How to Use Free to Drive Your Marketing Strategy

In the last decade, we have witnessed the “free revolution.” Marketers are giving away everything from books and software to vacations and even cars. This has shaped consumer behavior to the point that people often expect free and resent having to pay.

A Free Red Tag - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/jdillontoole, Image #17531868

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/jdillontoole

I see this every week in the publishing industry with ebooks. Many consumers expect them to be free or sold for a nominal amount, because they incorrectly believe that they don’t cost anything to produce.

Unfortunately, authors won’t write for free. Editors and packagers won’t work for free. Online retailers and distributors also want to get paid, as do the publishers who find the books, curate them, and market them.

So free is certainly not a viable business model. However, it can be a brilliant marketing strategy. Many individuals and companies are using this strategy very effectively to:

  • Build mailing lists. I have been offering a free copy of a my 94-page ebook, Creating Your Personal Life Plan, to everyone who signs up to receive my blog updates via email. In the first six months, I have generated 23,326 subscriptions. In the next few weeks, I will offer a new ebook to take my subscriptions to 50,000 by the end of the calendar year.
  • Generate customer reviews. A few years ago Thomas Nelson launched BookSneeze, a website designed to get its books into the hands of bloggers (sneezers) who could “infect” their readers. We let bloggers chose which books they wanted to review in exchange for an honest review on their blog. We now have over 20,000 bloggers participating in this program. We have generated thousands of reviews for our books.
  • Provide product samples. Assuming you have a great product—and this is a prerequisite!—the best thing you can do is “seed the market” with free samples. For example, last week on my blog, I gave away 100 free copies of Marcus Buckingham’s new book, StandOut. I generated 1,353 comments, 567 retweets, and 340 Facebook shares. More importantly for the publisher, it helped drive the book to #4 on Amazon.com’s overall sales ranking.

So how does this apply to you? Simple. You should use free to drive your marketing strategy. This can help you build your platform and launch your products. Here are ten quick idea-starters to make free work for you.

  1. Offer free samples of your product to potential customers. This could the first two chapters of your book, the first two songs from your album, or a recording of you performing live.
  2. Offer an ebook or special report in exchange for newsletter subscriptions. Hubspot is a master at this.
  3. Offer a free copy of your product to bloggers in exchange for an honest review on their blog. Start with the bloggers you know and follow.
  4. Offer free copies of your product to bigger bloggers to do a giveaway on their blog. You can offer fewer copies for smaller blogs and more copies for larger ones.
  5. Offer your time for free to people who buy various quantities of your products. Gary Vaynerchuk did this here. Phil Cooke did it here. They did it to drive the bestseller lists.
  6. Offer a free copy of the product in another format to customers who buy in your main format. (For example, offer a free copy of the audio book to everyone who buys the print book.)
  7. Offer a free ticket to anyone who gets two of their friends to buy a ticket. You will make it up in terms of merchandise sales and additional visibility.
  8. Offer free bonuses (e.g. workbook, group discussion guide, video course, etc.) to anyone who buys your main product.
  9. Offer a free membership in your paid forum or club to anyone who buys your main product.
  10. Offer a free seminar or performance and then sell your products at the event.

There are literally hundreds of other ways you can use free to drive your marketing strategy and create visibility and excitement for your products.

Question: How could you use free to drive results for your product, service, or brand? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://www.warriorshepherd.com/blog Dave Hearn

    I’m currently writing an ebook which will be for free.  I want the message out, not the money in.

    Thanks for the marketing tips, though… I definitely want to use this ebook to get to the message to the masses… I believe in it that strongly.  

    • RichardAStauch

      Getting the message out is more important to me than money, too.

      • http://www.warriorshepherd.com/blog Dave Hearn

        Thanks Richard… what’s your message?

    • http://www.bradandlindsey.com Brad Bridges

      Dave, perhaps if you are able to not only get the message out but also monetize the message, you will be able to dedicate more of your time to doing what you are most passionate about (ie getting your message out). Sorry that’s a little convoluted.

      • http://www.warriorshepherd.com/blog Dave Hearn

        Good point, Brad, you’re right.  I understand you completely…  

        My first ebook will be free… for future books, I would probably charge something….

  • http://www.paulbevans.com Paul B Evans

    At one of my sites I have 7 free white papers I give away. Actually. affiliates drive their customers to my site with an offer for a specific report. Which they get free without opt-in. Right under the download link is an opt-in form to get the other six. Conversion is great.

    On another site I give away video training called “Engage: How to Avoid Becoming a Human Tranquilizer.” Conversion on that is solid for that as well.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Two great examples. Thanks.

