Why “Free” Is Your Best Marketing Strategy

Free: Best Marketing Strategy
Image credit: Shayne Kaye (Creative Commons)

How do you earn permission to speak to a group of people that will engage with your message, buy what you sell, and share your ideas?

Give something away for free.

Giving away an idea is the best way to build a tribe. Every day, thousands of advertisers and marketers sit in meetings, scratching their heads, wondering how to get their message to spread, how to sell products and change people’s behaviors. They spend money on ads that only add to the noise.

And every day, they become less relevant.

They need a new, better approach.

Why free?

Ideas that spread win.
—Seth Godin

Generosity catches people’s attention. It’s the free-prize-inside effect.

Compelling ideas and stories must reach a tipping point before they start to gain momentum. And the best way to push them over the edge is to be generous.

There’s so much noise in the world  that it’s impossible to know what’s worth buying. Most people buy stuff that they have a personal connection with or that is recommended by a trusted friend.

Giving away your work will allow future customers (or readers or fans or whatever) the opportunity to hear about it, see the value, and then reward you for it.

But doesn’t a zero price tag devalue your product?

Nope. Not that I’ve experienced. It just raises the visibility of it. It’s a way to get in front of people that would otherwise ignore you. It’s marketing.

Writing an eBook and giving it away has been an experiment in the efficacy of generosity as a business model. So far, it’s workingThe Writer’s Manifesto (an eBook that people can download for free) is now selling on Amazon and Nook. And people are actually buying it.

This is not the first time this has happened. Seth Godin did it with Unleashing the Ideavirus, an eBook he gave away for free (selling a million copies) and then eventually charging for it (selling another million copies).

Why does this work? Because people don’t value what they pay money for; they value what others value. They value what gets talked about.

It’s your job to get people talking about what you have to offer. The best way to do that is to give it away. (By the way, want a free copy of that eBook I wrote? Join my newsletter list, and you’ll get it sent to your inbox.)

Won’t this attract the wrong type of customer?

Yes. But it will also attract everyone else (if you do your job right).

Listen, there will always be freeloaders. So why not give away your best stuff (even to the cheapskates) so it can spread more quickly — eventually reaching those who will pay for it?

Why not build a reputation as a generous, creative person who shares her gifts with the world?

In a world of takers — where “me first” and “gimme gimme” still reign supreme — the future’s leaders will be marked by generosity.

How to get started

So how do you actually do this? How do you give away an idea that spreads? Here’s a quick step-by-step guide:

1. Pick a compelling idea. Look through your blog archives or notebook or listen to some old demo tracks. See if you’ve already created something that you could repurpose.

In the book REWORK Jason Fried calls this “using your byproduct.” It’s a smart, efficient way to work. Find something that you know already resonated with people and expand upon it. Make sure it’s sticky, that people will resonate with and want to share it.

2. Build an early feedback group. Ask a group of friends to help you make it. If it’s a book, ask for editing help. If a piece of music, offer to include them in a virtual “listening party.”

Whatever the project, find a group that can become your early adopter and “sneezer” list. You can add to this list once the project starts to gain momentum.

3. Keep it simple and elegant. This needs to be more than something you threw together in a Word processor with a simple white background and Times New Roman font. It needs to be good.

People need to feel good when they read or listen to or experience what you’ve created. Don’t waste time trying to make it perfect, but don’t just put a piece of junk together. Spend some time on design. Presentation matters.

4. Leak it to influencers. Ask them to freely share and start talking about it. If someone’s an authority in the subject you’re covering, ask for an endorsement.

5. Thank everyone. (Yes, everyone.) As people begin to talk about you, go over the top in terms of customer service. Thank each person who tweets a link to your resource. Write hand-written notes to the influencers who helped you. Email them.

Show your tribe how much what they did mattered. Show them that you value their attention. Share their work. Give them other free stuff in the future. Keep the momentum going.

Where this leaves us

People are stingy with their creative gifts. We need to give more of our ideas away. We need to be generous.

If you’re a writer, musician, or artist waiting to be discovered, it’s time to embrace free. To start giving away your best stuff.

Then, see who follows you.

Further reading: Free: The Future of a Radical Price

Would you ever pay money for something you could get for free elsewhere? Have you done it before? I want hear your stories.

*Photo credit: Shayne Kaye (Creative Commons)

Disclosure: Some of the above links are affiliate links, which means that I make pennies off of any book you buy.

64 thoughts on “Why “Free” Is Your Best Marketing Strategy

  1. This is really good Jeff. 

    Not sure if it is because I am working on something like this and it really pertains to where I am at, or if it because this is one of your best posts in the last couple of months.

