It is more and more common nowadays to give things away at websites. “Common” doesn’t always mean it’s a good idea. Should you be giving things away to your customers or potential customers?
First, the main reasons businesses give stuff away online:
- If your product is good, free samples will bring customers back for more. There’s nothing new about this idea. When you try something and you like it, the chances are good that you’ll want more of it. Research supports this claim, as well; in fact, it’s been found that the more generous you are with your samples, the more likely you are to have return customers, and the more they eventually spend with you over the life of your relationship with them. What’s more, since people tend to overvalue things that are given to them as gifts, your prices look better after they’ve accepted a sample, by comparison with their expectations.
- The internet particularly encourages or necessitates free samples. If I’m in a brick and mortar bookstore, I can leaf through a book before buying it. Online, I can go to Amazon, O’Reilly, Safari, or SitePoint and see — even download — samples of a book before buying it. If I couldn’t, I probably wouldn’t buy it, since I’ve heard someplace that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. It’s not just books; there are many things that can easily be sampled online, and there are plenty more things that can be mailed off to a potential customer when they request it with a few clicks of a mouse. That’s the encouragement part — it’s easy. The necessity part is that it can be very hard to judge the quality of an item online, even more than in a print ad where the color and quality of the image is more consistent than it is on your visitor’s monitor.
- Peer pressure. Now that giving samples is so widespread, online customers expect it. There they are, searching your website for the free version, the free trial, the free sample… All your competitors are doing it, so why aren’t you?
That’s why people make those free offers. But should you? Here are some questions to help you decide.
- How do you feel about it? I had a client once who often said, “I’m not going to give it away!” It was practically a slogan of hers. I see her point. Therapists tell us that those who don’t pay personally for their treatment don’t feel invested in it. I know from my own experience that people don’t show up for free seminars they’ve registered for as often as the ones they’ve had to pay for, even if the fee is very small. And of course you can’t keep the doors open without profits. But you can get a free website analysis from me anyway. I enjoy looking at people’s websites and seeing all the things they could do to improve their rankings and traffic, and I find it very satisfying to help people. I sometimes check websites out just out of curiosity, and then I have to restrain myself from dashing off an email to tell them how they could improve. It would be like going up to a stranger and telling him how he could improve his looks with a new haircut, so I resist the temptation, but you know I love what I do, I believe in the value of it, and so of course I want to share it. If you don’t feel that way, you might be in the wrong business.
- Will someone who has sampled still need to buy? Your optometrist probably wouldn’t mind giving you a free pair of contacts to try. After all, you’ll need more, and you’ll love her for giving them to you and go back. But you probably aren’t going to get a free pair of glasses. You might not go back for years. I find that people who receive a free website analysis and stop there can’t usually make the best use of it themselves. If they can, more power to them. But most find it useful enough that they want the snazzy complete highly-researched paid version, not to mention assistance in implementing it. The first chapter of the book, the trial of something the customer will want to keep using, items that get used up and have to be replaced — these are the things to offer as samples. In other words, if you’re selling cars, free sampling of the product probably isn’t for you. Maybe a free guide to car care would be a good choice, though.
- Does it work for you? You need to keep track. I know that I frequently buy software, books, and music that I’ve sampled. Not everyone does. There are internet users who feel that there is so much free stuff out there that they simply shouldn’t have to pay for anything. These are the folks who’ll scoop up your samples with no intention of becoming your customers. There are people who will spend so much time and electricity searching out a free alternative to a paid item, even if the quality is far inferior, that they end up paying more that if they’d bought the superior item. And here we may be back to “How do you feel about it?” I know that my free blogs lead people who want good blogging for their companies to hire me. If, while my blogs are doing their jobs, they are also useful to readers for free, well, I’m happy about that. But the history of the internet is littered with people who thought someone would choose to pay for things which in fact they would only take for free. Keep records that let you know whether your samples are offering a good return on your investment or not.