      • http://www.paulbevans.com Paul B Evans

        One more example for folks… Something else that has worked well for me is the #1 approach. 

        When you share a solution to the number one problem in a market and give that away for free, signs go well.

        Ex: The problem is NOT losing weight. Plenty of people do that using any of the 1,000 diets available. The REAL issue is keeping the weight off. I’ve lost 73 pounds and successfully kept it off for five years… Let me share with you my #1 secret to keeping that perfect weight in check.. Just enter your email below and you’ll immediately receive this #1 strategy for free. (And yes, anyone can do it. And no, it does not require pills or potions!)

        • http://brevis.me Robert Ewoldt

          That’s a great idea, Paul!

  • Timothy Fish

    I’ve actually had an easier time selling books at full price than giving them away free. It’s getting to the point that there is so much free stuff out there that people won’t touch it. Every “free” item has some rule attached to it, such as the requirement to review the book or the requirement to get your friends to buy tickets. Or even the simple requirement to leave a post on a blog. People are getting very selective about which free stuff they accept, and it seems like they may be even more selective of the free stuff than they are of the stuff they purchase.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I think it all depends on the content itself. As I demonstrated with my e-book and with StandOut by Marcus Buckingham, both strategies were very successful.

    • http://www.warriorshepherd.com/blog Dave Hearn

      I see what you’re shooting at, there’s something about a price that gives an implied value to a product.  But for us rookies without an established name, I still think free is the best way to go.

    • http://brevis.me Robert Ewoldt

      I agree, to a certain extent.  If something’s free, sometimes people won’t give a great value to the product, and might ignore it.  If people perceive something to have great value, then they are happy to receive it for free (like Michael’s book).  If they understand how your content will improve their lives, then they will readily take it for free.

  • Sherri

    Doesn’t this presuppose that you have a certain level of followers? I have a fairly new blog and while I think it’s growing I’m not sure if it’s big enough for something like this…or is that the whole point? 

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Yes, that is the whole point. This strategy will scale. You won’t be able to give away as much, but you can still use it.

  • Anonymous

    In the future I plan on writing an ebook about the benefits of an individual and team, finding, developing, and using their strengths. 

    These are some great points about marketing a product for free. I look forward to seeing the results.

  • http://www.jeubfamily.com Chris Jeub

    I call products that I intend to give away “flagship” products. They lead the mother ship to your niche or your audience. And yes, they are offered for free.

  • http://paulcoughlin.com Paul Coughlin

    Hi Michael,

    This subject has always been an interesting one for me.

    What intrigues me, is that people often define ‘free’ as no money changing hands. 

    With opt-in offers, squeeze pages, reward points, that’s not really free. It’s just that you don’t exchange money. But you still exchange something of value, and the person offering the ‘free’ item, wants and expects something in exchange.

    That’s why squeeze pages were called ‘squeeze’ pages – because people got squeezed. And of course, bribes are still bribes. 

    In the market of “non-financial value exchange” – we are wide open to questionable ethics, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, you do me a favour and I’ll do you a favour in return. 

    With many of these so called ‘free’ tactics, there is an implicit expectation and agreement to – something in return.

    As we all know, we need to begin with giving. But true giving does not include the condition of reciprocation – true giving is unconditional, that is completely optional, and has no bearing on whether the giving is given.

    How do we strike an effective balance? – we own the responsibility of giving in smart ways. 

    We need to be clear and up front about what we are offering, what our value and our service is, what type of people or industry segment we serve best. And perhaps most importantly, we need to be clear and up front about what people can expect from us.

    Marketing is changing so fast – people have so much choice these days, and many easy ways to make those choices.

    If people feel pressured or used, they will begrudgingly sign-up, because they want the information, but we run the risk of compromising the relationship for the sake of a transaction.

    Far better to create connections by offering value up front, be clear about who you are and what your value to the customer is, and then build relationship through those connections by providing ongoing free value, and make it very easy for people to find out more. 

    If people like your free stuff, they will pay for your higher value services and products.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post Michael..

  • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

    Great post, Michael. You should charge for these ideas! Free is an interesting word. It can drive a LOT of traffic, but it also has a bad connotation. The Free iPad syndrome, as I would call it, gives Free a bad rap. Many people don’t want the “strings” that come with it.

    On my blog, I give away a lot of things for free. I have a lot of downloadables such as the Goal Setting Toolkit, Daily Planner, and Note Taking Template that have been very popular. I hesitate, in most instances, to use the word free when promoting them. Free tends to negate value. However, when I tweet out a link to them and I use the phrase “Free Download,” I get more hits.

