What are you giving away at your business
Expand the Shelf Life of Free
Expand the Shelf Life of Free

What Does Your Business Give Away

Giving stuff away is nothing new to business owners. Remember S and H Green Stamps, where you collected stamps given away at gas stations with the hope of amassing enough stamps in your booklet for something from their gift catalog?  Fast food restaurants have toys for the kids meals, retailers have sales all the time, with some having way too many. Not to mention cereal companies have had free gifts inside since the beginning of time. And, for those of us old enough to remember, there was the famed Cracker Jack “Toy Surprise” inside. That was a pretty big hit for me as a kid, although I didn’t really care for the Cracker Jacks all that much.

Whole business models today are based on free. Chris Anderson of Wired magazine even wrote a book entitled Free: The Future of a Radical Price which examines the rise of pricing models that give products and services to customers for free. In it, he made some startling observations. While some of Anderson’s ideas are radical, it is hard to debate the impact of free today with things like Wikipedia, Facebook and Google, all of which are based on the concept of being free.

Think about Craig Newmark, who single handedly brought the newspaper business to its knees with Craigslist, which is free to use. All it took for the newspaper industry to buckle was a centralized network of online communities featuring free online classified advertisements with sections devoted to jobs, housing, personals, for sale, services, community, gigs, résumés, and discussion forums.

How does the small business owner make sense of the free model?

In the rental business, when apartment operators start to see vacancy rise, the “One Month’s Free Rent” banners go out. Since rental fees are my core business, I have never been a free rent guy. The valuation of free rent in the customers eye evaporates at the lease signing. To a large extent, the same logic applies in retail with a sale everyday. The average sale just isn’t special or noteworthy.

Expanding the shelf life of free

By accident, we at Urbane Apartments stumbled on to something when asking the question, “How can we actually get back value for giving something away?” In our case, we created a non-traditional Co Work Office Space in an underutilized clubhouse for the typical nomad that was working from Starbucks or Panera Bread. Our first thought was to charge for desk space and create a bit of extra income for resident events. What unfolded for us was a whole new corridor of opportunity.

The word about the free co-work space quickly zipped through the local community, and we suddenly had a a group of folks talking about us, tweeting about us, posting pictures on facebook and checking in on Foursquare to see who else was at the space that day. Local civic groups followed up wanting to rent the space for different charity events. The local news stations got wind and did feature stories. The point being, we could not afford the type of local PR we received. And while our newfound evangelists weren’t talking about our apartment rentals directly, we were part of a larger conversation. The overall value to our business was overwhelming.

So think about creative ways that you can expand what you are giving away. Think about what your competitors would give away, then push beyond and find something that might just be more compelling. As we’ve learned, everything free is not created equal.

What has worked for you? What have other businesses given away that has made you take pause and pay attention? Please share in the comments.

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About the Author

Eric Brown
Eric Brown's background is rooted in the rental and real estate industries. He founded metro Detroit’s Urbane Apartments in 2003, after serving as senior vice president for a major Midwest apartment developer. He established a proven track record of effectively repositioning existing rental properties in a way that added value for investors while enhancing the resident experience. He also established The Urbane Way, a social media marketing and PR laboratory, where innovative marketing ideas are tested.
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  • As an Autoblogger, I started out with some free stickers. Car kids love stickers. From there everything grew.

  • Such a good question, (How can we get back something of value in return for giving something away free?). I don't think I'm quite there yet, as a kitchen designer, but I have done a couple of unconventional things (I guess they qualify as free-for-value later?):

    1. I have “Open Kitchens” twice a year. They're like Open Houses, but just my kitchen, which is remodeled with the cabinets & materials I recommend for my clients most often. People get to learn about kitchen design, & ask particular questions about their own kitchens. It's free to them, & I often get clients out of it later.

    2. I had a bunch of jar openers printed up with my logo & web addy on one side & the green recycle triangle on the other. They're made from recycled tires, so they walk the talk. They also usually live in the kitchen of the people I give them to, so are a subtle reminder in the room I specialize in designing.

