To Freebie or Not To Freebie… That Is The Question.

Take Yourself Pro

Ask any gal in her 30s what the ultimate romantic comedy of all time is and you’ll hear maybe a dozen different answers. Sleepless in Seattle, Notting Hill, When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman, Sixteen Candles…. we all have a favorite (or five).

For me, it’s You’ve Got Mail. I’m sure there’s some Cosmo quiz about what your favorite rom com says about your personality type but for me there’s something really special about Meg and Tom sitting there staring at their 15lb laptops waiting for an email to load. There so much love in that dial up tone.

In those days, our inboxes were exciting. We were, after all, still very much a snail mail society.

We wanted more email. It was fun, a novelty. Being on an email list was practically a gift and something we happily clicked to sign up for.

Let’s all take a moment to pause and laugh at 1998 us.

In 2006, the fine folks over at Entrepreneur wrote an article about a trend they were seeing: consumers holding a tighter protection over personal inboxes and businesses needing to incentivize opt ins. E-books, downloadables, surveys, and exclusive community access were cited as popular ways to increase sign ups. Sound familiar? That was almost a decade ago.

Oh what a difference a decade makes.

Since then, on blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels, and in chat rooms, the debate seems to be neverending about the reality of email marketing. Do we need to incentivize our readers to opt in to our lists? Or is the content we’re providing incentive enough to run with?

That cheery AOL inbox noise of the late 90’s has been replaced by a ruthless protection over our inboxes and a wary sideways glance at anyone who dares to ask us for our email address. We aren’t easily swayed by quizzes or e-books, we don’t want another downloadable PDF, and another community to keep up with could be a burden. Or is it?

On The Showrunner, expert podcasters Jon Nastor and Jerrod Morris discuss the merits of not only an email list but the opt-in. In fact, this topic matters so much to them that in under 40 episodes to date they have aired it twice. Here's a little expert from this particular episode, “Why Every Podcast Needs an Email List”:


Nastor: “I don’t give anything away. The incentive is that I’m going to write you personally every Sunday afternoon with the things I’ve been working on in my business and with the smart people I got to talk to that week. I learn 1,000 things every week and I’m going to find one of those things and try to teach it to you and share it with you.”

Morris: “So that’s the incentive. There’s no e-book…. e-books are overrated. Who was I talking to about how everybody has a whole folder on their desktop of e-books they’ve downloaded and haven’t read. See because I think your Sunday newsletter is the incentive. It’s like at the Assembly Call what we do where we send out a post-game newsletter that only the email people get. So that’s the incentive. It’s like if you wanna get this post-game analysis email, you gotta be on this email list….so it’s something that’s specific to them.”

Nastor: “It’s just when you first say that people need to give something, like incentivize, people always think of those lead magnets and whatever that stuff is that people talk about. Which is ‘Oh, let’s just create some crap that we think people will like’ and it’s like well, they don’t. And if they do, I think it was Chris Brogan who was like ‘Yeah, well they probably just download it and then instantly unsubscribe because they just wanted that free thing. And then they’re never gonna read it.’ So it’s just kinda a game you’re playing for some reason and I don’t do that. Mine is the most human aspect. Plus, I say that it’s a direct link to my inbox. If you want to talk to me, subscribe to that. Literally the first welcome, which is the only automated message on my list, you can hit reply to that and it comes to my phone or my laptop and you can talk to me. And that’s the link. And that’s my incentive. That can be your incentive. The main thing to me is to be human and my incentive really is the human aspect.”

And it’s not just podcasters who have this discussion, nor is it clear if we should or shouldn’t include a free opt-in gift for our subscribers.

Here’s Amy Porterfield, Facebook Ads and Marketing Expert:

When it comes to encouraging people to take action, the more specific you can be, the better. Back in the early days of the web, a website owner could get away with a simple “sign up for my newsletter” headline above their opt-in. But times have changed, the average internet user has gotten more sophisticated, and they now ask themselves “what’s in it for me?”

You need to be able to answer that question clearly, and to make sure it matches up with what your ideal subscriber really wants. I recommend creating an opt-in offer that answers questions one or two steps ahead of what they’d need before they hired you or bought something from you.

And even Brian Clark of Copyblogger points out the dichotomy of decision-making here:

It’s always been a smart tactic to offer an up-front incentive, or “ethical bribe” to convince people to sign up for your list. This could be a free report, webinar, audio seminar, or other instant-gratification freebie.

In many markets, this strategy still works just fine. In others, you’ll face savvy subscribers who snag your incentive with an alternate “trash” email address, or simply unsubscribe immediately. The better approach is to focus the incentive on staying subscribed.

Offer that report over time as a series of emails from your autoresponder, break the video or audio into parts, and always entice subscribers with what’s coming next. The key is for people to realize that you’re giving more than you’re taking (pitching), and they’ll happily stay with you much longer.”

So what’s a modern day marketer to do?

There’s no question that having an email list is crucial to running a successful business. No matter the industry, your email list is the only thing you can truly manage for yourself. Social media platforms change, foot traffic dies down, RSS feeds go the way of Google Reader. Starting and growing an email list puts you in the driver’s seat of your business.

But does entry to that list come with a freebie? How do you know what decision to make and how to implement and test it?

For many bloggers and online business owners, we are our own ideal customer. We solve the problems we wish we had answers to years ago and attract people who are in those same shoes we once were in. If that’s the case, ask yourself the key questions below. If you aren’t your own ideal customer, find one and ask them.

  1. When you subscribe to lists, what convinces you? How can you apply that to your own opt in forms? Consider who you want on your list before diving into blanket strategies.
  2. Can you describe, in detail, your ideal customer and ideal subscriber? While list growth is a major focus for us at ConvertKit (for hopefully obvious reasons) I’d sooner have 1,000 people who love what I do, share it with friends, and buy what I create than a million subscribers who grab a freebie and immediately unsubscribe or, worse, stay subscribed and never open an email.

When I listened to Jon Nastor on that Showrunner episode while I was grocery shopping, I was fist pumping down the frozen food aisle and I’m fairly certain I shouted YES! out loud somewhere near the bananas. I’m with Jon on this one, to a point. Yes, email lists aren’t just lists of names and email addresses. There are people behind that screen and real thoughts and feelings going into the exchange. And, to play Devil’s Advocate to Jon’s point, those people have needs and wants and they’ve come to me (or you) on their quest for the truth.

At ConvertKit, we take a multi-day-free-course approach to joining our email list. Our aim is to teach everything we know and that extends to our email list. We assume you’re here because you want to learn how to sell more with email marketing so that’s the exact course we deliver when you sign up to our list. While we may occasionally offer a PDF downloadable or e-book for free through an email opt in form, we want to make sure that we are all on the same page as quickly as possible when it comes to email marketing. Our 5 day course gets us there.

Take a moment to check in with yourself about your own tactics and beliefs when it comes to opt-in freebies. Do you offer a free incentive on your own site? Are you testing out free versus no incentive at all? Do some pages offer an incentive and others don’t? What techniques do you love and believe in and what have you tried out that didn’t quite fit?

Let’s hear about it in the comments below – I’m here to respond, participate, and continue the dialogue.

Val Geisler

Val is a yogi, mom, military wife, and avid podcast fan. She is ridiculously obsessed with sharing and creating content that actually makes a difference in the world, connecting with her fellow bloggers, and doing more with less effort. Val is based on Columbus, Ohio (O-H!) and can often be found oversharing on Instagram at @lovevalgeisler.

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