    One of the biggest battles in today’s marketplace is to go from Free to Fee. This is especially true for speakers. Many organizations will have you come and speak for free. When you add on a price, two things happen. Some groups shy away, but others are attracted since the act of charging a price, gives you perceived value.

    There is a great book on the subject called Free: The future of a radical price by Chris Anderson, that covers all of the nuances of the concept of free. You can download the audio book for free at http://goals4u.us/ojtPnY or buy the printed book on Amazon. Imagine charging for a book called Free..??

    • http://www.irunurun.com Travis Dommert

      Thanks John. Yes, Chris’ article in Wired Magazine and book really get you thinking differently about “free” business models…very creative!

      That said, I think you hit the nail on the head with respect to the “strings”.  People are getting VERY leery of the strings and can sniff out a catch or a marketing angle a mile away.  

      I really enjoyed a recent webinar by Social Media Examiner that extolled the virtues of truly GIVING IT AWAY.  No strings, no “just give us your email address”…just give it away to create trust and influence.  

      One of their recent research papers got so much traction that it garnered them coverage in numerous media outlets, including the WSJ…THAT was valuable.

    • http://brevis.me Robert Ewoldt

      Once you’ve given something away for free, it’s hard to start charging for it, if your audience has the expectation of “Free.”  Can you imagine what would happen if Facebook started charging to use its site?

  • http://twitter.com/rogerdooley Roger Dooley

    There’s some solid science behind “FREE!” – and it works a lot better than “almost free” – http://www.neurosciencemarketing.com/blog/articles/the-power-of-free.htm

    • http://brevis.me Robert Ewoldt

      That was a fascinating article, Roger.

  • http://tcavey.blogspot.com/ TCAvey

    Wonderful ideas, thank you!

  • Anonymous

    I think the e-book idea is excellent and something that anyone could do even on a much smaller scale. I am encouraged to try it myself to help build my “tribe.”

  • http://www.kennishahill.com Kennisha Hill

    Thanks for sharing this, Michael. I was just thinking about giving away a free e-book to build my newsletter list. I’ll definitely try your other suggestions too.

  • http://byrdmouse.com Jonathan

    I have been planning and arranging things so that I can give away a copy of my novella as an e-book for subscribers to my site. The only thing I haven’t yet figured out is how to get the emails sent automatically to new subscribers with the e-book attached (I’m using Feedburner for my email subscriptions). All I know is how to get a database and send the emails manually.

    The idea I got from here and have seen it work well for some other blogs I follow as well. 

    • http://BrandonCordoba.com Brandon Cordoba

      You need to use a email newsletter service like aweber.com you just add the link to 1 of your “follow up” messages; so once they signup it’s all automatic.

      • http://byrdmouse.com Jonathan

        Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll look into that later. I like that idea better than snail emails or creating a page for downloading and providing a password.

    • http://www.needleforthechristianbubble.com Joe Lalonde

      I agree with Brandon. aweber.com has been really popular with those sending out a product after signup. Their service seems reasonably priced and they provide great service.

      • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

        I am currently using MailChimp. I have been very happy with it.

        • http://www.needleforthechristianbubble.com Joe Lalonde

          I’ve heard of MailChimp but did not know they had that feature.

        • http://www.warriorshepherd.com/blog Dave Hearn

          Michael, I’d love to see a post on Mailchimp integration with subscriber lists, and sending out ebooks/links to subscribers…

          just an idea.

          • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

            Thanks, Dave. Unfortunately, I don’t think I could write that post. I have my developer do all the work.

          • http://www.warriorshepherd.com/blog Dave Hearn

            No problem… maybe I can convince Jeff Goins to do a post on the subject…

          • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

            Jeff would be great!

          • http://byrdmouse.com Jonathan

            Well I was going to say if Michael doesn’t do it it might be over my head since there are things he does that are over my head technically. But if Jeff will post on it I’ll be good since I follow him, too.

  • http://www.rajeshsetty.com/blog/ rajesh301

    Thanks for sharing a ton of ideas here Michael. 

    A couple of years ago, I wrote about a business case for giving away your best work for free here:
    http://www.tompeters.com/dispatches/010845.php

    Have a great day.

    Best,
    Raj

  • http://www.CFinancialFreedom.com Dr. Jason Cabler

    I’m currently working on a new section for my “Celebrating Financial Freedom” home study course that I will give away to help stimulate demand for the course itself and to generate subscribers.  

