It’s been called the most powerful word in the history of marketing, as powerful today as it has ever been.
It’s been called the most overused and overrated word in the history of marketing, nothing more than a gimmick used to seduce and often deceive the consumer.
Many will say “free” works because it triggers a strong emotional response. It immediately creates the perception that no risk is involved. If the product or service sucks, at least you didn’t pay for it.
Others will say “free” doesn’t work because the emotional response it triggers isn’t always positive. People may think there’s a catch. A hidden risk. Sure, you say it’s free, but there must be some fine print somewhere. People may also think something offered for free has little or no value. It cheapens the product.
In the specific case of email marketing, MailChimp recommends avoiding the word “free” in subject lines because it triggers spam filters. However, HubSpot has published the results of A/B tests that showed the word “free” had no effect on email deliverability.
Even the spam filters can’t agree about whether “free” is a good or bad thing.
What Does “Free” Really Mean?
By definition, in the context of marketing, something is free if it doesn’t require a payment. But for many of us, the definition isn’t black and white.
If you’re offering a free set of earbuds with the purchase of a new smartphone, one could reasonably say they’re not really free. They have to make a purchase, and they’re paying for the smartphone and the earbuds.
If you’re offering a free trial of a service, does it automatically roll into a paid subscription? If you sign up to view a free demo or receive a free quote, will you be added to mailing lists and receive an endless barrage of sales pitches?
In other words, the ensuing inconvenience and aggravation aren’t free in the eyes of many. Time is money, right?
A Lindt Truffle or a Hershey Kiss?
In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely tested the power of the word “free” when offering people a choice between a Lindt truffle and a Hershey Kiss.
When the Lindt truffle was priced at 15 cents and the Hershey Kiss was priced at 1 cent, 73 percent of study participants chose the truffle.
When a different group was offered these products for a penny less – the Lindt truffle for 14 cents and the Hershey Kiss for free – 69 percent chose the Hershey Kiss.
This study tells us that the word “free” can motivate people to buy differently, even when the value and quality of the product hasn’t changed.
Ariely also points out that people hate to lose out on things and instinctively reach for low-hanging fruit when it presents no risk and requires no effort.
While this exercise does speak to the power of the word “free,” it doesn’t mean everyone should run out and use it in their marketing.
Will “free” attract the kind of customers you want?
The same general rule that applies to most widely used marketing tactics applies to the use of the word “free.” It can be helpful when used intelligently and in the right context.
Think about not only how the word will be perceived, but also the kinds of customers it will attract.
“Free” might make sense as an incentive in a direct response advertising campaign when the goal is to sell as much stuff as possible as quickly as possible.
“Free” probably won’t make sense if you’re offering a professional service. For example, lawyers don’t want to be viewed as a commodity. They don’t want to attract discount shoppers. They want to build long-term, profitable relationships and gain referrals.
In some heavily regulated industries, the Federal Trade Commission offers long, complicated guidelines for use of the word “free” in marketing. Ignore these guidelines at your own risk.
“Free” Works Best When Surrounded by Good Content
Too many marketers use “free” as a crutch. Either they can’t come up with something compelling to say about their product or service, or they don’t want to put any effort into their marketing.
It kind of reminds me of the old days of search. The message didn’t matter much as long as you stuffed your content with keywords.
“Free” can add value to your message and your offer, but it can’t manufacture value out of thin air.
In many cases, “free” is a throw away word, almost like a marketing cliché that business owners and marketers feel must be included in their marketing.
For example, they offer free estimates or a free consultation even though no other business in their category charges for an estimate or consultation. In that case, “free” has no value and isn’t a selling point.
Even if you use “free” intelligently, you still need to understand your audience. You still need a strong headline that resonates with your audience. You still need to show how your product or service solves a problem, fills a need or makes their lives better. You still need a call-to-action that tells them exactly what you want them to do next.
In other words, you still need to do the work.
My Take on the Word “Free”
I’m in the red flag camp.
Maybe I’m a cynic, but unless “free” is coming from a person or company I know and trust, I’ve been conditioned to believe that there’s always a catch. A hidden charge or obligation. A flood of solicitations in my future.
I also don’t use “free” in my marketing. My proposals, consultations, and subscriptions to the McBlog are free, but I don’t describe them that way. In this case, “free” doesn’t add value for some of the reasons mentioned previously.
As a provider of a professional service, I don’t do free. Outside of the occasional pro bono project, my business is for-profit.
I’ll offer high-level feedback on a potential client’s existing content for free, but in-depth analysis is something I charge for.
I’ve kicked around the idea of offering free stuff, but I always come back to the same line of thinking.
There’s value to that. So I should charge for that.
But that’s the nature of my business, and my reasoning may not be valid for your business.
Do you use the word “free” in your marketing? In what context? Is it working?
What’s your reaction when you see “free” in marketing directed at you?
I’m a content writer, marketing consultant, lifelong New Jersey resident, husband to a beautiful wife and father to two beautiful girls. I love playing with my daughters, a day at the boardwalk, sarcasm, craft beer and grilling. I despise beating around the bush, synchronized swimming, Toddlers & Tiaras and onions. Most people don’t know I used to be a radio DJ and once wrote, produced and voiced a commercial for the TV show 24. Two places I want to visit before I die are Ireland and Norway, the homes of my ancestors. One place I never want to revisit is my first apartment because my creepy landlord, Monty, freaked me out. That just about covers it.