    Probably both.

    I think Radiohead proved that giving things away for free was a profitable thing, when they gave away In Rainbows a few years back.  People could pick the price they wanted to pay for the album.  I paid zero because I was a broke college student, but I had friends who paid 20 bucks for it.

  2. When I was at Catalyst a few years ago, Seth Godin gave away a free copy of his new book, “Tribes” to EVERYONE at the conference. That was thousands upon thousands of books – physical books. That probably cost him a ton of money. But in the end, those 10,000 (or whatever number) of influencers spread his message for him…and probably made it a bestseller.

  3. Love it. You continue to speak to me regarding exactly where I’m at right now. Pumped for you that Writer’s Manifesto is selling on Amazon. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it!

  4. This is a hard concept for me to wrap my head around, but I know it is true. I believe (at least for me) that we are raised to have a scarcity mindset versus an abundance mindset. We believe that there is only “so much” to go around. With that mindset, I understand why we want to charge for everything and keep all of our ideas to ourselves.

    But, counter intuitively, living with an abundance mindset compels us to give, give, give because we know there is more than enough for everybody. To me, it really is about the mindset that we live with each day.

    Great stuff! Thanks!

  5. In life I’m learning that the best way to get my own needs met is to meet the needs of others first. It’s totally counter-intuitive but my needs almost always get met in the process, usually above and beyond my expectation.

    Even if they don’t, I get distracted from my need in the process, since I’m not dwelling on it.

    Generosity is powerful. I like this idea applied to writing and business.

  6. Great articulation of the value of FREE, Jeff. As our marketplace continues to get more and more cluttered, FREE is sometimes becoming the only way to breakthrough.

  7. Jeff, I’ve just written a book that I’ll be putting on Amazon and selling. I was thinking of releasing a shorter version or something similar for free to build anticipation for the book, what do you think? Or should I just give this first book away for free? I intend on writing more and more books.

    1. i like the idea of releasing a short manifesto that can easily spread. it can work quite well. it needs to be short and easily-shareable.

  8. Jeff, great post! I’m learning the value of “free,” and as such have given my blog over to the promotion of others each Wednesday (as you know). It’s actually quite cool to see that what the Bible says is indeed true, and putting others ahead of oneself may seem like a backwards way to “get ahead” in our world, but I’m here to tell you it works. In terms of blogging, I never had the page views so high before I started “hating” folks. Indeed, I’ve got people lining up, waiting to be “hated.”

    For your readers who want to read more about what I’m talking about with regards to “hate,” I’d like to direct them to my blog at RandomlyChad.

  9. Thanks for a great article. I am always giving stuff away for free, but I guess I have been going about it the wrong way.  I have never gone into it with the perspective of how I can use that free gift to promote and encourage others to pay for other stuff! But now I can start adding that aspect and maybe I will see a more abundant growth increase! As always a fantastic article that I can apply to my daily interactions! Thanks so much Jeff!

  10. One thing happens for sure if I get a free download or book. Three more things happen if the material is good to great.

    The one thing: I start reading it.

    The three more things if it’s good to great.
    1) I finish reading it.
    2) I promote it.
    3) I buy it for family or friends.

    The most recent example of this is “Quitter” by Jon Acuff. I started reading. It was great. I finished reading it, posted a review on Amazon, commented on other blogs, and bought it for a brother (along with two other “free” books that I’d read).

    Free sells.


  11. I read a book I really liked at the library, Jack Canfield’s, “The Success Principles.” So, I purchased a copy for myself. I heard that critics of our library system, when it first began, thought it would put the publishing industry out of business because of books being available for free.

  12. I have to tell you Jeff…I’m just discovering your work, but you have a loyal follower in me. Want to know why? Your #5 tip. I was so surprised when I received a personal email from you, that it made me want to learn more about you. It’s really nice to know that you aren’t just another number, but you are unique and important. Yes, even as a customer.

    1. Thanks, Hope. It’s my pleasure to connect with those who are kind enough to read and share what I write. I am so grateful for you!

  13. Thanks for pointing me to this. In all honesty, I started writing a comment here half an hour ago, but I had to go eat. 😀

    Oh yes, I’ve paid for stuff I could get for free. I paid $10 for a mail client (Sparrow for Mac) when I could have used the free default mail app. I bought books I could have borrowed from the library. I hired others to do work I could have learned to do myself. 

    From the reverse end, giving away stuff that you could easily charge for is awesome. I don’t hard sell to my list. My biggest clients haven’t landed from tons of advertising or marketing – instead, I’ve demonstrated my “expertise” by providing free content and the money has followed. 

