Free vs Paid

Free vs Paid: How to Find the Right Balance as an Online Teacher

Free vs Paid

If you are an online teacher, you will already know the importance of giving things away for free.

This includes articles/ebooks you have written, videos you have made, trial lessons, and your time.

But how much should you offer for free? How much time should you spend helping others without payment? And what content should you reserve for paying clients?

This post lays out some guidelines on how to strike the right balance between free vs paid content/lessons. But first, I explain the importance of helping learners for free.

Why Offer Content and Your Time for Free?

The reason behind creating free content and helping learners is simple: it helps you grow your teaching business.

For example, my YouTube channel has nearly 50 videos now. A percentage of those who come across one of my videos will take further action by either signing up to my email list or by purchasing my course.

This is called content marketing and if you do it right, it can be very powerful.

Although the content you create is free, it still has to be high quality. Creating things that are valuable will help you reach more people, show your value to prospective clients, and ultimately result in more sign-ups.

In addition to free content, you can also help learners directly.

One of my earliest posts on this blog talked about charging for a trial lesson. If you are just starting out, you will most likely offer this for free. You can also help learners directly by answering questions on social media and through email.

Again, this is showing that you’re a real person, that you’re there to help, and it offers a glimpse into the value you offer.

Starting conversations with learners in your niche is one of the most powerful ways to sell something. That is why I have systems in place so that I can start as many conversations as possible (more on this later).

A good example to highlight all of this is the free samples on offer at Farmers Markets. These samples attract you to the stall, let you know how good the product tastes, and you soon enter a conversation with the seller.

And as you’ve been given something for free, you feel guilty about walking away without buying something. This is the reciprocity principle and it applies in the ESL/EFL industry too.

I hope you can see how important it is to help learners for free. But….

Nobody Wants to Be Taken Advantage Of

There are learners who will take a trial lesson without any intention to pay for future lessons.

There are learners who will ask you a thousand questions but will never buy anything from you.

There are learners who will read every article you have but will never send money your way.

And when the above happens, it can be discouraging, especially when you’re first starting out. You’ve just given your time to help someone and you get nothing in return.

Another concern is finding the balance between free and paid content. If you give away too much, won’t learners just take the free over the paid?

If you struggle in this area, the following will help…

Filter Learners

Filtering learners helps you spend most of your time on those who are able and willing to pay for what you offer.

This starts with your niche. For example, if you advertise in countries where credit card ownership is non-existent, you won’t get anything back in return. Therefore, targeting learners who are able and willing to pay is the first step.

You can also filter after the fact. For instance, you don’t have to administer all trial lesson requests – you can filter out those who you know won’t be able to pay for lessons.

There is a limit to how much you can filter – search engines, for example, will show your site in different countries – and the filters that you put in place will ultimately come down to you and where you currently are with your teaching business.

Create Rules

I receive so many emails and messages from learners who want to chat on Skype or elsewhere. If you have an online presence, I’m sure you get this too.

What I do in these situations is reply stating that I don’t have conversations with learners on Skype and send them a link to my landing page to get a free ebook. I let them know that they can ask me questions through email after signing up.

(Note: I use TextExpander to make this process much quicker.)

Think about rules that you can apply for the different situations you face.

Find the Balance Between Free and Paid

If you offer one-to-one or group lessons, you don’t need to worry too much about how much content you give away –  live lessons involve much more than what content offers alone.

In fact, the two can supplement each other: you can take the lessons plans you used with your learners in class and repackage them as articles, videos etc. It’s what I did for a long time on my old teaching site.

If you sell products, then you will no doubt have thought about exactly what you should give away for free and what you should reserve for your paid product.

You will probably have thought, “If I give away too much, nobody will buy my course.” But you also know that you need to create valuable content specific to your niche to grow your business.

Tricky, right?

One thing to note is that people buy for convenience and structure. For example, I came across a really useful video on photography and decided to buy the book they offered straight away. I did this knowing that I could have found most of the information on their YouTube channel for free. The book was laid out in a logical way, gave me exactly what I wanted to know, and saved me a lot of time.

This also shows how important it is to create valuable content: I bought the book because I was really impressed with the initial video.