    I’ll be interested to see how it works!

    • http://www.bradandlindsey.com Brad Bridges

      I’m looking forward to receiving that new section to get a better idea of your CFF course. Great job utilizing a giveaway to generate interest. Could you send me a copy of the new section once it’s done? Thanks.

      • http://www.CFinancialFreedom.com Dr. Jason Cabler

        It will probably be a couple of months before its done.  The easiest way to get the new section would be to go ahead and subscribe and then you will receive the announcement when it is made.  That way you can also get a feel for what I do and how I approach personal finance until then.  I will keep you in mind and try to alert you through your “contact” page on your website.

  • http://thoughtsaboutnothing.com @kylereed

    For me in the blog design business I have done a lot of free tutorials on different elements that I have been working on. Trying to show people how they can do certain things. In some ways I think it either empowers people to go and discover more or it shows them that it is a bit much and they need to hire me to do it for them. 

    I have been kicking around the ebook free model to gain email subscriptions for a while. i think that model has some serious benefits to it. I have been working on trying to find some content that I can share that is both beneficial to readers and also can stand on its own. 

    • http://www.needleforthechristianbubble.com Joe Lalonde

      Kyle, sounds like doing some great work. I hope you’re able to gain some business and followers from the next eBook you release!

  • http://www.davidashleyonline.com David Ashley

    You mentioned building mailing lists in this post…Is email still king as far as staying connected? Or should we be giving away things in exchange for “likes” on Facebook, etc.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      It’s not either/or. I do both. Email rocks because you have the person’s contact information.

      • http://byrdmouse.com Jonathan

        While Facebook likes are good, they seem to me to be fleeting. Still good to go after mind you, but less committement required, easier to rescind with an unlike. The email seems better because of the contact information exchanging hands, more like a business card it allows both parties to re-connect later.

  • http://www.likeawarmcupofcoffee.com Sarah Mae

    Great post and ideas, as usual. :)

    Depending on your product, you could give it away for free for a certain limited about of time in exchange for those who received for free to spread the word.
    I did this with my eBook because I wanted to break out of my own sphere of influence, and boy did it work! I gave away 2000 free copies, but have since sold around 20,000 copies. 

    • http://www.warriorshepherd.com/blog Dave Hearn

      Good idea… !

    • http://www.needleforthechristianbubble.com Joe Lalonde

      Sarah, that thought popped into my mind when I saw this blog post. The Domino Project has done this recently with books that they published. It created a lot of buzz and helped their books rise to the best seller list on Amazon.

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com Ed_Cyzewski

    Could the magic formula be something like this?

    Perceived value of book/product + free product (multiplied by influence of recipients) = Effectiveness of free promotion

    Is there anything I’m missing here? 

    In using myself as an example: I self-published a book titled: A Path to Publishing: What I Learned by Publishing a Nonfiction Book. I got great endorsements and reviews, but I think I botched the use of free in promoting the book. I stuck the book’s marketing chapter up on its website, but I don’t use that in my newsletter sign up or anywhere else for that matter. I really need to rethink my strategy with that book. It seems that many authors such as myself are not allocating our resources effectively… Thanks for this post. It really speaks to my short-comings as an author!

    One last question: Does anyone see publisher promotions turning exclusively to ebooks and pdf formats in the future? It seems like the days of proofs and promotional mailings are numbered.

    • http://brevis.me Robert Ewoldt

      I don’t know that I see promotions turning exclusively to ebooks and PDFs.  I think you’ll only see that if you see the entire book industry turn that way, where everyone owns an electronic reader and buys all their books that way.  It might happen to a certain extent, but I think there will always be a market (however small) for bound books, and promotions will be the same way.

      Something I also think you’ll run into in that regard is how blogger giveaways would work in that scenario.  For instance, Michael gives away 100 books from the publisher… how would he do that, if all promotions are in ebook format?  There would have to be a really easy delivery system for doing that in promotions.  And I think that to develop such a system might cost more than you get out of it (unless you could piggy-back it on another, profitable system).

      • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

        I think you could do the e-book giveaways with digital coupons. It would actually be much cheaper for the publisher, because they wouldn’t have the shipping and handling.

        • http://brevis.me Robert Ewoldt

          I thought of that, but it really would only work if all your winners opted to receive it that way. Maybe you could do two options… you could opt to get an e-book, or you could opt to get the bound book. It might mean more administrative time (figuring out who gets which version), but it could save you some money on the giveaway as a whole (depending on your printing costs vs. your admin’s time cost).