  • Gary Skalyo

    Great Job Eric. I recently listed my house with a Realtor. And he put a lock box on my door. This was a really good lockbox though, with a rubberized body, a nice upgrade since my last real estate experience.
    Despite the lockbox not being the scratch the door kind, I was intrigued when I arrived home a day or so later and there was a nice, color coordinated neopreme-style door protector underneath the lockbox. It was die-cut just a touch larger than the lockbox.

    I thought, that was thoughtful of Michael (my Realtor). It turns out it was placed there by a Home Inspection output with a subtle “think about us” message (for when you buy your new home). I thought the attention to detail (as one of my pet peeves is lockboxes scratching doors, and the like) is exactly what I would look for in a Home Inspector.

    Off-Line, Low-Tech – but effective. I am hanging onto that for the contact info

  • Your last section is a great read, very important for small businesses especially. Trying to obtain value from the gratis items you are giving away is important to protect your margins and overall profitability.

  • Eric – it's definitely a shift in mindset to give things of real value away for free. One approach that we've taken with one of the top sales speakers in the US (who is a client) is have someone sign up for a teleseminar and they get a free ebook/audio asset (which, coming from him, they know is valuable). And then if they email three other friends about the teleseminar, they get another valuable audio/learning resource. These intellectual resources are the gift that keeps on giving for our client because it took him just once to produce it, but it carries its value no matter how freely it's distributed.

    • UrbaneWay

      Expand the Shelf Life of Free
      Eddy, Good Morning, Your last sentence says it all, “The gift that keeps on giving”, I think that is what Expanding the Value of Free is all about,

  • Free Logo T Shirts build my mailing list and I get people wearing my logo- advertising for me. It also builds my Facebook following so I have more people as an audience.

  • Hi Eric, love this! The positive chatter, community, and connections you create are priceless — so much more powerful than transparent traditional sales. Communities can offer their conference rooms/clubhouses, their pools for life guard/swimming lessons, tennis courts for lessons for free tennis lessons, as a place to host pet adoptions, clubhouse for public speed dating/cooking classes/bookclubs, so many ways “free” can be used to benefit the business and the community. Thanks, really enjoyed your article!

    • UrbaneWay

      Expand the Shelf Life of Free
      Good Morning, than you for the comments. You are right, there are a zillion different ways to offer up Free, that provide great value to the prospect, and less pain to the business.

      Our next marketing adventure kicking off in the spring of 2011 is urban farming plots at a few of our apartment communities. We have partnered with the local urban farmer, where he provides the equipment and expertise, and we provide the land, and in return our residents across our portfolio get a bag of organic vegetables a week from the farmers market. We think this may be really cool.

  • Along with “How can we actually get back value for giving something away?” a business owner should also ask, “Are we offering something that a customer actually values?” How many times have you seen “Sign up and get a free whatever!” or “Buy this and get that free!” and the free thing is hopelessly lame? It makes the entire product or service seem undesirable.

    Now, free work space, that's awesome!

    • UrbaneWay

      Getting Value From Free,
      Hi Angelique, Completely agree, some businesses “Give Away” are almost insulting, but when you can hit on something that the customer perceives as Remarkable, it really has a significant marketing value,

  • E, Nice post. Mr. Godin wrote an interesting book on this topic as well. http://www.sethgodin.com/freeprize/ I like what you are doing with free, and I think there are plenty of other ways for management companies to look at “free” a bit differently.

    • UrbaneWay

      When You Get Something From Free,
      Thanks for stopping by Mark, much appreciated. Sometimes we just need to think a little creatively about how we are marketing. Free Rent is never a good idea,

  • Great stuff, Eric. As you know, I've been a proponent of the co-working idea for some time, so I'm glad to hear it's having such a positive impact on your business.

    I've been thinking about ways that this concept can apply to professional services organizations and consultants. Besides free content, where do you see opportunities for “ideas” businesses to put this model into practice?

    • UrbaneWay

      Get Something for your Free Offer, You bring up a great point Mike, I think that what you don't want to give away is your core product, it simply is to expensive. However, a restaurant could give away Free Cooking Classes, a Wine Shop, Free Tastings, you give away free advice via #AptChat.

      The point to that is important is that it has value to the recipient, meaning, who needs a free pen anymore?


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