Does Your "Free" Offer Have a Dark Side?

Posted by Brad Douglas on Aug 3, 2016 10:57:05 AM


"Free" is proven to lift controls. But beware of overusing it.

I recently read a blog post by Paul Bobanack titled “How Much is ‘Free’ Worth?” I recommend you give it a read.

His post got me thinking more about how “free” is generally used — and often overused — along with other less effective aspects of its use.  

Don’t get me wrong. “Free” is one of DM’s superheroes. It can’t be beat when it comes to lifting response rates and moving product. It has the power to make readers perk up and ask “What’s in it for me?”

Free also draws your eye to a spot on the page, makes you take notice, and fulfills our desire to get something for nothing — and who doesn’t want that! The use of “free” is and probably always will be the undisputed champ at lifting lagging controls. That’s why I often recommend its use.

But, like most superheroes, it can have a dark side worth considering.

Factor in the full cost of "free"

Keen marketers know free offers have their limits because you really can’t get something for nothing. So let’s look at the potential drawbacks.

As a reader, “free” can trigger a common sense “What’s the catch?” reaction. This threatens to turn a budding relationship with your prospect into something adversarial as they try to figure out what you’re hiding. The most famous of these may be giving away a vacation in return for submitting to a timeshare sales presentation. In a situation like this, if the marketing is revealed to be unclear or deceitful, it will stop working. That’s when free becomes expensive for your DM campaign.

A different problem is that there’s often no turning back once you’ve grown accustomed to the improved response rates generated by “free.” You can become addicted to its ability to get results and begin to over-rely on it. It can also cheapen your brand. It’s why you don’t see Nordstrom offering BOGO offers on shoes, for example. They leave that for the outlets and discounters.

Proceed with caution

So does the word “free” lift response rates? You bet. Should you continue to use it? Without a doubt.

But you’ve got to know when using it is a good idea because the F-word comes with baggage. So proceed with caution to avoid turning off some consumers or potentially devaluing your brand.

Most of all, make sure the use of “free” is not your only strategy. Because even superheroes can have a dark side.

Topics: Direct Mail, Acquisition

Brad Douglas

Written by Brad Douglas

Brad has more than 25 years of leadership experience in agency-side and client-side direct marketing, including deep sales strategy expertise in the financial, insurance, telecom, and resort industries.