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“Information wants to be free.”-- Stewart Brand

When 19-year-old programmer and college dropout Shawn Fanning wrote a program in 1999 to help his roommate find and share MP3 music files, it allowed Web surfers to open their hard drives to other people and do the same.

He named his program Napster, a nickname given to him years earlier. Over 18 months (and 50 million users) later, the world of computing and knowledge sharing changed.

As Joel Selvin, the San Francisco Chronicle's pop music editor, said: “Napster encouraged people to try new music they wouldn't necessarily spend money to check out.”

The Recording Industry Association of America and the U.S. legal system eventually killed Napster. But its grassroots-fueled rapid growth launched the makings for a new type of distribution channel and value proposition that marketers should recognize and embrace.

The primary lesson: The more that a company shares its knowledge, the more valuable it becomes.

Companies that share their intellectual property and business processes with customers and partners are more likely to have their knowledge (or products) passed along to prospective customers. People tend to evangelize products and services they love, admire or find valuable, so Napsterizing one's knowledge allows for the grassroots effect of distributed marketing. The network is the channel.

Companies that Napsterize their knowledge in the marketplace also tend to have the marketplace respond with help and improvements to its intellectual capital.

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Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba are the authors of Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force.