Matt Perman on How A Free Content Distribution Model Propelled DesiringGod.com | Episode 013
Tune in to this episode of Future.Bible Podcast with our special guest Matt Perman. He is currently the director of career development at King’s College and has worked at Desiring God for 13 years as the senior director of strategy.
Matt shares us his experience on how their decision to make their content free at Desiring God actually propelled them forward in terms of traffic and profits. He also shares how the Gospel is a great motivator for all of their work.
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I love Seth Godin obviously, and one of the great points he makes is technology helps connect people. And that is one of the big things we try to do. Just like you said, we use it to connect students with professors, with good ideas. Godin talks about you need to connect people around a big idea.
Ironically, by putting the mission first instead of money, it brought in more money.
If you’re only thinking about immediate transactions, you’re short sighted. It’s not going to be good for your organization long term. You need to think of the long term with customers and users.
But for us, we felt like this was one of the biggest ways we can demonstrate the Gospel and reflect the gospel in our actions. I mean, the Gospel is free. Salvation is freely available through Christ and the message of salvation, therefore we wanted to make freely available to people.
the great thing that’s great about Desiring God is they’re so driven by their values. And that’s the mark of an excellent organization. And one of the values at Desiring God is radical generosity and passionate spreading.
Kenny: Welcome friends back to another episode. My name is Kenny Jahng, cohost of Future.Bible with my friend and co-host, partner in crime, DJ Chuang. Welcome DJ, how are you doing today?
DJ: Thank you. It’s good to be here this morning. Or actually I shouldn’t have mentioned the time.
Kenny: It’s timeless on the Internet, right? Time and space. It’s a separate thing. So DJ, we have a really neat guest with us here today. And in the heart of New York City, you know, I’m a little bit jealous because sometimes, you know, as people of the interwebs, you and I are in co-working spaces, we’re all different places. But sometimes we meet people with offices and as we’re as recording this over a video conference, we see that the background is the Statue of Liberty painting and a window into the canyons of New York City. Sometimes it’s really fun to be in the Big Apple. So Matt Perman is here from King’s College. Matt, thank you for being with us today.
Matt: Hey, thanks so much for having me. And yeah, I love it here in the heart of New York City. It’s really cool.
Kenny: What is funny is that we were talking beforehand I remember the days of living in New York City. Your commute sometimes takes, people think that in New York City the community is just instant, because we’ve got subways and you’re living on the island. But you said this morning it took about an hour to get into your seven-mile commute, right?
Matt: Yeah, I am at, I’m right now. I’m living at the top of Manhattan on like 200th and Broadway, and King’s college is basically at the bottom of Manhattan in the financial district right by Wall Street. So I have to commute the whole length of Manhattan and it takes forever. So I try to put, I tried to put the time to good use. But at the same time, it’s not super comfortable. It’s hard to like really get in the zone on the subway and a lot of email done or anything.
Kenny: Well, before we go any further, let’s introduce, actually share what your current role is. You’re the Director of Career Development at King’s College in New York City. Where exactly is King’s College located?
Matt: Yeah. We are one block away from Wall Street. We are on Broadway and Exchange Street. And just then one more block north is Wall Street. So right around there, the World Trade Center is probably a quarter mile away. Not far at all. That Big Bull people go to visit, is it out in front of the New York Stock Exchange or something? Like, that’s right by us. If you’ve visited New York, you probably know what I’m talking about. I don’t even know what it’s called, but it’s a famous thing. Everyone’s always gathering around it.
Kenny: Yes. And so, King’s College, that’s what you’re doing right now is helping all the students, basically navigate all the careers and develop like strategic partnerships, employees. I think that’s a really cool mentorship/leadership role. But you’re also the author, I’m going to call out here, I love the fact that you’re a best selling author, right? What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done. I have that on my shelf, and our team here at American Bible Society is actually going through that book together as a group. And you’re also a speaker on leadership and productivity and theology from a Gospel-centered perspective. That’s what I love, and that’s how I first met you. And before you’ve been working for how many years at Desiring God Ministries in Minneapolis, right? How many years were you there?
Matt: Yeah, I was there for 13 years. So quite a while.
Kenny: And I think there you lead, is it correct? You led the whole, the web department and then you were like either Senior Director of Strategy, right?
Matt: Yeah, I led the web department for several years then became Senior Director of Strategy, kind of in charge of our leadership philosophies and management systems, strategic planning and that type of stuff.
Kenny: And so you made that logical move from Minneapolis to the Big Apple.
Kenny: How is the culture change? Really something that has profoundly changed you? Or it’s a very different culture here, being in the city.
