Mega Marketing: The Power of the Word "Free"

Aug. 1, 2008
Truths don’t change. There’s a saying I love: “You must give to get.” It works in business, friendships, marriage, and child raising.

Truths don’t change. There’s a saying I love: “You must give to get.” It works in business, friendships, marriage, and child raising.

In marketing, consumer giveaways come as free gifts, gift certificates, drawings for weekend trips, and so forth. You may have an opinion on these already, and so do I, which is this: I hate it, and I love it.

Before you think I’m a manic marketer who can’t make up his mind, check this out, or better yet, don’t check it out. Oh, never mind, you’ll see what I mean…

Do you like getting a little bonus, a little something extra, maybe a free service now and then? Your customers do, too. That’s even more true in today’s economy where the price of oil seems to set new daily records, and consumers cringe at the thought of filling their gas tanks, much less making a high-dollar purchase.

As an HVAC contractor you may be asking an age-old question. If you’re in business to make money, why in the world would you give something away? And isn’t this seen as gimmicky?

Simple answer here.

Give-a-ways work. Free stuff works. The most powerful marketing word that exists is “free.” I wish I could come up with a better one, but it hasn’t been invented yet. That’s why I love the intelligent use of this word (more in a moment).

But it also maddens me too. That’s because giveaways are everywhere, continually overused, over-said, and in one huge way, very over-rated. The giveaway has become the circus barker’s byword of “too good to be true.” The result is that legions of potential customers respond first with, “what’s the catch?” When used unwisely, the word “free” repels as many – or more – than it attracts.

So is the word indecisive. I’ll let you make the call.

You saw I italicized “intelligent” and “unwisely” in my descriptions of how “free” is used in marketing. That’s your key to the usage right there.

When to use it
In Direct Response ads (one of the 5 basic message types of ads you definitely should use) free is the gateway to response. It lowers the barrier to leads, and gains acceptance, causing those seeking a risk-free way to gain your service offering to be magically drawn to the phone. But only when used as a way to offer something of value and validity that supports the core offer.

In other words, when testing air quality, installing UV filtration, or working on humidity solutions, offer a free “safe air” filter (with your logo on it of course) or something related to the quality of their air. This supports and increases the value of your already highly-prized service and pulls it closer to irresistible. This is critical. Why?

The entire reason you run direct response ads is to create a flood of leads, based on the irresistibility of the offer. Free things add to that attraction. When you insert a limitation or a deadline, you drive home the sense of urgency which means the lead count rises even faster in an effort to beat the limitation.

Not sure if this works?

Real Results
We took a 4-color tune-up postcard a contractor had mailed to 16,000 people over a six-week period every year for the past four years. His average response rate for this card was around 30 appointments, or about a .02% response. He did this partly for image, partly for recognition, to remind them of the service “need,” and to get some sales. It worked marginally, but it’s all he had.

He hired us to do a rewrite. We followed a rigid direct response formula, using a “free” thing (that he was already giving away, but we just made a big deal out of it) and a deadline. Plus, we killed the 4-color expensive postcard and made it black and white, so it saved him some printing money. Results?

Same people, same time of year, same basic offer, but seriously “response-oriented” generated 176 leads. He sold more from this “slow season” offer than ever. (Total around $84,000.) All in the power of direct response that highlighted something for nothing.

That’s just one example. You can use these direct response triggers with your system tuneups, upgrades, whole-house air filtration, or other services and products. You can even use this with “Free comfort system inspections” to new homeowners to the area (typically known as “Welcome Wagon” lists) with excellent response.

A Hidden Lesson
There is one thing we suggest you never offer “free” in your ads.

And that’s the indistinct connection.

For example, offering a free vacation with a new system is a mental disconnect for your prospects. A vacation has nothing to do with a system upgrade, so you’re going down two paths at once. We have never been able to make these indistinct connections work and have wasted a ton of money trying. My advice: don’t do it.

However, you can use a vacation as an on-site sales closer, but not in your outbound marketing unless you just love expensive experimentation. In other words, as your tech is discussing the merits of choosing you for the job, he also throws in, “And if you were planning on taking a vacation with your family, we have a vacation package that we offer our top customers. They come with all accommodations included, it’s not a sales pitch, and it’s free. It’s merely a bonus for choosing us. If you can work out the details, it may make sense to do it while your system is out of commission. Either way, it’s yours free with the job.

That ties in as an incentive to choose you in the on-site close, but it’s a loser in your outbound marketing.

Gift certificates are another story, and there’s one way they can be used as marketing gold.

Include them as “Thank You” notes to your customers only. These would be in follow-up letters, newsletters (their best use and I’ll tell you why in a second), or as a make good if you messed up on a service call. Gift certificates make terrific Thank You items and make customers feel special. You’ll be a total stand-out for using them too.

In a newsletter, you can use a gift certificate offer as a coupon. It costs you zero to print it in the newsletter, plus if you’re really smart, you’ll have the vendor (restaurant, etc.) pay part of your newsletter cost to be included in this promotion.

Not bad. The vendor pays for your retention effort.

So use “Free,” but use it wisely. If you do, you’ll gain more results, better customer relations, and more bang for your marketing dollar. All because you were willing to “give to get.”

Adams Hudson is president of Hudson, Ink, a creative marketing firm for contractors, and author of the recently published Contractor Marketing Secrets. Readers can get a free 12-page report titled “Get More Leads in Less Time” send your polite request along with your address to [email protected], and a free marketing newsletter by faxing their letterhead with the request to 334/262-1115. Call 800/489-9099 or check out for other free marketing articles and reports.