In this season of giving, let’s look at that most sanctified of direct mail phrases… “FREE GIFT!” How does it work to boost sales? This is actually a very big topic.
Let’s try to tackle it first with a story:
It was lunch time in the city…
I was crossing a square where merchants had set up stands to snare tourists and shoppers. And most of those stands were ignorable.
But one that caught my attention had two dozen bins of Italian chocolates. I didn’t want chocolates. I didn’t need chocolates. So how was it, just a few minutes later, I walked away with a half pound of them in a bag? It started the moment I stopped “just to look.” The woman behind the counter wasted no time in holding out a chocolate caramel extended in my direction. “Please,” she said, “Take and try. No charge.”
How could I refuse? After all, it was “free”… right? And it was good.
Suddenly, something changed. I felt I couldn’t leave without buying… something. The candy sample couldn’t have cost more than pennies. But I felt obligated now to shell out some cash. And I did.
Why We Sometimes Feel Obligated To Buy
Colleagues of mine call it the “Krishna Principle.” I’ve also heard it called the “Rule of Reciprocity.”
The idea is that, by giving something or offering to give something, you open up the customer to give you something in return. Does it work? All the time. Take these examples from Robert Cialdini’s famous must-read marketing book, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion“…
Christmas Card Obligation: In a 1976 study, a market researcher sent Christmas cards to complete strangers. What happened? He got a flood of Christmas cards in return. Not one questioned who he was or why he had initiated the relationship.
Gift-driven Supermarket Sales: Why do supermarkets have “free sample” tables? Not just to lure you into the store. But because they skyrocket sales. In one small case, an Indiana supermarket put out a wheel of cheese and a cheese slicer. “Cut your own free samples” said a sign. Result: The store sold a 1,000 extra pounds of cheese over the next few hours.
Cornell University Study: In another small study, a researcher posing as a student was asked to sell raffle tickets. To half the sample group, he offered a Coke before giving his pitch. To the other half, he just started the sales pitch without the Coke. The group that got the gift first bought twice as many tickets. Sometimes more.
Door-to-door Sales: Amway Corporation’s career manual states, “… leave the free samples with the customer for 24, 48, or 72 hours… just tell her to try the products. That’s an offer no one can refuse.” I don’t have to tell you how successful Amway is, thanks to that one technique.
Giving Throughout History: Archaeologist Richard Leakey credits a social need to give and receive as key to the sharing of technology, food, and other survival skills among our ancestors… all the way back to the caveman.
Point being, when someone gives us something valuable — or even offers to give us something valuable — the sales pitch that might follow is much harder to resist.
Not so long ago, I edited a collection of some of the best direct mail sales letters of all time.
How many focused aggressively on “free” giveaways in the offer? Roughly 65% to 70%.
This doesn’t mean “free” has to be the centerpiece of every offer you right.
But when it does, there are a few rules you’ve got to keep in mind.
1) If you have premiums, ask yourself if they’re really worthwhile. How well do they represent your client’s product? How tightly do they link your prospect’s needs to the benefits the product has to offer?
2) If the FREE part of your offer is indeed good, then ask yourself this: How well featured are your premiums featured in your sales pitch? You might try polishing that emphasis with a few earlier mentions and more prominent sidebars.
Of course, questions about how the offer and FREE gifts work will have to be negotiated by marketing managers, not just copywriters. But make sure it’s something you work out before you start writing your first draft.
Last modified: June 17, 2020