Matt: It is different, you know, I love it out here. I liked the fast pace. A couple things I noticed though. First, my opinion is New Yorkers walk too slowly. I’ve had to learn to walk more slowly. Most people say everyone in New York walk so fast. I just find they’re not walking fast enough.
Kenny: Are you sure? So that’s been an ironic adjustment.
Matt: Maybe it is. The real New Yorkers, they’re the ones walking really fast.
Kenny: Right, right. Absolutely. And then how has the college setting inside the city different than outside? Maybe you can share some observations or your perspective after joining King’s College’s staff.
Matt: It’s amazing. So the college setting is different. Being in the city, like there are dorms, there isn’t a meal plan, you know, where you go to the dining center, like you get most colleges. The student housing is basically apartments, and students live with other students in the set of various apartments that we have. They make their own meals and they’re organized into a house system. It’s kind of like fraternities and sororities, not exactly, that gives great connection and community. Here’s the key distinctive of King’s and I think it’s amazing. We’re able not only to provide an excellent education, but connect students with leading employers in New York City for internships and jobs post graduation. There’s nothing else like it. They get to learn about themselves and the world of work directly, hands on, with top notch internships. So that that is one of the key things we offer. I’m loving it. I’m just loving my role, helping connect students with those opportunities and get to know the companies here in the city.
DJ: Well, it’s pretty amazing story to go from Desiring God, thirteen years there, which was pre-iPhone, and then now you’re at King’s College and you’re trying to equip students to use digital technology. So you’ve had to keep up with a lot of changes. So what are you doing now to connect and equip students?
Matt: Yeah, I have had to keep up with a lot. Has changed as well. I mean first of all, obviously I remember when the iPhone came out and it was cool and it changed everything. And then shortly after Facebook started getting big, YouTube, everything. And it was neat to be at Desiring God. Well that was happening with technology, and to be a part of coming up with creative ways to make the most of the exciting changes that were happening, it was really cool. Right now at King’s, some of the things we’re doing to make use of digital technology to serve the students. There’s two big things: first there’s a another department, it’s not ours, but it’s very similar to ours called Student Success that focuses on helping students make the most of their time at King’s by giving life tips and study tips and productivity tips and stuff like this. They have actually a new website they just launched called King’s 101. Go check it out. And it’s really cool. It has interviews with professors and guest posts from professors and other people. They’re short and they give quick tips to students. And there’s videos. It’s really neat. And they use Instagram to promote that to the students. I’m used to Twitter, Facebook, I haven’t done much on Instagram, so now I’m finally getting into it. I know I’m kind of behind the scenes on that or behind the times on that. That’s embarrassing. But the second thing we do in our department is one of our key roles is to connect students with internship opportunities and job opportunities, and we have a LinkedIn network where we post those. And students join the network, so do alumni, so they can see the opportunities and what is there. And a lot of times companies contact us, say, “Hey, can you let your students know about this?” And that’s one of the first places that we publicize the opportunities. So it’s really nice to have a place that’s easily accessible for students like that.
DJ: It’s a great communication channel. So it’s keeping the opportunities connected. And then your professors connected to your students. Are you doing anything in terms of educating through technology?
Matt: Yeah. Well I find, I mean, I love Seth Godin obviously, and one of the great points he makes is technology helps connect people. And that is one of the big things we try to do. Just like you said, we use it to connect students with professors, with good ideas. Godin talks about you need to connect people around a big idea. So that’s what we try to do. Some other ways we try to do like how do we educate people on these things. I mean, we do resume workshops, we do resume coaching and editing. And as part of this we talk about LinkedIn. How do you use technology like LinkedIn in order to find jobs, in order to, in an appropriate way, promote yourself, get yourself out there? So we teach strategies for using LinkedIn. LinkedIn is not Facebook for old people. It’s a very useful, relevant, important tool, and now they’re going through some even cooler changes. I understand from Kenny, the groups are being redone and video is now becoming big on LinkedIn and it’s a really big opportunity for people. Kenny does a daily vlog, which sounds really worth checking out. So I’m thinking now about doing something like that in relation to the career development office here.
Kenny: Yeah, I think the way that social networks have evolved, it’s not just for the personal social networks, being able to use it for education, for networking, for business, and flourishing. I think is just really, I think amazing. You know, and dissemination of information is the other category. And Seth Godin says it’s the aggregation of connections, right? People who have like-minded and affinity groups, etc., that’s the power. And then the education and dissemination of information I think is the other part of it. I’m going to pivot a little bit because I love your backgrounds pre-iPphone days, right? We’re going to hark back a decade ago. You were one of the clear pioneers that really understood that the Internet is a place where if you’re going to need, if you’re going to try to broadly expose and bring awareness to the Bible that the publishing paradigm has to change, and the transaction paradigm needs to change. And I think one of the things that I know that you’ve spearheaded and have been a really big proponent for is the democratization of knowledge. And that’s what you did at Desiring God, right? You, you were one of the first to take, instead of selling sermons, putting all the content out there for free.
