Make It Free

Improving Online Effectiveness by Removing All Barriers to Accessing and Sharing Content

You can also read Matt's follow-up article to this one.

If you are a Christian media ministry, I commend the following vision for maximizing your effectiveness online: Post all of your content online, for free, without requiring registration, in a maximally usable interface.

This basis for doing this follows from the purpose of ministry and the purpose of a ministry website. The purpose of any ministry is, at root, to spread the message of the good news of God's grace. And the purpose of a ministry website is thus to serve as an avenue for spreading that message.

From this it follows that your site will be most effective if you maximize ease of access to your content. It's simple: If your content is hard to access, or not accessible at all, then it can't spread. People won't find it on your site, and they won't tell others. But if you remove all barriers to access, people will use it and tell others (assuming that it is good). Thus your message will spread and be of far more benefit to everyone in the world.

In other words, anything that hinders the ease with which your users can access and share your content imposes a "cost" on them. You maximize ease of access to your content (and thus the effectiveness of your site) by making it "free" in the fullest sense of the word--by offering it without financial charge and removing all barriers to accessing the content.

There are four things that create obstacles for accessing and sharing content:

  1. Not having very much content online
  2. Charging for content that is online
  3. Requiring registration to access content that you don't charge for
  4. Having a hard-to-use website

Therefore, there are four things you need to do in order to maximize access to your content online and truly "make it free":

  1. Post all of your content online
  2. Don't charge for your online content
  3. Don't make people register to access any of your content
  4. Make your site very easy to use

In other words: post everything online, for free, without requiring registration, in a maximally usable interface. In what follows, I will attempt to show that if your ministry does this, you will demonstrate God's grace in a wonderful way, serve people more effectively, and build a larger audience. Further, if it feels dangerous to post everything online for free, I will discuss how this is actually not too different from what you already do if you have a traditional radio broadcast. I will then close by observing what a great testimony to God's grace and service to the church and world that it would be if every ministry did this.

Post All of Your Content Online

By "everything" here, I really mean everything. For example, if you have been on the radio for 30 years, then I would say to post every single broadcast from the last thirty years. Every article that has been written, every seminar that has been given, every conference message that has been delivered--any media or written content that your ministry has produced during its entire existence should be posted online. And it should be posted in all formats in which you have it or can get it--audio, written, and video.

Why? First, as a ministry you probably have a large amount of helpful content in your archives, and if people can't access it, they can't benefit from it. The mere fact that some of it may be 25 or even 50 years old is irrelevant--when it comes to biblical truth, if it was helpful then, it's helpful now. Even when some content is heavily tied to its time period, there is almost always something timeless in it that will benefit people. If you post everything, then you let your users be the judge of what is most useful to them--which is as it should be, because a fundamental principle of effective online strategy is that you need to allow the users to be in charge.

Second, when it comes to the Internet, more is better. Our disposition should always be towards offering more, not less. It is so easy to search and browse (if you make your site usable--see point four) that abundant content provides a rich arena for your users to explore, and a reason to come back frequently.

Third, you should post all of your content because doing so is remarkable. To do something remarkable means to do something that is "worth remarking on." Being remarkable is foundational to how your message spreads, because it spreads most effectively through everyday people remarking on it to others. Your website users are thus the most effective (and least expensive) promotional avenue for your site. Further, the Internet provides them with a megaphone that amplifies their word of mouth so that instead of telling just a few people, they can tell hundreds.

But in order to tap into this, you need to give your users a reason to talk about your site. Telling them to talk about it won't work. You need to do something that is distinctive and incredible enough that it naturally motivates them to remark on it. Posting a massive amount of content is one of the best ways to do this. Put yourself in the shoes of a user for a minute. Now, imagine coming to your website and finding a years worth of radio program archives. That's nice, but nothing incredible. Now imagine that there are thirty years of programs and other content. That's remarkable--that's something to keep coming back to and to tell others about. By making your site "remarkable," you tap into the most effective--and least costly--method of promotion for your ministry and its message: your site users.

Don't Charge for Your Content

If you are going to have people talking about and emailing your content, you need to make sure that you remove all obstacles to this process. This means you shouldn't charge for your online content--not for any of it. Charge for things you pack and ship to people, such as DVDs and physical books. But don't charge for anything that is accessed online. The reason is that charging creates a barrier to access, and therefore directly opposes the purpose of your site--which is to spread your content. Spreading your content requires that you maximize access rather than restrict access. The bottom line is this: If you charge for your online sermons or radio programs or other content, people will use it far less and tell others about it far less. This is a non-negotiable fact.