          Do publishers already use coupon codes to giveaway product on places like Amazon?

        • Steve Eunpu

          The challenge I had was how do I send a digital book directly to specific devices (iPad, Kindle, etc.) for a specific period of time and request user information. I also don’t want easy-to-forward PDF copies out there.  I am creating a new software platform for the collection of data and delivery of a  free book to specific devices without changing the established price on paid sites.  I would eager to share this with you Michael to get your comments.  I plan on using this for titles I release as part of our PR plan.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for introducing me to Booksneeze.   Can’t wait to check it out.

  • http://talesofwork.com kimanzi constable

    I think it’s a genius idea to offer free copies of your book if you’re going to guest post on a bigger blog!

  • Fr. Charles Erlandson

    I’ve written a daily devotional for the Gospel of St. Matthew and am offering a free ebook on my new website. I want to get it into people’s hands. But in spite of my (newbie) efforts I don’t seem to be attracting many people to download it. I wish I knew more about how to let people know about it.

  • RichardAStauch

    It’s part of the cost of advertising. It is called name recognition. Every successful company had to accomplish this. I can’t tell you how frustrating it has been to get my own friends and family to realize I’ve changed course from computer guy to singer/songwriter!  Nobody I know has even bought one Single I’ve released. Name recognition! Didn’t Jesus say that no prophet is without honor, except in his own hometown, and with his own family? Yeah, I get it. 

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  • http://twitter.com/NathanAndersonJ Nathan Anderson

    Hi Michael, 

    Great post as always. Got me thinking…I just published my first book, “Jak and the Scarlet Thread.” It’s the first in a series of young adult/tween fantasy novels that will span the entire Bible. 
    Could I send you a free copy to review, and then several more free copies to give away on your blog? :)  
    Have a great day!

    Nathan J. Anderson

  • http://www.needleforthechristianbubble.com Joe Lalonde

    Loved your suggestions on how you could use free to help market your goods. Keeping this tucked away for when I get a product up and running.

    Here are a couple of ways I think you could use free to drive results for a product –

    Offer your ebook free for a limited time(a week or two), no strings attached. This can create an unusual amount of buzz about your book.

    A twist on your number 10- Offer your speaking for free, ask that the organization purchase X amount of books or product

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ROL5DDKUQ5K4U5ZXKXDQ2DY2KY Fatima

    Great  Strategic ideas.

    LED signs

  • http://brevis.me Robert Ewoldt

    Michael, I like the suggestions that you’ve given.  I agree with your comment about free driving customer expectation and consumer behavior.  I think about the news industry’s foray into free product (on the Internet), and how that’s really hobbled their entire industry for several years.  Only now are some newspapers starting to charge for online content.  And I think they should!

    I think what you did with your Life Plan e-book is excellent… using it to build a subscriber base, to gain more eyeballs.

  • Tamara Vann

    Wonderful suggestions. All of these really work. They do need to be backed up with great service and products though. This video can help companies take these free ideas and build on them with customer service that gets referrals and keeps them coming: http://www.upyourservice.com/video-theater/how-do-you-build-and-sustain-a-superior-service-culture

  • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

    Offering a free copy of our product to bloggers in exchange for an honest review on our blog.  Yup! II believe that makes a perfect sense. 

  • http://www.checkmatesystem.com/ Mary

    Reading your post made me realize that I like to sample what I’m considering purchasing.  I’m careful with money but I don’t mind spending it if I’m sure I’m getting value.  For eBooks, I can see where a free one would help me sample that author.  It’s not like I can flip through the book at a store …  books is one area where I still spend money – I can’t get enough great books!

  • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

    Your advice dovetails nicely with what I’ve observed with authors and bloggers. This post gives impetus to ideas already bouncing around in my head plus additional specifics concerning what to offer, how to offer, and why.

  • Brad

    I’m new to the site. Loving it by the way. I had a question. I’m an independent artist and I’ve decided to give away past cds (about to compile all the songs to one cd) for marketing by them giving an email in return. But what I’m learning is that people are a bit skittish to give their email. Are you finding the same? Do you have any pointers of how it’s worked for you to ease their minds?

    Thanks!
    Brad Ewing
    http://www.bradewing.com (get your free music at the site, too). :)

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      You have to build a long-term relationship of trust, explicitly promise them that you won’t sell or share their email address (privacy guarantee), and then offer something they really want.

      • Brad Ewing

        Thanks. I’m trying to do those things. We’ll see how it goes. 

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  • aleena rose

    Continue the good work; keep posting more n more n more.
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