Additionally, the course/product you offer can include support and feedback just for those who sign up. There is so much that you can add to a product than what you can include in an article on your blog.

Finding the balance between free and paid can be difficult, but don’t be scared of putting out free content that will help those in your niche. In my experience, the more you give, the more you receive.

Two Types of Learners and Finding Your Balance

There are two types of learners: those who will potentially buy your lessons/courses and those who won’t. And as I talked about earlier, you can filter learners in various ways so that you are spending your time more efficiently.

However, there is a lot to be gained from helping learners who will never buy anything from you.

Giving away free content and responding to emails from those who can’t afford what you offer just seems like the right thing to do.

And when you do this, those who you help are more likely to share your stuff which, in turn, helps build your brand.


Providing free content and interacting with your learners is vital if you want to build your brand. How much free stuff you put out there depends on you and what you’re trying to build.

My own take on this, as I have talked about before, is to give as much as you can. This not only helps you sell more of what you have to offer, but it also helps you learn more about those who are in your niche. However, I do this on my own terms and think about ways that I can scale the free content and advice that I put out there.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this, so please leave any comments you have below.


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  • Great post, Jack.

    From time to time I’ll get someone from a developing country who is probably unable to pay for lessons, but is not shy about asking for help. Truthfully, my boundaries in this area probably aren’t as good as they could be — in the past I’ve helped a lot, significantly past the point of kindness as the requests kept coming, while I waited for them to either ask for lessons or to realize that they’ve gotten “enough” free help.

    The problem comes when neither of those things happens, and the pattern of me offering free help gets established. Then when it gets to the point that I have to put an end to the help (even though I try to do it politely) it’s easy for me to seem like the bad guy.

    It was this very thing that prompted me to choose my opt-in content, a free listening course. It took more work to put together than other things I could have done, but I really wanted to have something valuable and concrete that I could offer to the many people that won’t be able to take sessions with me directly. I wanted to be able to offer them something that would help, and it gives the added benefit of giving potential clients a chance to see me and listen to me speak.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Chris. It was wise to create that free listening course and, as you say, it benefits both those who are interested in paid lessons and those who aren’t.

  • Cleona Patterson

    Thank you for the post Jack. The Farmer’s Market reference rang true. I’m trying to repackage content in different formats at present. As a Spanish learner, access to endless videos and free websites has deterred me from paying for a teacher in recent times. Years ago I did pay when free online resources were not as readily available. I fear we risk being undervalued with the excess of freebies. If I can sample enough cheese, break, cake etc that every stall holder is offering, I may only occasionally need to purchase one or two specific items.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Cleona – you make some really interesting points. Continuing the analogy, if everyone is handing out free samples at the farmers market, the one or two items that we purchase will be the ones that leave the best impression on us; the product, the story behind the product, and the person selling it all play a part. It’s the same for online lessons and courses.

      • Cleona Patterson

        Indeed but to a considerable extent online teachers are reducing the need for learners to put their hands in their pockets. Is this the new way, the accepted norm? Not much was given away by institutions that did great business in the past.

        • Free videos and resources aren’t reducing the need for paid courses and lessons.

          Online education is booming ( and this is happening in a time when access to free information is growing at every increasing rates.

          If anything, the abundance of free materials increases the need for structured lessons and courses. Certain learners feel overwhelmed and just want to get straight to what is going to help them the most. This is why I immediately bought the book on photography.

      • I was interested in that article, but the link seems to be broken. It led to a 404 page.

  • Valentinos Filippou

    Thanks for this great article. Great point the repackage of the content! I was always thinking what to post to a blog!

    • Thanks, Valentinos. There is so much you can blog about – I recommend trying different posts and see what sticks.

  • Tanita Laktionova

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I have website on wordpress to build my brand, articles there for free and I have open group in FB to promote my wrbsite and to share english content for free, but no one from my subscribers became my student) what to do in this case?

    • It’s difficult to know without taking a look at things. Please get in contact with me to expand on your situation.

  • Edel King

    hi Jack, awaiting link to your course , I signed up via email yesterday, nothing in my inbox?

    • Do you mean the free download? If so, it is either in your spam folder or you entered your details incorrectly. If you mean TEOC (, please get in touch with me by email (link to the contact form in the footer).