“I saw the word ‘free’ used effectively in an ad recently,” ETR’s editor Charlie Byrne told me.

“Jimmy Buffett is coming to town, and there are MANY tickets for his concert being offered on eBay. If you look at the listings, you’ll see ‘Buffett Tickets for Sale!’ . . . ‘Jimmy Buffett — Good Seats’ . . . ‘Excellent Buffett Tix for Sale’ . . . ad infinitum.

“But one clever seller took advantage of the fact that Buffett’s fans love to party before the concerts — especially with Corona beer, the one you squeeze limes into. It’s become kind of a ritual for these ‘Parrotheads.’

“So for his ad, he wrote: ‘Buffett Tickets + Free Corona and Limes!!!’ — and I noticed that this ad got MANY more ‘hits’ than any of the others.

Another demonstration of the power of a FREE offer.” (In case you’re wondering how the guy provided free beer and limes . . . if you buy his tickets (for $400 or so), he throws in a $10 gift certificate for a local Florida supermarket chain.)

In his book “How to Turn Words Into Money”, millionaire entrepreneur and master direct marketer Ted Nicholas devotes quite a bit of space to discussing the power of the word “free.”

“I’ve never sold anything that didn’t sell better after offering free bonuses and gifts,” says Ted. “‘Free’ is the most powerful word in the English language. If you’re not using gifts and bonuses in your marketing operations now, your sales in many cases will go up two, three, and four times.”

Years ago, one of my friends worked in a medical ad agency. The clients were large pharmaceutical manufacturers targeting doctors with promotions about new drugs.

The agency used direct mail to invite doctors to free seminars (called “symposia”) — educational programs about the diseases the drugs treated, designed to get the doctors to prescribe their drugs. The agency split-tested a straightforward invitation vs. a version that offered a free gift — a pocket day planner — as an incentive to attend the event. The wholesale cost of each planner, including imprinting the client’s logo, was about $1.

The invitation offering the free planner generated six times the response generated by the one that didn’t offer the gift. (And keep in mind that, even back then, the doctors the invitations were mailed to were making handsome, six-figure annual incomes . . . and could certainly afford to buy their own pocket calendars.)

That’s six times the results — just because of the offer of a little free gift. Something the doctors might very well toss in the trash if it arrived unsolicited in the mail.

I am asked at least once a week the following question: “Bob, hasn’t the word ‘free’ lost its power?”

The person asking the question is concerned that, because of overuse and the increasing sophistication of readers, “free” is no longer effective.

My answer is always the same:

“‘Free’ alone is not enough today to make a promotion profitable. In the early days of direct marketing, perhaps it was. But now, there are so many people using the word in their ads that simply saying ‘free’ does not make you stand out. You need something more, like a powerful benefit or unique selling proposition — or a masterfully written promotion.

“But once you come up with those things, combine them with a free offer. Because saying ‘free’ still, even today, increases response significantly vs. the same copy without stressing a free offer.”

Bottom line: FREE still works. Use FREE for yourself and see!

Bob Bly

Bob Bly is an independent copywriter and consultant specializing in business-to-business and direct marketing. He has been hired as a consultant by such companies as Sony, Chemical Bank, J. Walter Thompson, Westinghouse, and Prentice-Hall. Bob is also the author of more than 50 books including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Direct Marketing (Alpha Books), Targeted Public Relations, Selling Your Services, How to Promote Your Own Business, and Keeping Clients Satisfied. A phenomenal public speaker, Bob will share with you how easy it is to start your own business. Whether you’re ready to quit your job or are just looking to make a little money on the side, you’ll want to hear Bob’s advice.

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