Increasing your marketing return on investment (ROI) happens when you increase your returns, decrease your costs or both. Both, of course, is what most marketers aspire to, but it’s admittedly difficult to achieve. One of the easiest leverage points in the equation is to reduce costs, and that’s where free content comes in.

Related: How Free Content Can Produce a Substantial Pay-Off

No, I’m not talking about the older content models, where writers distributed content in exchange for backlinks. Those sites served a useful purpose at the time, but are no longer as appealing to marketers, thanks to changes in Google’s algorithm. Today, duplicate content can push your site down in the search engine response pages, or SERPs, even if it’s used ethically, and legally, from an open source.

Instead, consider three creative ways to obtain and use free content without violating the intellectual property rights of the authors. These methods take a little bit of work to source and massage the original content, but they can save you a lot of time and money when it comes to content creation.

What Types of Content are Free?

According to current definitions, “content” includes articles and blog posts, images, videos, podcasts and other forms of information shared online.

Copyright -- if a website owner has a copyright on his/her site's content -- exists at the moment a work is created. You can’t just use content you find online; it’s all protected under existing copyright law. It’s a mistake to assume that just because you give someone a credit line and a link, it’s okay to use that content without permission. It’s not. You could be in a lot of legal hot water for doing that, as blogger Roni Loren found out.

So don’t just grab any old content online. Instead, use these three free sources of content. Always follow the content creator’s guidelines for how content may be used. Each person sets individual rules for using his or her content, so be sure to read and follow those rules to be safe online.

Related: What Businesses Should Know About Copyright and Twitter Use

Three places to find free content

Reuter’s Media Express: Reuter’s offers a select set of content, including articles, videos and images, to content publishers on its website. You can use ten per month, and if you contribute to Reuter's bank of content, you can use more.

YouTube: Reuter's isn't all funny cat videos. And the site's embed feature enables you to publish plenty of different types of videos on your own blog or website. Even better, the site provides HTML code that makes it easy to copy, paste and share what you need.

Flickr: Flickr is a user-generated photo-sharing website that allows individuals and companies to share images. Users mark each image with a license that tells you whether or not you can use an image “as is,” with attribution, or whether the user allows you to use his/her images on commercial applications. Some photos contributed for use by the community are outstanding and can be made into graphics or other content.

Free content within your company

You may be sitting on a content gold mine without being aware of it. Many companies have white papers, case studies and sales sheets that can be easily repurposed into new content . . . absolutely free. You just need to invest a little time to mine these gems.

First, take an inventory of the content your company already owns. Gather together all of the potential content sources. Next, make sure you have the right permission to use the content in any way you wish. Once you’re sure you can reuse and repurpose it, think of ways in which you can reuse it.

  • Longer documents, for example, can be summarized. Summaries can be added to your blog, with links to white papers and more.

  • Statistics and facts can be worked into infographics.

  • Infographics can be written into stories.

  • Press releases can be transformed into podcasts

Another great source of content are the employees within your company. Members of the sales team that visit your customers frequently may have terrific success stories, how-to information or other items you can transform into creative content.

To use these resources:

  • Find out who the experts are within your company.

  • Interview them for a Q&A piece.

  • Use portions of the Q&A for shorter content, and the entire interview for a longer written piece.

  • Record and video the interview for podcasts and video content.

Make sure you follow the appropriate steps to secure permission to share customer data, stories and employee interviews (if necessary). A release form may be required. Talk to your company’s legal counsel for specific information if you aren’t confident your internal content can be used in this way.

Make your content count.

Whenever you produce a new piece of content, make every bit of it count toward your marketing goals. Include a strong call to action. Invite readers or viewers to follow you on social media. Give them something for their trouble, like a free ebook, a coupon or other inducement to take action. Transform one idea into multiple types of content that can be used on different marketing channels.

Related: 'Smoking Gun' Evidence Could Eradicate Copyright Claims for the World's Most Popular Song

And, remember: There are numerous free sources available for stories, videos and images. There’s also plenty of content just waiting to be used right now from within your company, if you just apply a little ingenuity and creativity. The secret is to find it and make the most of it.