Is your ‘FREE’ content really Free?

What do you think when you read or hear the word “free”? To me, it means that I don’t have to pay or give anything for whatever is being offered. I can just take or consume whatever it is on offer for “free”. Most of us have this concept pretty clear in our minds.

Yet, for those who do online marketing for their businesses, we offer “free” stuff all the time. But do we really? Are those “free downloads”, “free webinars”, “free mini-courses”, “free trials” really free?

Way back in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and part of the 1990s, people would listen to the radio to hear the latest hits. It was pretty much the only way to listen to what were brand new hits. If a song really got ya groovin’, then you went out and bought the album, tape or CD. People were happy to pay the money to listen to that song whenever they wanted.

They had a choice -- they listened to the songs for free on the radio whenever the station decided to play them or they could go out, buy a copy themselves and listen to it whenever it struck their fancy.

The point is if a song resonated enough with someone, they could go out and purchase a copy of the song or the album. Free first and, if they liked it, they could pay for it.

Let’s fast forward to today. At some point in the world of online marketing, the concept of an email list as being one of a business’s most powerful marketing assets came into play. Everyone wanted to (and still pretty much does) collect email addresses so they could be used to engage and put potential customers and clients into sequences which would, hopefully, lead to a sale.

We see ads and posts and websites all the time claiming to offer a “free download” or “free webinar” or “free assessment”. When you click on those call-to-action buttons, you are either re-directed to a landing page or you’re faced with a pop-up telling you to put in your email address to obtain said “free offer”. The purpose of these pop-ups and landing pages is to get that valuable asset – your email address.

Wait – I have to give my email address in order to get this “free offer”, right? Now let’s say you had a booth at a conference and a big sign that said “free candy”. I go over to your booth and want to try this free candy. Now, if I was reaching in to grab one, would you pull the candy bowl away and tell me that I had to provide an email address first before I could get that “free candy”? I highly doubt it.

Yet, this is exactly what we do all the time in online ads, our websites, our social media posts – we offer something for “free” that can benefit our customers or clients and then when they go to take the offer, we yank it away and “gate the content” so that they have to provide their email address first.

Think back to the booth at the conference. If you yanked away that bowl of “free candy” away from me just as I was reaching in to pick one, I would be appalled and shocked. That’s really ballsy to yank something away from someone after offering it for free and then telling them that really it isn’t free, that I have to provide an email address first and THEN I could have it for free. Who would ever do that face-to-face? No one.

And yet, in the faceless online world, we do this exact same thing except with landing pages and pop-ups doing the dirty work of yanking the “free offer” away from the fingers of our potential customers or clients.

Why do we feel this is acceptable behavior just because it’s online?

Think about it for a moment – we offer something for free and then yank it away and tell someone they must provide their email address in order to get access to it. It’s kinda mean when you think about those same behaviors in a face-to-face situation.

We’ve all become accustomed to offer our email in exchange for a “free offer”. It’s just how it is. For me? I have 2 different email accounts I use to get those offers. Why? Because I actually see my email as private and only want to invite those with whom I want to develop a relationship into my inbox.

I’ve had too many examples of times when I exchanged my email for a “free offer” only to be bombarded with emails about their products or services or latest podcast episodes.

The challenge with taking up a “free offer” is that I don’t have enough knowledge or an accurate assessment of whether my values will match up with the business offering the “freebie” or if their products and services will actually help solve a challenge or problem I’m currently facing. I can’t make that assessment until I get that “free offer” and can evaluate whether their values and products and services actually are a fit for me.

To help me decide, I use one of my 2 email accounts set up for the purpose of assessing “free offers”. After receiving the “free offer” from the business, if I feel we have alignment in values and I think they can help with my challenge, I sign back up with my real email address. If I don’t feel that they’re a good fit, I leave them to email an account that is rarely checked.

You might ask, ‘Why not just unsubscribe from their emails instead of using a rarely accessed account?’. The reason is that I look forward to opening my regular inboxes because I know that the emails I receive are of value to me and I like the businesses who have “graduated” from my “offers only” email accounts. When I did sign up for those offers with my daily-accessed email account, I often got frustrated with seeing so many emails that I didn’t necessarily want clogging up my inbox. I created the other 2 emails to prevent that from happening.

If, as online businesses, we truly are offering something for free, then let it be free. Allow people to consume the content right away and THEN decide if they want to offer their email address to you. I’ve heard a lot of discussion about getting people to consume the “free” content they gave their email for. Apparently, the rates are abysmal. I wonder why…

Giving truly free content and allowing the consumer to choose whether they want more information from you solves a couple of problems:

1) it gets people to consume the content by providing it immediately; and

2) the consumers who want to get more content from you are much more likely to be an ideal customer or client. Sure, your “leads” might not be as high as when you manipulate getting an email address but the person who does willingly provide their email is much more likely to produce a sale. For me, I prefer to let people decide after consuming my content whether they want to provide an email address or not.

Providing genuinely free content first and then offering the chance to engage further is no different than the radio example above. And if you’re thinking that’s just too old of an example, well we’ve got YouTube as a very successful example of this exact model. You view the videos, if you like them, you can subscribe. If you don’t subscribe, then you can come back and still enjoy the free content at a later time. And we all know that successful YouTubers can sell millions of dollars in merchandise to these same subscribers. Obviously the free content first model works.

For me, it’s always been about being as authentic and genuine as I can be with my potential customers.


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