The secular media has recognized this for years. For example, sites like ESPN and CNN and Fox News have had their content free for years (perhaps even from the start; I can't remember). Even the New York Times, which has been charging for its content, is now removing that barrier because they recognize how detrimental it is to their web traffic. A recent article in the Times discusses some of their rationale: "...many more readers started coming to the site from search engines and links on other sites instead of coming directly to These indirect readers, unable to get access to articles behind the pay wall and less likely to pay subscription fees than the more loyal direct users, were seen as opportunities for more page views and increased advertising revenue."1

It could be pointed out that a site like the New York Times benefits from advertising revenue, but a ministry site does not have a revenue source like that. Hence, some ministries might be concerned that if they don't charge for their content, it will threaten their ability to fund the ministry. We have not found this to be the case at Desiring God. Instead, what we find is incredible gratitude from our users that they can access 27 years of sermon audio and other content for free. Some are so enthusiastic about this vision that it leads them to give. And isn't this exactly the kind of thing that people want to give to? By posting all of your content online, you provide your donors a compelling initiative to support and be a part of. Further, you bring much more traffic to your site, and thus more people who may chose to become donors. While we haven't done a formal analysis, it appears to me that posting everything online resulted in more gift revenue than sales revenue we have lost.

But increased donations is not our motive for not charging. There are four much larger reasons for posting everything for free, and I commend them to your ministry as well.

First, it emphatically demonstrates God's grace. Salvation is free and without charge. Paul and the other apostles proclaimed the gospel for free and without charge. To make all of your content available for free says something great about God--it is an acted parable illustrating his incredible generosity and grace.

Second, posting everything for free serves others most effectively. If you are a ministry, I would assume that after glorifying God, your next most fundamental purpose for existence is to serve others--to be a blessing to the church and the world, no strings attached. Making all of your content free so that people can access it without restriction fulfills this aim and demonstrates to the world that you are not in ministry for yourselves. This is a message the world needs to see today more than ever. It is not wrong to charge. But my exhortation is to do what is great, to do what most manifestly serves others, and to think about financial return second--or third.

Third, as already discussed, far more of your content will spread, and it will spread to far more people. Requiring people to pay inserts friction into the process of spreading your message. Friction slows things down and brings them to a halt. If you want your message to spread as far and as wide as possible, you should go to all lengths to remove all possible friction from the process. And note that the obstacle with charging is not simply the amount you charge, but also the mere fact that users have to go through a payment process to obtain the content. So you should not reason "Well, what's $1.99 for a sermon?" Even if you only charge $0.10, the mere fact that people have to go through a series of steps to access the content will substantially reduce the number of people who access it.

Don't Require Registration to Access Your Content

There are many who recognize the importance of making the content free but then, in my opinion, take back everything by requiring people to register in order to access it. Although no money is involved, registration is a cost to the user because it is a hassle. If you want to maximize access to your content, you need to "make it free" in all senses of the word--you need to eliminate all costs to the user, even the non-monetary ones, of which required registration is the most significant.

There are several reasons to offer all of your content not only without cost, but also without requiring registration. First, as with charging money, requiring registration inserts friction into the process, thereby reducing the amount of content people access and spread. To see this clearly, think of your own behavior. Have you ever had a friend send you something interesting online--a link to a newspaper article or perhaps one of those personality tests that can figure you out in 5 minutes--but when you click through to get it, you find that they require your email address? If you're anything like me you do one of two things when this happens. Either you hit the back button and forget about it, or, if you really want it, you give them your Hotmail address from 6 years ago that you never check. And these sites weren't even trying to charge any money. Maybe you don't think people should be this way, but we need to accept this is in fact how people are and structure our websites based on how people actually behave, rather than how we think they should behave. If you want your content to spread greatly, then do not require registration.

Second, if you require registration, most of the people that do register are not interested in hearing from you--they simply want to see the piece of content they are interested in, and then move on. So when they receive emails or bulk mailings from you, those communications will be thought of as spam--either going to an old Hotmail account they never check, or annoying them in their regular inbox. Either way, they will not be effective. As Seth Godin has said, "if someone signs up for a list they don't want, in order to get something they do want, your emails to them are impersonal and irrelevant, and treated just like spam--and are just as irritating." Far better to offer the option to subscribe to various email newsletters (and RSS feeds and podcasts), but not require it. Then, you will have a much higher quality email list. The people that sign up will be those who really want to be hearing from you--and thus your communications will be far more effective.

