just in what we say, but also in how we say it. We want the things we do as an organization to as much as possible be visible illustrations of the freeness and greatness of the gospel. Making all of our content available for free is one way of doing this.
These things are central to spreading anything—even if you are interested in something like film. For a long time we had a media department that was making inroads into film, as another way to spread our message—namely, through story. That affects people in a different way. The web gave an outlet to the short films and other products our media department produced and enabled them to get wide exposure for low distribution costs.
Even if you go a more traditional route with films you create, the principles here are important for how you do the promotion of your film. You can use the internet to effectively and widely promote your work, for a low cost, by means of these principles. And also one reminder: being remarkable is not something you can add on after the fact. It has to be part of the essence of what you are doing—whether it is a film or message or whatever it is.