Goodbye, “free” gift: A better way to build a list of email subscribers

What I’m about to say will sound like heresy to some people.

Okay, to a LOT of people.

But I’ve been pondering this for a long time and I want to put my head on the block and see what you think.

For many years, and like many businesses on the web, I offered a “free” gift to people who were willing to join my subscriber list. It was just what everyone did, and seemed a fair and honorable exchange: I will give you something of value to your business if you’ll give me a try to see what I’m about.

The eBook was called How to Pay Us Less: Tips and Tricks to Pay Less for Web-related Services and if you click that link you can now get a copy of that ebook for the low low price of doing nothing at all (well, except clicking).

Although I’ve never bombarded my list with emails, and people can unsubscribe themselves at any time, I’ve always felt a little strange about the whole practice. If I had a brick-and-mortar storefront, it would be like having little glass case set up at the door full of cupcakes, saying, “I’ll only give you one of these delicious cupcakes if you’ll just drop what you’re doing and come in and talk to me.”

Mmmmm, cupcakes.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh, right.  These kinds of “free gifts” are known by many names (free gift, free ebook, lead magnet, opt-in incentive, freemium, ethical bribe, etc.)  I would guess that 80% of the service provider websites I see offer some variant of it. I did too for a long time.

But not anymore. Know why?

Because Free isn’t free. When I ask for a person’s contact details, I’m asking for their time, their attention, their inbox space. I’m adding to the 677 emails they already have, waiting to be sorted or trashed. I’m adding a task to their morning by forcing them to decide whether to open my emails or not. I’m adding another twining choice point to their day, along with the dozens or hundreds of other choices that will force them to burn calories. I am making them find and click the “unsubscribe” button if they don’t want to keep hearing from me. (George Kao has a great article on Medium about the topic as well.)

I receive a number of emails every day from people whose “free gift” I consumed, and I just stay on the list because I have seventeen things fighting for my attention as I’m perusing my inbox, and I can’t take the time to thoughtfully decide whether I want to stay subscribed or not. So I keep getting them, deleting them, feeling vaguely guilty about the whole thing.

Of the dozens of every-now-and-again subscribed emails I receive, I’d say there are 6 or 7 that are day-changers, even life-changers. They are the emails that I look forward to, that make me smile when they arrive, that I ALWAYS take time to read. These are people I believe in, people I feel kinship with, people who have interesting and valuable things to say. If I don’t have time to read their email right away, I’ll always snooze it with Boomerang until I know I’ll have more quiet.

I am envious of those people, to be perfectly honest. I want to be more like them. I want to build relationships and kinships, rather than entice someone into my circle with a cupcake.

So I’ve decided that I will endeavor to be that instead: Someone that people stay in touch with because I matter to them, and because they look forward to hearing from me. No bribery required. I just want to be among the ones whose useful sharing of valuable stuff makes me a valued part of their far-flung community.

Of course, it would be a lot easier to just keep exchanging some juicy tidbit for someone’s email address. It’s a much bigger task to knuckle down and get into a rhythm of creating/sharing material that’s eye-opening, helpful, stress-reducing, or giggle-inducing. Laser-focusing on the creation of those kinds of things, and taking it as seriously as—more seriously than—the other parts of my work, is so much harder, but so much better.

So that’s my plan. My life—in work and everywhere else—is an exercise in finding more and more ways to operate from a place of integrity. While being interesting, warm, and funny. Picture me creating new content here, with a hot cup of coffee, ambient cafe sounds courtesy of Coffitivity and enjoying a nice warm cupcake. (Sure you don’t want to come by?)

Do you offer a “free gift” in exchange for email signups? How would it be to instead show/tell people the kind of wisdom & help you offer to people who’ve joined your email list, and ask them to give you a try?

Here, I’ll go first:

If you want to follow me for a bit and see how I do, you can click the “Subscribe” link at the top right of the window; as always, you can unsubscribe any time, or if it’s just not your cup of tea. (Or coffee.)

If you still want to offer something for free, then please do. Do it a lot. Be generous, be prolific in creating beautiful things your audience members will use and love and remember. And at the bottom of your content you might gently suggest that—if the thing they’re reading is of value to them, they might consider signing up to have that sort of thing delivered via the occasional email. And give them an easy way to do that.

Love to all!

 

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1 reply
  1. EagleSong
    EagleSong says:

    Hi Margaret,
    Relationship and kinship are the enticement I want to cultivate in my outreach. Thanks for the putting this in words. I’ll enjoy cupcakes with the people who come!
    Green Blessings,
    EagleSong

    Reply

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