Kenny: Can you tell us a little bit of that? Because I think even though that’s something that is, you know, we might say in because Internet, we live in dog years, right? That might be decades ago in dog years, but still that concept is not fully embraced by the Internet culture today by so many organizations. Tell us a little bit of that. What is the power? What is the opportunity to really fully embrace that paradigm?
Matt: Yeah. There still is, and especially back then this kind of old school thinking, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a pejorative sense. What I mean is when something, when the Internet came along that was a category changer. And you couldn’t just take the old ways of thinking and doing business and doing ministry, and translate them into the Internet. You had to understand the internet itself as its own medium, and then develop new strategies in sync with that. Otherwise you have a meatball sundae like Seth Godin talks about in one of his former books. And so one of the things you know, we would go to these conferences back then and everyone would talk about how do you monetize your sermon content and stuff. And I know that’s important. Ministries, they have to make money. They have to support themselves. I totally get it. But they were sort of asking the wrong question. At Desiring God, the question we asked was, “How do we spread? How do we serve our users?” You especially have an opportunity to take advantage of that mindset when you’re in ministry where you’re not so, you don’t need to be so enslaved. That’s maybe a strong term. That’s too strong of a term. But it’s not first about money or chiefly about money. So you have the opportunity to free yourself up a little bit, and for us, our goal was to spread the way the mission was stated is ‘to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things, for the joy of all peoples.’ And what we found, especially back then was that charging for sermons interfered with spreading. And back in, especially a lot of people listening probably remember, did you ever get a link? Someone would send you and you’d click on it and then instead of actually taking you right to the article, you’d hit a wall, a subscription wall. You got to subscribe to see this. Or where the sermon, oh, you can’t listen to it or read it. You have to buy it, and there was a cumbersome checkout process to buy it. All those things bring friction into the process, and most people, if you’re like me, when you hit the registration or a paywall, you just stop. You’re not going to waste your time on that. Some people thought the big problem was having to pay money for sermons. And that wasn’t the first issue for us actually, though that is important. It was an incredibly annoying process to pay or to register. So our philosophy, our strategy was post everything online for free without requiring registration in a maximally usable interface, and all of that was minimizing friction so that people could freely spread and share our sermons and resources and that changed everything. Once we posted everything online for free in a usable interface, our traffic tripled within four months and it just kept climbing. And guess what? That act, it resulted in increased revenue over the long term, because it brought a larger audience and people wanted to donate to this vision. And so it was good for the revenue side of things. Ironically, by putting the mission first instead of money, it brought in more money. I got so much to say on that, but I’ll let you ask more questions or insights.
DJ: No, I think that’s a huge question that people would ask. Well, how do you keep the lights on and how do you keep the servers running? And you hinted at that that your revenue is actually increased later. Does it actually offset or balance? Or are you actually profiting, if you want to say, revenue positive because you gave so much content away?
Matt: I think so. We didn’t go into detail analyze and all that, but we know other ministries that did. So some other ministries like-minded to ours at Desiring God, they looked into what we’re doing. They said, “Okay, this sounds appealing. We’re a little hesitant at first because we’re not sure what’s going happen with the revenue,” but they pulled the switch, switched to free, and they emailed us after that. They said it’s the best thing we ever did. Our site usage has gone through the roof, and we are getting more donations as a result. So they did look into it in detail and they did find it was a financially positive thing with us. We look back in, probably now they’ve done the stats in detail, but by observation we can see, yeah, it was revenue positive. Even though that wasn’t a big concern for us and we didn’t go into great detail on that, but that is what I found. You got to take the long term into account, not just the short term. And the best marketing thinking realizes this. I read a marketing textbook just a couple of years ago and it says, “If you’re only thinking about immediate transactions, you’re short sighted. It’s not going to be good for your organization long term. You need to think of the long term with customers and users. What’s going to keep them coming back and what’s going to excite them and equip them to spread?” And I love how Godin talks about first you got to be remarkable. That doesn’t necessarily mean fancy. It means worth remarking on, because the users are, if they get excited about what you’re doing, that is your biggest unpaid sales force. And the Internet amplifies word of mouth. Word of mouth has always been the most credible way that anything spreads. But now because of the Internet, word of mouth is amplified. And you tap into that, if you’re doing something remarkable, people want to talk about what you’re doing and share it with others. And now they can do it with hundreds. And then second though, you have to minimize friction. If you have your people excited and telling others about what you’re doing, but they come to your site and it’s hard to use, or they hit a registration wall or a paywall. That slows down the velocity of spreading, how quickly the idea spread, because people jump out of the process because they’re annoyed. We also felt like Piper’s, Chief Motivation, and I’m with him on this too behind making all the sermons free, was he was motivated by the Gospel. That’s not to say churches that charged for sermons were wrong. That’s not what it’s about. But for us, we felt like this was one of the biggest ways we can demonstrate the Gospel and reflect the gospel in our actions. I mean, the Gospel is free. Salvation is freely available through Christ, and the message of salvation therefore we wanted to make freely available to people. It’s making a statement that people can experience about the Gospel. And that was the original motivation, and that’s what was really driving Piper and Desiring God and in this desire to spread because we want as many people as possible to know about the Gospel and learn about the Bible.
