The Myth of 'Free' Marketing (And How To Sell Respectfully Instead)

My wife is kind
This weekend she granted me a lie-in and did the 6am shift with our toddler instead. You see, I’ve been more tired than usual. Over the past few weeks I’ve given two free presentations about how to build a knockout social media personality.

The events were marketed as ‘free’, as no one had to pay to attend.

But were they truly ‘free’? 
At the end of the event, I chatted with some of the small business owners about the idea of ‘free’. And they know (like we all do) that the word ‘free’ almost always comes with strings attached. Whether it's a free event, a free white paper or a complimentary gym session, there's almost always a ‘sell’ further down the line. Some are very pushy, a few are gentle and respectful.

Often, as a customer, we hold our breath and hope that it's not going to be a pushy sell, in exchange for what was given as 'free'.

Yet, it’s expected isn’t it? That’s how marketing works, right?
Give a bit, sell a lot. And that's fine if you believe in that philosophy. But there’s a sense of disappointment if you download a free piece of content, only to then be pestered and 'sold to' for the next 6 months.

So why does this happen?

The first reason is there is an abundance of ‘snake oil marketers’ out there
You know who they are. Those charlatans that give you poor, low-quality content, like a free white paper, course or video. And then…well, you probably know what happens next.

You will have given them your email address, downloaded the dubious pdf (or whatever content it may be) and then afterwards you get relentlessly bullied into buying a product. And this continues until they either give up on you or you block their emails using your spam filter.

The second reason is more psychological
When we say ‘free’ we often confuse two codes of behaviour. These two 'codes' are a ‘Social Code’ of behaviour and what’s known as a ‘Market Code’ of behaviour.

The Social Code dictates that if you give something to me with the word 'free' attached to it, then it should be out of the goodness of your heart. No money should change hands.

Yet if we offer someone a 'free gift’, and then try to sell something else to that person afterwards, then confusion (and often offence) arises. This is because following that Social Code of behaviour (i.e. the offer of a free gift) we then introduced a ‘Market Code’ (i.e. now buy this from me). Our free offer isn’t as free as we said it was. It says: ‘we’re going to sell to you, even though we said initially it was free'.

We’ve mixed the two codes together. When this happens, people get annoyed and confused, because what they thought was free, actually isn’t.

If, however, we are upfront and transparent from the very start that we will be promoting something after the initial free stuff, it prepares people. And therefore they are more likely to be receptive.

For example, let's say a friend invited you over for a meal
If we go to a friend’s house for dinner, no money changes hands. It's a social trade. We might bring a gift of chocolates or flowers, but we don't offer our friend money for the cost of the meal. If we did, we would be mixing a market code into a social situation and we probably wouldn’t get invited back!

How can we make a living without misleading our customers?
Clearly we must be completely transparent, honest and upfront at the start of our relationship with any potential customers. This shows you respect them and importantly, it helps them to trust you.

There are three ways you can do this:

1). When you use the word ‘free’, say what will happen next. Gyms do this all the time. They say that the first class is free, then you have to pay. They are clear from the start about the trade off.
So if say, you give someone a 'free video' to download, let them know what will happen next. Like it or not, it's respectful to your customers to make them aware of the process to come.

2). Use an 'embedded sale'. That's where you mention the product or service as part of your content. For example, your product can be subtly woven into something free (like my newsletter where I mention my new Instagram book). See what I did there? I mentioned my Instagram book. I was effectively selling, yet the example fitted here, so it's permissible. Plus I just told you that I was 'selling', so that's a double bonus.

3). Just do something for free and leave any products out of it. Hope that people will come back to you another time. This approach does work, it's just that you have less control.

But what if you are making sales from being pushy?
What if it's a numbers game for you, where perhaps you only want 1% to buy your product and it doesn't matter about the other 99% who don't buy?

This can work very well for businesses, don't get me wrong. But my issue with it is that it's much harder to build a brand and a long-term business this way. If you always play the numbers game, then you always have to push hard to make a sale.

Alternatively, if you play the respectful game of building up customers’ trust, then you win in the longer term.
That’s why big brands often advertise without any sales message at all (remember the 1998 Guinness ‘Surfer’ ad with the horses? Notice the lack of sales message in it). It’s all about entertaining people, to get them to like you, to remember you and to trust you. So (in Guinness's case) people were more likely to think of that brand the next time they wanted a beer.

What am I doing about it at The Big Apricot?
I refer to my new products and services within an email, blog post, presentation or newsletter. You'll see it at the end in a ‘PS.’ for example. From time to time, I'll ask if you want to buy a product or download a sample of a product. But I won't push. Ever.

Apart from that, what I produce is free. I'd say about 99% free, 1% sell. And, in my eyes, that's a much better and more respectful way of doing business.

Why? Because our ability to smell b*llsh*t is getting sharper and sharper.
And rightly so. We’ve grown up getting used to the fact that the word ‘free’ doesn’t really mean free. So why perpetuate this 'free' myth any more?

Plus, it helps me sleep better at night, so I need fewer lie-ins.

So that's my free bit done.

See what I did there?! ;o)

Toodle Pip,

Simon | The Chief Apricot

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