    That’s not a brass-tacks money-making model, nor would I recommend it to someone looking for a surefire way to make a living, but it’s working nonetheless. 

    And there’s no doubt about it, your eBook strategy was brilliant. 🙂

    1. Thanks, man. I agree that it’s a much smarter, more scalable strategy to not hard sell anyone, but rather to teach and be a friend, positioning yourself as an expert.

      1. Argh! It looks like the “reply by email” thing isn’t working with Disqus. Guess I’ll have to write this manually. 

        I think a good rule of thumb is, people shouldn’t have to spend money with you in order to feel comfortable on your site. 

        By the way, do you guest blog any?

          1. Bummer. I tried it one more time and it didn’t work. Clearly, Sparrow doesn’t support this Disqus feature. 

            If I were you, I’d talk to Disqus about that. 😀

  14. Honestly, I have struggled with this post. I understand the concept very well; however, I have not seen this give-and-watch-it-come-back-to-you idea flesh out in my husband’s professional photography business. His work is not crappy either.

    Leland Holder is an extremely generous man. He has given incalculable amounts of his time and talent (and prints) for free or very reduced rates to private individuals, businesses, and charities. He has blessed people overseas by teaching his art on STM trips.

    The upshot is, he was attracting too many freeloaders, and pardon me for saying so, Christians are the worst for this. Not all, but way too many. People have decided it’s okay to take advantage.

    We hear too much of this: “Hey, here’s my card. Send me a picture, will ya?” [File that one in the bin.] Major corporations nickle and dime him on his rates after they tell him how they love his work. He has even given freebies to CEOs in hopes that his generosity would open doors of opportunity within the company. He has gotten some work using this strategy, but companies seem to be freeloading as much as anyone else.

    Am I missing something in all of the rah-rah about giving your products/talents/time away? I’m open and willing to learn. I can’t stand to see my husband struggle every day with what comes down to disrespect from others.

    1. Photography is hard and tricky.

      My wife is a photographer. You certainly have to bear the burden for why someone would pay money for your services or prints. She is constantly dealing with this.

      Note: Be careful what you give away. The whole point is to not devalue the product/offering, but to give you free attention. One idea would be to not give away the product, but the idea behind it. Like an eBook or a newsletter with photography tips and tricks. Anything that sets you apart as an expert is a step forward.

      I’d recommend playing around with giving away an idea, not a product. See where that leads. What you’re looking for, after all, is attention. For instance, I gave away my eBook with no intention to make any money off of it. People are buying it now, which is nice, but not necessary. The whole point, however, is to earn the right to speak a tribe the NEXT time I want to communicate an idea or sell a product. What will they do when I want to sell my next book? Hopefully, they’ll listen.

      1. Give your wife a sympathetic hug for me, Jeff. 🙂

        I’ve been talking to Leland about doing photography tips and tricks on his Facebook page, and I think I’ve got him interested. It will increase his visibility, as does posting pictures. People see them, and soon, they will be linked to his gallery and shopping cart on the website.

        Congratulations on the success of your ebook, and thanks for the helpful reply!

    2. What if he gives the wonderful photo to the CEO with a copyright over some important part. Then if the CEO likes it enough he can PAY for it? Yeah it is a sample of his free work and if it is liked the customer can pay instead of giving the entire final product away.
      In books they give away sample chapters. Give away a sample 1/3rd of the photo…yeah the CEO’s chin and nose if they look good ha ha.

  15. I rarely eat at a restaurant without some sort of discount anymore. But some of those are now regular spots for me. Even after the discount.

    Our band has used NoiseTrade for 6 months now; the free download has been a great conversation starter and has evolved into a momentum builder.

    As more and more people hop on board with free mentality, I wonder will be the next mindset that will give people a clear voice through the clutter. Or if free will always be the minority – and consequently always be effective.

  16. I love this idea and have certainly seen evidence of it in play.  The idea of it comes with a built in fear-factor.  It’s an act of faith in a way.  We trust those of you who’ve lived it, but the only way to experience the same is to act on that faith.  (big breath)  I  have the idea of an ebook but must get to it and not allow fear to capture me.  Thanks for your insights.

  17. Jeff, this is great.  I have a question –

    Have you thought about the idea of challenging/asking those who get the gift to give it to someone else?  Do you build in some sort of mechanism that helps them give it away (such as NoiseTrade with their ‘tell five friends’) Or, do you trust that if the product is truly valuable then it will be passed along without you asking?