DJ: That’s so amazing. That’s so brilliant. You were friction-less before Facebook. You were viral before viral is viral. You must have hit some speed bumps along the way where something unexpected happened. I mean, did the server crash because of something you did? I’m going crazy, right?
Matt: Yeah. So at one point we decided to sort of institutionalize Seth Godin’s idea of being remarkable. I mean, we wove it in everything we do, but me and the team decided we’re going to every month decide to do something especially remarkable with the website. So one month we decided to do the $5 sale. So we made all the books in our online store $5. And the idea for this came from when I would go with Piper to conferences and events and do a book table, tell his books. Because of the prices we’re able to get them for, I learned we could sell, we could put the books at $5 and still make enough money to cover the costs of the trip. And then the books would just fly. People would, they were so excited, they were only $5. So they would gather around, we’d sell out quickly, and it paid for the cost of the trip, and we’d spread thousands of books. And by the way, part of the key is simplicity. They’re $5, not $5.50 or not some books, $8, some $3, some $9.25. Just simple, everything $5. So we decided to do that on the website and it went way beyond what we could’ve expected. People you would never think of who were buying Piper books, like people that had never heard of this Piper guy before. It was everywhere. And there were so many people, it would take an hour to get through that checkout process. It was bogging down the servers so much, and yeah, and they crashed. It was nuts. It was supposed to be first for one day. Then we extended it to two days, and it was amazing. But then something happened. Because I was just ball-parking it based on my experience of doing this at events. While there was one item in our store which cost us a lot more than $5. And everyone wanted that, too. It was a Bible, an ESV Bible. And somehow I overlooked that and we were losing money every time. About that and I was like, “Oh no, am I bankrupting the ministry here? Are we just going to lose so much money?” But the board said, the great thing that’s great about Desiring God is they’re so driven by their values. And that’s the mark of an excellent organization. And one of the values at Desiring God is radical generosity and passionate spreading, and this $5 sale is right in line with those values. It’s radical generosity. It’s about spreading. And the board said, “Well, if we are going to go down, this is, this is the way to do it.” And it actually turned out we still were financially positive on this $5 sale. That ESV Bible that was costing us much more than $5 ended up not I’m undoing any our positive margins or didn’t overly undo them. So everything worked out and I was very glad.
Kenny: But I mean, I think the one big lesson is to have a confidence in your mission and vision, and try to remove the friction points. And things will, in the end, if you put radical generosity as your, one of your prime motivators, things will work out.
Matt: Yep. You got it.
Kenny: Well, unfortunately we’re out of time for our discussion today. We’ve got so much more to talk about. Matt, would you have to agree to let us reconnect when that new .Bible site launches that you guys are considering putting together for King’s College in New York City?
Matt: Yeah, definitely. Let’s do it. We want to do Careers.Bible and build it out as a great resource site for helping Christians navigate their careers.
Kenny: So I’m definitely, We’re committing you here in the recording that you’re going to come back and share some more stories with us. Really appreciate the time as you, you know, work for the future generation of what we’re doing here in terms of bringing flourishing to the city and beyond. For everyone listening today, thank you so much for listening in on our conversations. Please let us know your thoughts on today’s interview and suggestions for future shows. We listen to you. We want you to engage with us. And we continue to ask for your input,because we want to be the number one place where you’ll meet innovators just like Matt, ready to talk about how we can apply the always-evolving world of technology, whether it’s 13 years ago or today, to the never-changing message found in the Bible, all for deeper engagement with Scripture. Matt and DJ. Thanks for an amazing conversation today.