Jim's Marketing Blog

Marketing ideas to help you grow your business

What everybody ought to know about free offers

Do you offer people free gifts as incentives to try your work for free or buy more from you etc?  If you do, I have a question for you:

How free are your free gifts?

Some businesses are great when it comes to gifts

It’s over 4 years since the area where I lived suffered serious flooding.  Some of my friends were forced to evacuate their homes and businesses for almost a year, while flood damage was repaired.  Even though 4 years has passed, I still clearly recall receiving a letter from Staples, with a free coupon, worth £10.  They said they wanted to help businesses in the area following the floods and this was a gesture, at a point where many small businesses were struggling.  The coupon came with no strings attached; no minimum order – You could just walk into Staples, get £10 worth of supplies, hand them the coupon and leave.

The value of a genuinely free gift

That gesture from Staples changed how I thought about them and how I felt about them.  I started seeing them as being part of the local business community, rather than just another multinational brand.  Even though I am pretty sure the gift was given, with Staples very aware it was going to create a lot of goodwill toward them, it was offered with no strings and no requests on their part.  Just; here, please accept this.  It’s a great example of genuine giving.

Many businesses get it wrong

We saw some huge companies, including Microsoft, offering to donate to the Japan tsunami / nuclear disaster relief fund, but only by “gifting” $1 for each person who retweeted a Microsoft message.  These gifts with strings attached, can be counter-productive and leave a bad smell behind them.

My phone provider, o2, offer me gifts every month; all of which require me spending even more money with them or spending money with their business partners.

Authors send me their books for free too; even though none of them have been offered freely.  The note below is a great example.  It came with a book I was sent recently:

Jim, I love your work and wanted to give you a free copy of my latest book.  It’s just a gift from me to you, by way of thanks for all the great work you do for small business owners.

As your readers are small business owners and (name of book) is written with them in mind, it would be great if you would write a review.  Please include this link (which was it’s page on Amazon) in your review and email me when it’s live. 

A gift is given from a mindset of contribution.  A business incentive is a genuine, ethical commercial tactic.

  • A gift says; take this, it’s yours.
  • An incentive offer says; take this, then do something for me (like the book review request or the upsell from my phone provider.).

If it’s a free gift, with no strings attached, call it a gift.

If it’s an incentive, call it; an offer, an opportunity, a great deal, a recommendation, a chance to get 25% off their next purchase.

The bottom line: It’s more than semantics.  When you figure out that a free offer isn’t free, it changes how you feel about the person or company, who told you it was.


Jim Connolly

I help small business owners make massively more sales and boost their profits. To see how I can help you and your business, read this.


  1. So true Jim! I’m tired of people offering “free” things that are not free. Even if what you have to do is only to subscribe to their newsletter, that is not really free. Calling things what they are IS a big deal.

    • Hi Ada.

      Things are at a point now, where we often see a FREE offer, and immediately look to see “what’s the catch?”

      If we find a catch, we tend to treat the offer very differently. It also alters the way we feel about the person who claimed one thing, but did the opposite.

      Thanks for the feedback.

  2. EVERY marketer in every company needs to read this post.

    I hate it when they say its free then hit you with the catch. Like Ada says it really does matter.

    When they lie about it being free, I wonder what else they would lie about.

    Terrific post James

    Sophie :)

    • Hi Sophie. I think you make a great point there, regarding the way people may be seen as deceitful by claiming an offer is free when they know it isn’t. Thanks for the feedback.

  3. I usually avoid any kind of offer or product if I spot somewhere the word FREE. Most of the time it’s just a page optimized for combinations of keywords that include FREE.

    Best advice:
    Don’t include FREE into your search string if you are looking for a free product.

  4. Courtney Ramirez

    September 7, 2011 at 21:02

    There really is a distinction between the two – and you did a nice job of pointing that out in this article. My skin always crawls a little bit with free – free is not “do something for me”. Free is free. If you don’t intend to spread goodwill, just call it an offer.

  5. Hi Jim,

    This is the best post I’ve read all week. Such a simple concept that so many get wrong because they are greedy marketers – like you say always wanting something in return.

    Free is free, an incentive is not quite free.

    Great post, and great to hear about a genuine gift from a multinational – it’s a rare thing.



    • Thanks Simon!

      Ironically, the free £10 gift that Staples sent me, resulted in them having their brand mentioned in an extremely positive way, to thousands of small & medium-sized business owners (their exact target market!) ;)

  6. How do you feel about Free (GWP) Gift with Purchase? I get rather excited during Clinique Bonus Week!

    But I don’t think it’s such a bad thing when a company donates to a charity in exchange for tweets. I think the only way it could be a bad thing is if the company doesn’t make the donation after getting the RTs. The gift of a book could be a pain in the rear if you don’t have the time to read it, but sometimes, you have to do what you can to get results.

    • Hi Maria. Wouldn’t it be “nicer” or maybe more human, if Microsoft (and others) had donated without trying to benefit commercially from the disaster? It seems they realized their error and pulled the request.

  7. Hi Jim,
    What about in B2B sales where you offer a free gift (no strings attached). But i want this to start the relationship.

    How should one proceed with following up with the prospect?

    Do you make the follow up about the gift what if they paid no attention to it? Then they palm you off. Have you got a strategy for this?

    • Hi Ben,

      “But i want this to start the relationship.” <– There’s the ‘string’ attached.

      It’s free or it isn’t. If you’re using it to open a door, you’re trying to buy their attention. They know that.

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