“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.

The Lessons of Napster

For marketers, there are at least four lessons about Napster's rapid growth and influence:

1. The Internet and peer-to-peer technology created by Napster allows digital forms of knowledge to be shared and passed along to others at light speed.

2. The more valuable your knowledge, the more people will share it and evangelize it to others. (This is “word of mouse.”)

3. You will reach more people with your knowledge through word of mouse than with traditional marketing tactics, and with a smaller budget.

4. Customers love to be part of a community where they share knowledge with like-minded people.

Napster-like technology has the potential to cause wholesale changes in marketing strategies, company strategies, and perhaps entire industries. Napster-like entrants are good for the marketplace: They cause industries to assess their market position and ultimately, their value to customers.

Napsterized Industries

Spurred by the success of Napster-like distribution systems, individuals and companies in several industries have made major plays to disseminate their intellectual capital across multiple channels.

Education:The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is publishing its entire curriculum--lecture notes, assignments, sample problems, reading lists for 500 courses--on the Internet.

By 2010, it will have posted the materials for 1,500 additional courses. No passwords. No monthly subscription. Free for everyone. MIT's strategy is to present the value of its intellectual capital as an up-front offering; the university calculates that its return will be smarter high school students who want to attend MIT for the “experience” of interacting with top-notch students and researchers.

Read about MIT OpenCourse

Publishing:In 2000, author Seth Godin wrote a book called The Ideavirus. Its premise is that an engaging idea can travel through the Internet like a fast-moving virus. To prove his point, he released Ideavirus as an e-book on his website, encouraging readers to download it for free and tell friends about it.

The results were telling: 400,000 readers downloaded the book in the first 30 days of its release, becoming the most read e-book ever. Eventually, the book was downloaded more than one million times because friends told friends about Godin's ideavirus. The hardcover reached number four on Amazon's bestseller list.

Professional Services: Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw, the tenth-largest law firm in the world, develops and hosts free web sites that provide information on legal specialties.

The firm hosts sites like Securitization.net, a free online resource for information on structured finance. The site helps industry members stay current on global structured finance developments from a growing list of industry participants who regularly provide commentary, news, rating criteria, accounting regulation analyses, legal analyses, and deal descriptions.

The site will even feature content from a competing firm. It does not loudly brandish the Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw logo, and only a small link at the bottom of the front page mentions the firm.

By spearheading a comprehensive portal, or hub of information, about a specific topic, the law firm subtley positions itself as a leader in the securitization field.

Can You Napsterize Your Knowledge?

Can you:

  • Become an information resource in your industry? How can you externalize internal company knowledge and experience? 
  • Write an article on how to select a company like yours? Position your company as one that is looking out for customers' best interests by helping them with the selection process, instead of one who just wants to hand out a brochure? 
  • Fill your website with articles, book reviews, links to other resources, events lists, etc. around your specialty? Can you invite others to submit their suggestions for these areas as well? 
  • Package your knowledge to make it distributed easily?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you can Napsterize your knowledge.

Keeping all of your company's knowledge bottled up inside your company does not help customers and prospects understand and evangelize your core offerings.

Napsterizing your knowledge widens the information portal to your customers. It can build stronger ownership of your product or service, thereby making it easier for customers to share with colleagues, who eventually become prospective customers.

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

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