Are FREE Offers Small Business Marketing Assets or Liabilities?

I recently revisited a blog post I wrote in 2009 about the explosion of FREE as a small business marketing strategy. In the article, I explored if FREE had distinguished itself as a small business marketing asset or liability over time. When I originally researched the topic, there was a running conversation among the creative entrepreneurs I often work with about the pros and cons of giving away writing, music, art and a variety of business skills. The consensus at the time was that FREE was a slippery slope and would eventually devalue everyone’s work. Research for a recent project selling online services made me realize that FREE has quickly become the norm. Years later, I ask myself how does this trend really impact small business owners and how can they turn FREE offers into marketing assets?

In his book, FREE: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson, Editor in Chief of Wired magazine provided a comprehensive and fascinating discussion of why giving things away  is fast becoming the #1 business marketing strategy that is driving many parts of our economy–noticeably  in the creative and entertainment sector–and explains how “Free” may be essential to survival in today’s marketplace.  He describes a number of ways businesses are profiting more by giving away products and services than by charging for them.

FREE: The Future of a Radical Price wasn’t without its skeptics and controversies though, and a review by author Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker  offered up “…plenty of other information out there that has chosen to run in the opposite direction from Free,” from the rise in subscription news services to cable to sale of downloads far surpassing what can be made on products. FREE, Gladwell contended, isn’t an “iron law” in product or service success.

Fast-forward seven years, and from what I can see, the FREE discussion hasn’t quite resolved itself. And strangely enough, while the value of FREE is still debatable, FREE has almost become a requirement, particularly for marketing anything online. Offering up FREE content is required for achieving a decent search engine ranking. FREE trials, FREE shipping, FREE downloads, FREE gifts are what people look for when they are shopping on the web. The grumbling about Facebook’s shift from FREE to sponsored advertising and post boosts in order to get content seen has been loud and long. And ironically, people don’t realize (or don’t care) that FREE isn’t FREE. What you’re paying is in data mining. But that’s another topic.

I admit, I go look for free whenever I can find it. I purchase an extra product to meet the FREE shipping threshold. I spend time coming up with strategies to make FREE services do what I need them to online. Since FREE is the norm, I watch to turn them into marketing assets wherever I can.

But as a small business owner, I think long and hard about whether FREE is a small business marketing asset or liability for me. How do I make that determination? With a very strategic approach to managing the time and resources it takes to get to FREE. Because I can’t afford to make FREE pay off with fancy (and somewhat questionable in my mind) data mining, I have to make every FREE offer convert to sales even more often than the big guys.

Stay tuned for Part II of “Are FREE Offers Small Business Marketing Assets or Liabilities?” Choosing FREE Marketing that Converts and check out my current free offer of a 30 minute consultation about your small business marketing needs.

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