Digital marketing has always been a lucrative business, but it has only grown in value throughout the annus horribilis of 2020 with so many legacy companies needing to enter the online world (and so many professionals choosing to build their own operations).
The stakes have gone up accordingly. The effective promotion will reap great rewards: the alternative is being totally ignored.
Due to this, companies of all shapes and sizes are currently looking ahead to 2021 with an eye to figuring out their marketing strategies. With a new year comes fresh opportunities. How are they going to stand out? What complex schemes can they devise to enhance their reputations?
In truth, though, you don’t exactly need any complex schemes. More often than not, the correct path ahead involves the smart use of simple tried-and-tested techniques.
One such technique is the convincing deployment of free offers. Whether you are selling products or offering services, you can always get somewhere if you are willing to embrace that magic word: free.
But why is the free offer so consistently persuasive? How does it outperform so many tactics that are significantly more nuanced? That is what we are going to discuss here, so let’s begin.
1. Free offer plays into the deep-seated desire to compete and win
As much as we like to tell ourselves that we make decisions calmly and rationally, that simply isn’t true. Logic does have a role to play, of course, but it often gets overridden by our emotional states.
Consider grocery store reductions. Have you ever been in a store, see something you wouldn’t otherwise buy, and purchased it simply because it was marked down for some reason?
I’ve done that plenty of times, and continue to do it: when I spot a pile of reduced items, there is an excellent chance that I’ll grab several.
Barring rare exceptions, it isn’t a matter of taking the opportunity to get something for a price I consider fair, as with someone watching a particular product closely to see when the cost comes down. It is a matter of winning.
We all want to compete and win. It is in our genes, and it is how we made it this far. When you spot something being given away, you see a clear opportunity to win the exchange: you gain something but lose nothing, making you the victor.
This makes you feel good about yourself, thinking about all those who’ve had to pay for what you’ve been freely handed.
This feeling of winning is why gambling services lean so heavily on free offers and introductory bonuses. Take a moment to read up on how the best casinos for online slots deploy complex welcome packages — given the inherent disadvantage of fruit machines, the best slot sites are those coming up with clever ways to give the impression of player advantage.
The house always wins in the end, but players can be convinced that they can get in, win, and get out.
2. Free offer helps people lie to themselves about their motivations
The desire to win is often subconscious, and it isn’t something we tend to fight against — but that doesn’t mean we want to openly admit it either.
Think about that interaction of reason and emotion: the former serves as a shield, allowing us to justify our actions when they don’t work out. If you buy a well-reviewed product that turns out to be mediocre, you can feel aggrieved.
Anyone who has ever had issues controlling their eating habits will know how embarrassing it can be to binge-eat for no convincing reason.
When you know it comes down to how you feel, you can struggle to deal with the shame. That is why there is always the temptation to deceive ourselves — and one way we deceive ourselves is by lying about our motivations to make them (and our decisions) seem less worthy of criticism.
When you eat a huge pizza by yourself, you can say that you were simply trying to support a local business and didn’t want to waste food. That’s noble enough, surely. Similarly, when you want to buy something or sign up for a service but worry that you are being self-indulgent, being presented with a free offer can give you the slight edge you need.
You didn’t sign up because you were being indulgent — of course not. You signed up because it was a frugal decision. You weren’t making an emotional decision: you were being rational, coldly exploiting a generous value proposition.
In short, extending a free offer is commonly about giving someone just enough of an excuse to do what they wanted to do but didn’t feel sufficiently justified in doing. Also, the best free gifts can be surprisingly cheap.
3. Free offer shows compelling confidence in what’s being offered
Lastly, the free offer is so persuasive because it shows absolute confidence in both what is being offered and the brand doing the offering.
You might assume that making something free will inevitably devalue it, but that isn’t the case — to use an unsavory comparison, giving out free samples of narcotics doesn’t devalue them. It gets people hooked so they’ll pay for more.
When you extend a free offer, you are saying that you don’t need financial recompense for the value you are giving away. You are so confident that you’ll make money in the long term that you are willing to take a hit in the short term.
Once the recipients of your largesse get a taste of the quality of your products and/or services, they’ll be perfectly content to pay whatever you normally charge — even if it is more than they would pay for alternative solutions.
Consider that the businesses lacking confidence in their products and services won’t offer them for free: they’ll require payment first, knowing that buyer’s remorse is likely to follow and sink their chances of getting repeat customers.
When they succeed, it isn’t through loyal patronage: it is through finding ways to widen the gap between what they offer and what they seem to offer.
Think about the difference between fast-food items you see in commercials (impeccably presented with the most visually-arresting ingredients), and those you can actually buy. If you truly have something great to offer, you don’t need such trickery: you can let it speak for itself and cultivate real devotion to your brand.
4. Free offer gives you the chance to positively surprise people
The moment you add a price tag to something, you generate an expectation regarding the value.
Charge $10 for a meal and a prospective buyer will expect it to be worth roughly that much of their money. This is good in one sense (they won’t be upset if it isn’t that great), but it is also bad in the sense that it reduces the likelihood of them being impressed.
Suppose that you took a $50 item and offered it for $10 as a promotion, for instance. Before purchasing it, a shopper would likely take note of that reduction, and it would lead them to assume that it signified a fundamental issue with the product.
Why else would it be so heavily reduced? If it is being sold for $10, they might think, then it is surely only worth $10, meaning the seller is using deceptive framing to give the impression that it is losing out.
But if you took that item and offered it for free as some kind of bonus, the recipient might not know about the usual cost or have particular expectations. If anything, they might expect the free product to be utterly useless, leading to them being very pleasantly surprised to discover that it is actually a high-quality item.
That doesn’t mean they’ll immediately want to buy another one, of course — but that kind of positive surprise lasts, and can shape their view of your brand.
To recap, then, there are several core reasons why free offers are such potent digital marketing tools.
They give consumers opportunities to win, allow them to justify actions they already wanted to take, make the brands presenting them seem incredibly confident, and allow the recipients to try the things offered with open minds.
And since free offers in the digital realm can be as simple as digital materials (guides, articles, etc.), there is really no reason why you shouldn’t use them to enhance your business.
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Kayleigh Alexandra is a part-time writer at WriterZone and content writer for Micro Startups, your online destination for everything startup. She’s passionate about hard-working solopreneurs and SMEs making waves in the business world. Visit the blog for your latest dose of startup and charity insights from top experts around the globe @getmicrostarted.