‘FREE!’ Is Indeed a Magic Word
In 1964, I was hired by Grolier Enterprises as a copywriter. Its business was to use space advertising and direct mail to sell books—the Harvard Classics to adults who wanted to decorate their bookshelves with pseudo-elegant "fibrated leather" bindings and Dr. Seuss books to parents to encourage their kids to read.
On the first day of work, my new boss, Lew Smith sat me down and delivered a one-hour introductory lecture on direct marketing and how it was different from traditional advertising, publicity and promotion. Perfectly groomed with dark hair, black-rimmed glasses, Smith was soft spoken, articulate and frequently very funny.
At one point he handed me a piece of paper—a short article from Saturday Review—by radio and television writer Goodman Ace titled: "The 12 Most Powerful Words in the English Language."
You - Save - Money - Easy - Guarantee - Health - Results - New - Love - Discovery - Safety - Proven
"Use as many of these words in your copy as possible," Smith told me. "They are evocative and readers respond to them."
Being a dutiful newbie, I typed up these 12 words and Scotch taped them to the base of my desk lamp where they would always be staring back at me.
I had nine jobs in my first 12 years in business and was fired from five of them. Whenever I changed jobs, the first thing I did in my new office was to retype these words and affix them to my desk lamp.
After 45 years, these 12 words are hard-wired into my brain and I use them whenever I can.
At some point I added a 13th word—FREE!
"FREE is a magic word," wrote the late guru Dick Benson.
Fred Breismeister—Master of FREE!
The power of the word "FREE" first came onto my radar back at Grolier Enterprises. One of the great mail order entrepreneurs of the time was John Stevenson, an elegant, sophisticated Brit who bought the bankrupt Greystone Press in the 1940s—not for its books, but rather for its wartime ration of paper.
John Stevenson—a close friend of Grolier president Elsworth Howell—hired copywriter Fred Breismeister from The New York Post and the two of them turned Greystone into a direct marketing behemoth that cranked out multi-volume encyclopedias—gardening, photography, handyman's, decorating and automobile repair among others—and multi-millions of dollars.
Their secret was to offer the first volume FREE! This was not just any low-key free! offer. Breismeister screamed FREE!
Take a moment to click on the first image in the mediaplayer at upper right. This was an early Breismeister ad that used FREE. Notice the book is being held by a man's hand with fingers curled around the bottom.
The Greystone direct mail packages arrived in giant 9" x 12" envelopes that contained a long letter in typewriter (Courier) type and a full color "bed sheet" circular that unfolded out to a huge 17" x 22". The cover illustration of these amazing brochures was the FREE book thrust directly at you and going back into deep perspective. In the distance was a human thumb holding the volume. The book was purposely slightly larger than the real thing and the thumb was smaller, so the reader got the impression that this thing was enormous.
The headline: "FREE! SEND FOR VOLUME 1! No obligation."
It was Breismeister, and his colleague Paul Michael, who came up with the "lift" letter—an extra insert designed to "lift" response by hammering home the FREE offer. On the outside of this small folded piece was the message that said, "Read this only if you have decided NOT to respond to this offer."
Inside was the headline in a handwriting font: "Frankly, I'm puzzled ..." The letter said that the offer is really, really FREE with no obligation to buy anything and you are nuts not to take advantage of this terrific offer.
The Power of FREE!
For over a century marketers have glommed onto the word FREE:
• In the late 1880s, Coca-Cola issued coupons good for one FREE Coke at you local soda fountain.
• The classic subscriber acquisition mailing for magazines: "Take the current issue FREE!"
• Visit FreeShipping.org and you will be connected to 4,000 online retailers that sweeten the shopping deal by eating all packing and shipping charges.
• Men's clothier Jos. A. Bank is all over television like a cheap suit with offers such as "Buy 1 Get 1 FREE!" and "Buy 1 Get 2 FREE!"
• At a time when airlines are loading fees and extras into every facet of their service, Southwest Airlines proclaims "BAGS FLY FREE!"
• To hype sales, car manufacturers offered free maintenance—oil changes, tire rotations, etc.—until they discovered their bottom lines were being clobbered. So Volvo, Chrysler and Mitsubishi backed off.
• At a time when daily newspapers are struggling to compete with TV news and the Internet, 100 cities in Europe and the Americas are being served by Metro FREE newspapers that reach a daily audience of more than 20 million and siphon advertising away from paid journals.
• And chalk one up to AP reporter Devlin Barrett for this witty lede:
WASHINGTON (AP) - Amtrak is trying to gin up new business by offering $100 in free alcohol to customers on some overnight trains. The national passenger rail company is making the unusual offer to promote a new high-end service being offered on a trial basis for certain sleeper car trips.
When NOT to Offer Something FREE!
What triggered this column was the WSJ Aug. 22, 2012 story, "When Freemium Fails," about the billing management company Chargify LLC that gave free software to merchants who billed fewer than 50 customers a month. For more than 50 customers, the charge was $49 a month.
A number of companies with less than 50 customers took advantage of the freebie. Those with more than 50 customers took a pass on the offer.
The offer bombed and the company nearly went into bankruptcy, saved by whisker when it changed its business model to paid.
Chargify made a huge error in not structuring precise tests.
The Danger of Giving Away the Thing You Are Trying to Sell
Every now and again you'll see a company offering a sweepstakes or a drawing with the prize(s) the very thing that they are selling.
The psychology of the prospect who fills out an entry ticket: "Why buy it when I can win it?"
Sweepstakes and drawings are good attention-getters, but never, oh never, give away what you are selling!
The exception: car dealerships offering a free car. To enter, the prospect has to go onto the lot and into the showroom, and maybe take a test drive. At that point, the romance with the car has started and the dealer has a likely buyer.
Takeaways to Consider
- "Free is a magic word." —Dick Benson
- I have a problem with the word FREE. I find it so powerful that I cannot bring myself to type it in lower case.
- Never give away as a prize the thing you are selling. (Exception: car dealerships.)
- Dick Benson on Premiums
— "A premium is a bribe to say yes now."
— "Promptness is often the best reason for giving the premium."
— "Dollar for dollar, premiums are better incentives than cash discounts."
— "Desirability is the key element of a premium; the relationship of the premium to the product isn't important."
— "Two premiums are frequently better than one."
- "Look for a premium with a high perceived value." —Dan Capell
- "Logical premiums pull better than illogical premiums." —Don Jackson
- "There are two rules in direct marketing—and two rules only. Rule No. 1: Test everything. Rule No. 2: See Rule No. 1." —Malcolm Decker
- Corollary to Decker's rules above: "Don't test whispers." —Ed Mayer
- What Mayer meant is that testing is expensive (although on the Internet it's relatively cheap). For example, don't test $29.95 vs. $29.99. Go for breakthroughs.
- "The Holy Grail of direct marketing is the single variable test." —Don Nicholas