Be Careful With ‘Free’: Guinea Pigs Teach Internet Marketing
Ian Lurie Apr 21 2008
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- Don’t allow repetitive giveaways. Take reasonable action to prevent one person from getting the same freebie again and again.
- Don’t remind the customer. Constantly reminding them you gave them something for free makes them feel guilty, not appreciative.
- 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.
CEO & Founder
Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent. He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Forbes.com and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, SIC and ad:Tech. Follow him on Twitter at portentint. He also just published a book about strategy for services businesses: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle. Read More