handmade gift wrap, by erika g., Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

The experts tell us to offer a free gift so as to gather email addresses

As a friend of mine reminds me frequently, “All the people who have been successful in marketing online have great email lists”.

I get that. Or at least that anyone who has been successful in online marketing and don’t have a great list would probably be the exception to the general rule.

And from various courses over the years I know the basic instruction or exhortation that to build a great list I need to offer some sort of free gift, or “ethical bribe”, on my blog or website, in return for people’s email addresses.

Typical gifts recommended are some sort of virtual product, a special report, a white paper, an e-book.

So on each my websites and blogs there has always been, as far as I can recall, some offer of that kind, in the basic format of “register (i.e. give me your email address) to get this free gift and also regular updates (blog posts, newsletter etc)”.

Sometimes I have reversed the order, i.e. “register for updates and I will send you this item as a gesture of appreciation”.

Results have been ok but frankly not great.

But I have been wondering about the free gift theory

Three recent experiences have made me start to question the value to me of offering the free gift:

  • fewer people opening my email updates
  • some very odd, half-attempts to register
  • a free gift looking like I had undervalued it

I know that as a list gets older the number of people opening my messages is almost certain to decline, so that one is understandable.

I was quite startled by the recent inundation of incomplete registrations – as in not confirmed – all with hotmail.com addresses and nonsense “names”. This for me was unprecedented and weird. Some kind of crazy signup spam? Maybe people wanting a free download (but not getting it because not confirming)?

The third factor was about what I now realise is an almost certainly undervalued freebie, an e-book whose contents I discovered were being used, quite legitimately but surprisingly, by a major international organisation.

So in the light of these factors, I started to question the value and/or the appropriateness – from my point of view – of the gift I was offering, either as the primary incentive to hand over an email address, or in appreciation of a registration to be put on an update/newsletter list.

Then I started to question whether any kind of free gift was necessary, or maybe even counter-productive

With all this pondering about the free gift I guess I was ready to consider a more radical proposition, i.e. to ditch the gift idea completely, whatever the internet marketing gurus might have to say about it.

That more radical proposition popped up in a Google search, in the form of the article Why Offering a Free eBook Can Destroy Your Email List, by Ryan Hanley.

Destroy? That’s strong.

Yes, but the author, Ryan Hanley, mounts an argument which I for one find quite persuasive.

He acknowledges the standard position that a free gift helps you build a list quickly.

But he questions, seriously, the value of such a list:

As he says “… it doesn’t mean that a Free product giveaway helps you build a valuable subscriber list that will engage with your content and ultimately build a relationship with you and hopefully at some point be interested in buying your product or service.”

In other words, it’s a list, but not necessarily a quality list or even a valuable list.

I think I’ll try the no gift approach

I’m 99% sure I am about to try the no gift approach.

At least I will have the satisfaction of knowing that anyone who does sign up wants my updates, wants to hear from me and hopefully, when appropriate circumstances arise, will be well disposed to engage with me more directly.

And if you are wondering about the gift I came to see as being possibly more valuable than I’d realised,  I’ve shared the story with a few people, who seemed impressed, so I will be sharing it more widely soon. Watch for a separate post on that soon.

In the meantime, do you have a view on the value of the free gift in relation to list-building, or a comment on the idea of ditching the free gift completely and just inviting people to sign up for updates/newsletters, sans gift?

 Image credit: Handmade gift wrap, by erika g., via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0


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Des Walsh is an executive coach. He helps business owners and entrepreneurs worldwide deal effectively with the feeling of being left behind or overwhelmed, or both, about social media – especially LinkedIn - and how to engage safely and effectively with social media to help grow their business. Connect with Des on LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter. And to stay in the loop, get Des’s weekly Social Business Bites (select snippets of his "best of the week" online finds).