Be Careful With 'Free': Guinea Pigs Teach Internet Marketing

Ian Lurie

It’s tempting to offer stuff for free to lure in customers. And it can work (sometimes).
Overused, it’ll actually lead to unhappy customers, not happy ones.
Here’s how my family’s new pets re-taught me this lesson.

The Guinea Pigs Hated Me

My kids persuaded me to adopt a pair of guinea pigs: Gandalf (my son’s) and Crystal (my daughter’s).

First, I did not name Gandalf. That was entirely Harrison. With maybe a smidge of prompting by me. Second, I sort of encouraged them to persuade me to adopt the guinea pigs. Sue me.

I am a definite animal lover. I had cats for 20 years, and before that had a menagerie: A bird, a bunny rabbit, a hermit crab and a cat, all in one house.
So I took it hard when our two new rodents spurned me. In fact, they seemed to hate me. If I went near their cage they ran for their little plastic igloos, and didn’t come out until I backed away.
My audience hated me. I fed them, built their cage, cleaned their little pill-shaped poos out of it every day, and they hated me. Argh.

My Plan: Bribe the Audience

Luckily, I have experience with small creatures that fear me.
I gave them treats: Slices of orange, a little lettuce, vitamin C (required anyway) and the occasional flat of wheat grass. In no time, they loved me. Every time I went to the cage, I got a great reception:
the guinea pigs love me
My marketing campaign worked! Instead of the Furless Two-Legged Oppressor, I was now the Bringer of Things Tasty and Good.
Of course, they didn’t really like me, did they? Here’s what they were really saying when they came to the side of the cage, squeaking like little sopranos:
alas, he doesn't really love me
But I fooled myself. And for a while, it worked. My free stuff brought them to the side of the cage, without fail.
It’ll work with customers, too, for a little while. If you offer them a free product, or free services, or something else gratis, they’ll love you for it. Until they get used to it.

Argh. I’m not trying to say customers are rodents. It’s 10 pm. I’ve worked all day. Guinea pigs are cute. Just work with me on this OK?

The Plan Backfires: Free Is Expected

After a while, any giveaway backfires, as it changes from treat to expectation.
reality sets in
As entitlement sets in, the free stuff loses its appeal because it loses its value. Then you’re left with nothing, because you haven’t established value for anything else either.

The Sad Conclusion

Eventually, you have to take away the free stuff. Let me tell you, the audience doesn’t like it, at all. I trained my guinea pigs to expect handouts. You do the same with your customers.
gandalf resents me
No value, no freebies. You’ve done nothing to create a real, long-term market for yourself. You bought some short-term happiness and a few customers that probably didn’t earn you a thing. That’s it.
Crystal plots against me

Prevent Freebie Meltdown

It’s OK to give a little away, in very small samples. But use it as an introduction, not as a product. My tips:

  1. Never give something away on its own. Pair it with a follow-up service or product. At least get a signup for updates or something similar.
  2. Don’t allow repetitive giveaways. Take reasonable action to prevent one person from getting the same freebie again and again.
  3. Don’t remind the customer. Constantly reminding them you gave them something for free makes them feel guilty, not appreciative.
  4. Make your freebie buzzworthy. Turn each recipient into a referral source with stuff they’ll want to brag about.

A Happy Ending

I did, finally, train the guinea pigs to like me without food. And it’s a good lesson: I just kept coming over and scratching their little, brainless heads. They started to expect that, instead. Still a freebie, but I got a benefit, too: The little purring sound they make when happy.
You can do the same: Instead of free stuff, win them over with great stuff and great service. Sure, give some of it away for free. Just make sure you get something in return.
And please, don’t tell your customers I compared them to guinea pigs.
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Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. You mean my pigs aren’t shouting ‘love you, lucy, love you lots!’ when I walk past without giving them the expected treat?
    Great metaphor … great lesson. Thanks!

  2. I like the analogy. I thought the ‘A Happy Ending’ section was going to read like:
    “You can do the same: Instead of free stuff, win them over by stroking your customers heads.”

  3. So true! Free stuff can be a great way to get attention or to motivate a desired action, but if it isn’t furthering and reinforcing a relationship that would exist anyways, there really will be no long term value…on either side. As far as dealing with greedy guinea pigs, you might want to let them know what happens to cuy in Peru.

  4. @Lucy I think mine are saying ‘REDRUM’ in really high-pitched voices, but I’m not sure. Glad you liked it. The pigs inspired me.
    Also glad I’m not the only person who calls them ‘pigs’ for short 🙂

  5. Guinea Pigs purr? That’s news to me.
    Anyway, I totally agree. But even having people sign up to win something free by getting on a newsletter list will backfire if they only do it to win and later unsubscribe. Or they’ll clog up your list with e-mails you have to pay for when they will never buy anything. It’s a fine line.

  6. They do indeed – it’s actually more of a happy little chittering sound, which sounds a lot like their angry sound. The difference is they’ll curl up in your lap when they’re purring, and bite you when they’re angry.
    Sort of like customers.
    I’m kidding…

  7. A guinea pig marketing strategy! I adopted two guinea pigs for my son. Nathan and Sparky. They are funny tittle creatures running around leaving surprises everywhere.
    You can met my pet guinea pigs pet guinea pigs at my blog.

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