How to Make Free Stuff Valuable

by | May 29, 2009

Photo: Courtesy of iStockPhoto
Should you be giving things away?
A while back, Nona Parry raised a juicy question: do people need to pay for something to appreciate it? The question of whether people value what you give them for free is an important one and worth revisiting.
Nona wrote:

I cannot stress enough how very much I disagree that people must pay for something in order to value it. I first ran into that attitude in the 1970s with the Transcendental Meditation people and have been avoiding its proponents ever since.

She has a point, and if I have given the impression that people don’t appreciate what they get for free, allow me to set the record straight.
Give-aways are important means of inviting your customers in, introducing them to your work, building trust, and expressing appreciation. They can also be part of a strategy of giving back, contributing some part of your work to benefit your community.
Still, there are two factors to keep in mind when you offer something for free.
The relationship between cost and commitment
If you offer a free teleclass, you can expect fewer than half of the people who register to show up. But when you charge for a teleclass, almost everyone shows up, even when it is the same class that had 50% no-shows when you gave it at not cost.
What’s going on here?
No matter how valuable your product or service, it has to compete with myriad other things for your customer’s time and attention
Coffee with a friend. A headache. Even–heaven forfend–television. Not to mention work, doctors’ appointments, and showing up for the kids’ soccer games.
Think about it. It’s Saturday morning and your choices are:
a) Do your homework for the marketing course you received as a door prize. b) Weed the vegetable garden. c) Finish the project that was due Thursday. d) Have coffee with your sister who is in town for the day. e) Do the grocery shopping. f) Work the crossword puzzle. g) … h) …
Do you see? The list could go on and on, and no matter how valuable the marketing course might be, you are probably going to choose one of the other options.
Of course, you could have paid for the course and still put your homework off in favor of other things. God knows, I have paid for plenty of programs I never finished. But I promise you, I gave them a better shot than I’ve given the umpteen free reports I’ve received for subscribing to an ezine like this one.
Everything free has a cost
If you are in business, your ability to give free content away depends on your ability to generate revenue. Ideally, you will arrive at a balance of giving that serves others and contributes to the well being of your business. Otherwise, you are like a parent who starves her children to take care of the neighborhood.
So how do you know what to give away?
It’s about the customer
Whether you are selling your work or giving it away, you absolutely, positively, must know whom you are serving. The more narrowly you can specify your “just right” customer, the more appropriately you can design your give-aways.
It needs to solve a problem
Forget about mouse pads, chocolate bars, and calendars. Your first free offer should identify and solve a problem for your customer.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, pain signals danger and urgency; it is a call to action. That is, it motivates people to use what you give them and that is good for them and good for you.
It’s got to be simple
Your freebie should be like Google search results: relevant, easily accessible, and easy to use.
It needs to give them a next step
When your prospective customer uses what you give them, they will be in one of two situations: they will want more or they will want out. (Believe it or not, either is fine – you aren’t taking hostages, you’re building relationships.)
Your gift should include a clearly identified next step clearly identified. That step could be visiting your Web site, completing a survey, or buying a product. Without this step, you are asking your customer to figure out what to do next. If they knew that, they wouldn’t need you.
It’s a path, not a forced march
By offering gifts and helping your prospects and customers use them, you make a path to your door. The point isn’t to force people along the path, but to make the path easy enough to find that those who want to make the journey can do so.
Far from reducing the relationship with customers to one purely based on profit, this approach to giving invites your customers into an intentional community where new value will be created with every step.
Do what I say… a modest disclaimer
I know that what I’ve said here is true based on experience. But do I follow these guidelines in my own give-aways?
Sometimes. I’m getting better. And it’s a process. I just want you to know that you don’t have to get everything right all the time to succeed. Just keep an open mind and a playful spirit; you’ll get there one step at a time.