April 24, 2017

Use the Psychology of Free Stuff to Generate Leads


If you’ve ever worked in advertising, you’ll know the power of the four-letter F word … Free.

Free samples, free trials, buy one-get one free.

The thought of getting something for nothing is what makes people line up to avoid spending a couple of bucks, like when Krispy Kreme launched in Cardiff, Wales, and had more than a thousand shoppers lining up for over two hours to get free donuts. And I’m pretty sure that’s a mild example.

More proof comes from Duke professor Dan Ariely in a paper written at MIT:

“His study of 398 MIT students measured people’s reaction (and overreaction) to two different products: Hershey’s candies and Lindt truffles. Under normal circumstances, the Hershey’s products are already significantly cheaper than Lindt products — and the latter also have an air of exclusivity or cache, too. By all measures, the Lindt item has a higher value. Yet, when asked to choose between a free Hershey’s product or a dramatically discounted Lindt candy, the vast majority of students opted for the item that was free, even if it wasn’t objectively the best deal.”

Ariely says that the word free “gives us such an emotional charge that we perceive what is being offered as immensely more valuable than it really is.”

As strange as it seems so far, I’m not here to talk about food. Free is also something people want and expect on the Internet.

Searching for popular words like ‘book’, ‘blog’ and ‘game’ in Keyword Planner reveals that a large chunk of the searchers want these things for free.

the Psychology of Free Stuff

And aside from blogs, books and games, what else do people tend to want for free?

the Psychology of Free Stuff

The answer? It’s things of value, that would usually cost money.

This is especially apparent from the fact that people want free TVs.

Free stuff can be hard to resist and increase sales by up to 2000 percent, but is met with a great deal of skepticism. As much as we love free stuff, we want to feel like we’ve earned it:

“When people pay for something, it gives those people a sense of accomplishment, pride, and ownership, meaning they’ll value the goods or services more and complain less.”

So, how do we balance the power of free stuff with the problem that people find value in transactions?

This is the part you’ve been waiting for.

Content Upgrades

Content upgrades offer useful resources on a transactional basis, and the currency is an email address.

With so much for free on the Internet already, it’s unlikely anyone will pay for your content. You can, however, get their email address and their permission to be marketed to in one go …  As long as you’ve got something they want.

Have you seen calls to action embedded in blog posts? They look like:

the Psychology of Free Stuff

Those are content upgrades. The perfect balance of ‘paying’ with your email address and getting something for ‘free’ has got some crazy results. Backlinko’s Brian Dean increased conversions by 785 percent in one day by using them. BloggerJet’s Tim Soulo increased conversions by 300 percent over the course of a month.

So how can you do the same?

Using Content Upgrades to Generate Leads

A content upgrade, in case you’ve never signed up for one, or used one yourself, is an additional piece of bonus material. Examples include checklists, PDF files, email templates, workflows, videos and extra items in a list post.

The difference between content upgrades and lead magnets is that content upgrades are highly focused and relevant to the article they’re found in, while lead magnets are generic downloads like free ebooks which appear in the sidebar of every blog post, regardless of its content.

Content upgrades need to be obvious, valuable and relevant to work. Plugins like Content Upgrades Pro take care of making it obvious, leaving value and relevance left to figure out.

Content Upgrade Ideas

To be clear once again: Content upgrades have to add value to the post they’re attached to.

You can think of them like bonuses, or extensions. Every time you create content, think “How could I extend this?”.

Here are some examples of how I would offer content upgrades to fictional articles:

Case Study: How I Increased Subscribers by 311% Overnight
Content upgrade: A .pdf Checklist of the Exact Process Used

How to Use Flat Design to Create a Beautiful New Website
Content upgrade: 41 Flat Design Icon .png Files

Pitch like a Pro — Get Your Startup Noticed by Journalists
Content upgrade: 25 Attention-Grabbing Subject Line Templates

5 Words Copywriters Shouldn’t Ignore
Content upgrade: 3 More Words, and Why They Work so Well

One tactic often used is to talk about how your readers can get the same results as you, then offer exactly what you did as a content upgrade (or, the other way around).

A bad approach to content upgrades, however, is to leave out anything of worth from the main content. It won’t get shared if it isn’t good in the first place, especially not on the merit of a downloadable item only part of your readers will see.

For a good place to start, go back through old content that gets a lot of traffic and add a content upgrade. You know the original piece is good enough already, so you’re not hiding value behind an email address wall, but you’re definitely harnessing the power of free stuff to build your list, generate leads and make sales.

So, go and check out your high traffic posts and start brainstorming ways you could make them better.

The ROI is so high, it’s hard to resist.


Free Coffee Photo via Shutterstock

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Vinay Patankar


Vinay Patankar Vinay Patankar is the CEO of Process Street, the simplest way to manage your teams recurring processes and workflows. Easily set up new clients, onboard employees and manage content publishing with Process Street. Vinay also blogs at Abstract Living about Startups, Nomadic travel and all things marketing.

3 Reactions

  1. Aira Bongco

    This concept is not new. People since 2008 have been using freebies to get e-mail addresses and it can also be used to get people to sign up in exchange for a freebie.

  2. This is a good way to attract targeted leads. Content upgrades, also work well if you offer it as an additional service, to your advertising, free. Its like getting 2 for the price of one.
    Then, besides offering an excellent service or product, just by adding a guarantee or an offer of a refund, it is a true value for the consumer.

    If you need merchant services, I’m on LinkedIn. We offer great low rates, with a guarantee that we can beat your current processing rates.

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