When and Why to Give Out Free Stuff

Strategic Generosity: Giving Away a Book on Social Media to Leverage Social Media

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Josh Bernoff
Josh Bernoff
This is a big week for me. My book "Empowered," with advice about how to manage your company in the age of empowered customers, is about to hit the shelves. We've put in place a bunch of word-of-mouth programs, and as I reflect on them, I am hoping there is a lesson regarding generosity for marketers selling just about anything.

Giving out free stuff is a time-honored marketing technique. It can also be very expensive, and is not necessarily effective. The reason is that people treat free stuff as throwaway stuff, and it often doesn't change their mind about a brand. (Think about all those conference bags with logos on them -- do they actually work?)

Here's my fundamental principle for giving out free stuff: Give free stuff to people who will use it, like it, and talk about your brand as a result.

Josh Bernoff's new book 'Empowered.'
Josh Bernoff's new book 'Empowered.'
Here are a couple of examples from our book launch.

  • We made "Empowered" available free on Kindle for the first week. (Go ahead, click and get your own copy through Friday September 10.) Why? Because 1. people with Kindles are more likely to talk to others about their purchases -- we have data to prove that -- and 2. the limited-time offer drives action. We are already starting to see reviews, and there are hundreds of tweets generating awareness for a brand-new product. Thousands have now downloaded the book, and it's hovering around No. 6 in the list of free Kindle books -- the only business book in the top ten.
  • We're doing a free webinar on Friday. (If you want to sign up, do it here.) Why? Because some people want to learn with video and audio and slides, not just read. It gives my co-author and me a chance to make a personal connection. To save money, we're doing this with audio on the computer instead of a phone bridge. If you want to save money, do it in ways that don't compromise the elements that get people talking.
  • We recruited people with Twitter to do reviews on Amazon, and then gave out 100 advance review copies of "Empowered." (Sorry, all those copies have already been distributed.) We think the Twitter audience is the one most likely to accept our message and to talk about it. In contrast to publishers' typical broad free book mailings, this one has a defined target -- Amazon reviews. We designed the program so people would take their promise to review seriously. To see if this is working, check our Amazon reviews in the coming weeks -- those books are just reaching the reviewers right now.

Here's the lesson for marketers. If your free stuff and sampling programs are just geared towards getting people to try your products and remember your name, you can do better. Concentrate on the customers most likely to talk -- Twitter users, bloggers, social network denizens -- and give them advance access to your products and ways to find the greatness in them. Then they'll do a lot of the marketing for you.

Josh Bernoff is senior vice president, idea development at Forrester Research and the co-author of "Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers and Transform Your Business," a management book that teaches you how to transform your business by empowering employees to solve customer problems. He blogs at blogs.forrester.com/groundswell.
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