    1. Hi Matt – I built the sharing features into the PDF and made the ask on Kindle, but mostly, I just believe that good stuff is worth sharing. So if no one shares it, it must not be as good as I thought it was. But you can certainly help make the sharing easier.

  18. I love it, Jeff.  And I can’t think of a time that it wouldn’t work.  When a writer or blogger is just starting out, it brings them the notoriety they need to develop a following.  Then, when they’re established and don’t necessarily “need it,” giving something away boosts their followers’ perception of them as a generous creative.  And I imagine it keeps the writer humble and gives them a certain amount of perspective, too.  It forces us to be creative simply to be creative and removes the pressure to do something that will sell.

    Thanks for the good thoughts, as usual.

  19. Thanks for the great post, Jeff. I’m about half way through creating a manifesto  and also finishing up a new Facebook fan page. All the pieces can get overwhelming fast. The real problem is, it’s hard to gauge the reaction until you actually launch. I’m glad you are sharing your experiences. It really helps when things don’t go as planned…

  20. Jeff,
    Thought provoking post.  I read your blog because you make me think. 
    At times, I don’t share your opinion, but I like to challenge myself to look at things from different perspectives.  You help me do that.  

    I think free can be a good marketing strategy and your personal experience is truly noteworthy.  I think you should use one of those disclaimer small type statements at the bottom in little type that says “Results not typical, your results may vary.” 

     Here’s why.
    As Lynne pointed out in her comments, free doesn’t always work.  
    It has to be part of an overall sales strategy if it’s meant to build a network of clients. 

    Too often, well-meaning, well intentioned people give away their gift in hope that it will magically pay off (the tipping point I think you called it) and it just doesn’t happen without a plan to take people to the next step.  

    I’m happy that you’ve had just great success with the manifesto – and agree that great ideas, well executed can bring results – I just think it takes more than that to be a good marketing strategy. 

    If you see this comment – I will be happy (thrilled actually) to talk to your husband about how to get better results.  (for free because I’d like to be helpful – absolutely no strings or expectations attached)

    1. I appreciate your comment, Phyllis. Of course everyone is different and results may vary, but I stand by my post. A lot of people give something away and think that’s enough. It’s not. You need to be over the top generous. That’s why I referenced the tipping point. That said, you don’t have to give away your product. You can do free samples or over a free guide or newsletter or whatever. All you need to do is add value to earn people’s attention.

  21. Excellent! I’ve been working a novel for a little while and building my blog audience. But as I research I’m catching this new wave of writing and publishing. I want to be able to sell my novel and other future works but right now seems to be the time to build a platform or audience. You and a few other people I’ve started following seem to be riding this wave as well (I appreciate you’re teaching the rest of us how).  So I watched you sell your Manifesto, and signed up for one (which was really nice), and I thought, “I can do that.” So I’ve been thinking about what I want to write and give away.  My passion and experience is in mentoring, so I’m working on a Mentor’s Handbook (aimed mostly to women). My problem is I’m having a hard time getting people to follow and engage with me. How do I get people to want my book? Do I need to build a bigger audience first? I’ve only been seriously blogging for a few months but it’s slow going.

    1. you need to give something away for free. that’s how you EARN an audience. oh, and it needs to be really good. don’t discount quality. if no one’s listening, you may have to address the issue that you could make it better.

      1. I agree I am planning on giving the Mentor’s Handbook I’m working on away for free. Not only to build an audience but because equipping women in the church is my passion. Thanks for your advice.

  22. Great idea, I really like the style too. Wanted to check out the book “Free: The Future of a Radical Price” by the same author only to find that it is far from free actually. 12.99 EUR for a paperless, shipping-less digital edition. Wow! Quite surprised to see the author has interesting ideas but does not apply them to his own work.
    So There!

  23. Thank you Jeff’ your input and advice is always important to me as a begginner in writing; I will use your ideas to the latter.To day I will pick a name;

  24. I have been giving away a free course over the last 3-4 years. However, I have had a hard time making money from it or related courses. I recently have been thinking of doing a “crowdfunding campaign” yet can you claim something is free and then ask for money from the same people that signed up for the “free” product?

    I have been trying to think how I should market this crowdfunding. Should I even use the word “free”? I’d appreciate any thoughts.

    1. Hmm, sounds like it isn’t working in your situation. I would charge and test different price points to see what happens. Maybe this free only works with certain things?

    2. A crowdfunding campaign is a great idea, because you’re not forcing anyone to pay, but rather giving people the option to if they want to support you making free courses. Nothing wrong with that.

Comments are closed.