Third, if you require registration to access your content, then (in my opinion) it fails to clearly send the message that you are here first to serve, no strings attached. Instead, it sends the message of reciprocity--I'll do something for you (let you access the content) if you do something for me (give me your contact information). This is not intrinsically bad, of course; but we are ministries. We have another aim. We are here to serve, period. Existence is not our first priority. Serving others for the glory of God is. Therefore, the message we need to make very clear is: "We are here to serve, no strings attached. Not serve you so that we can see a financial return, but just serve you because our joy and calling is to do good for your sake. If you do want to be more involved with the ministry, we would love it and would greatly benefit from your help, but regardless, our first aim is to be a blessing for you." Let us as ministries send a message of service written in bold letters--we are not here for what we can get from people, but for how we can help and what we can give.

Make Your Site Very Easy to Use

Last of all, in order to see maximum spreading of your content, make your website easy to use. This again goes to the fact that user costs are not simply monetary; anything that creates an obstacle to accessing your content is a cost. A hard to use site is a cost to the user in that it hinders their ability to access (and share) the content and which thus must be removed.

There are a few key principles that can make a huge difference. First, and most important, make sure everyone who works with the web in your ministry reads Steve Krug's book Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. This is by far the best book on the subject, and tells you almost everything you need to know about making your site easy to use. And the book is a quick read--just over a hundred pages, with many helpful illustrations and examples.

Second--and this is very basic yet will have the greatest impact--make sure that your site gives your users persistent secondary navigation throughout your site. Here is what I mean: Virtually every site has a global navigation bar which shows people the main sections of the site. This gives people the high-level layout of the site. But when you click into one of the sections, a lot of sites fail to give good sub-navigation that shows you where you are in that section and always stays with you so that you always know where you are. Without this, your users get lost. So an effective site needs to provide sub-navigation that is persistent--that is, that always stays with the user--and well organized. Krug's book shows how to do this well. The result is good orientation for site users--the foundation to a usable site--so that they always know where they are and can easily get from one place to another.

Excurses: Comparing This Model to Radio

As an aside, it is worth noting here that the model I am proposing has certain key similarities to how traditional radio has been done. So if you have been doing traditional radio, the model that I am presenting doesn't need to feel like such a risk. With traditional radio, ministries don't charge people to listen to the program or require them to register. Access to the program is completely free. Those who listen and are interested in going further with the organization are then invited to contact the ministry, just like how with the Internet those who want to go further can sign up for a newsletter, sign up for a donor program, or purchase a product.

Requiring payment or registration to access or download ministry content is thus the opposite of what ministries have been doing with radio for decades. Offering content for free online, with the option to sign up for something if you want to go deeper, is actually more in line with the traditional radio model. And, it is far cheaper. For the cost of less than one station for a year, you can probably post all of your content online and cover several years of operating expenses for the site.

Alternatively, something that should not be preserved from the traditional radio model is being brought over--namely, the temporary duration of the archives. With radio, the program airs and it is gone. That is part of the nature of the medium. But with the Internet, there are no internal constraints, other than storage and bandwidth (which are very cheap, especially compared to radio), determining how long you can make a message available. The Internet allows you to keep the archives up permanently. Yet, many only keep their program archives up for a month or a year. I argue above, the best thing to do is to put all content online forever. This is a strength of the medium that needs to be utilized, and it will drive traffic.

What we see here, then, is the irony that, in general, we as ministries are often bringing over from radio strategies that we shouldn't (namely, temporary access to the programs) while failing to bring over strategies that we should (namely, free access to the programs without requiring signing up with the ministry first).

In Conclusion: Everyone Should Do This

Here is what we have seen: Ministry websites exist to be a major avenue for spreading your message. Your website will do this most effectively if you "make it free"--that is, if you maximize ease of access to all of your content and remove all barriers that get in the way of using and sharing your content.

The way you do this is by posting everything online, for free, without requiring registration, and in a very easy-to-use interface. In turn, this emphasizes the grace of God and serves people most effectively. And the result will likely be that rather than seeing a threat to your financial survival, you will see a more enthusiastic donor base and a larger amount of web traffic that results in more interest, more spreading, and the financial provision you need.2

I would love to see every ministry website implement these four principles and make their content freely available in the fullest sense of the word. What an incredible testimony that would be to the grace of God and what an incredible service it would be to the church and the world.

  1. "NY Times to Stop Charging for Parts of Its Website," September 18, 2007. By the way, this is a good start, but they need to go further--apparently there will still be charging for access to some sections. 

  2. At Desiring God, after we redesigned our website on the basis of these principles, we saw these results within four months: Visits increased 99%, audio listens increased 352%, and page views increased 359%. One year later, traffic continues to increase at a significant rate.