Freebies and fishhooks

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There’s a practice in online marketing that’s been around long enough that pretty much everyone does it. In fact, if you participate in ANY online business-building program, you’re bound to come across it fairly early on.

Whether you call it a pink spoon, a lead magnet, a lighthouse offer, or whatever, the idea is the same – create some sort of free resource that people have to sign up to receive. Once they hand over their contact info, you (in theory) have carte blanche to send them a bunch of other emails – your newsletter, offers for products, etc.

It seems like a reasonable tactic, so what does it have to do with fishhooks?

Everything, really.

Just like a fisher{person} puts a juicy looking worm on a hook, in order to lure in the unsuspecting fish, freebies are often used to hide the “hook” of online marketers. Readers sign up because they want help with whatever challenge they’re facing – not because they want to be inundated with offers and emails.

Even worse, many online marketers will teach you to take this freebie a step further; to capitalize on two social triggers – reciprocity and commitment – to lure readers further into your “funnel” in the hopes of extracting as much money out of them as possible.

It’s manipulative as fuck, and a shit way to treat your Right People.

The problem is, it works.

And as “everyone” knows, building an online business means building an online audience, and gathering emails is one of the best ways to build an audience that can pay your bills. (After all, if you aren’t making money, you have a hobby, not a business.)

Maybe you’ve seen this tactic… maybe you’re using it right now. Does that make you a Sleazy Internet Marketer™?

Not at all! Ok, well maybe… but only if you’re doing it knowing that it’s a slimy bait and switch and you don’t really care.

But since you’re here, on a site dedicated to values-based business owners who want to change the world, I’m gonna give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you didn’t know, and had good intentions.

Part of what’s so horrible about these sorts of tactics is that they’re presented as being so normal, so necessary, that most people don’t really question them. Even those of us who do are met with justifications like, “it’s for your customer’s own good, they need your help.”

And god(dess) help us, that part is true. Your Right People do need your help (that’s a HUGE part of what makes them your Right People).

There’s two things horribly wrong with this argument though;

  1. It sets an incredibly unhealthy dynamic for what should be a relationship between you and your peeps. Instead of being built on mutual values and respect, you’re depending on manipulation and mind games.

*ehem* My apologies for shouting.

The thing is, it really isn’t necessary. You don’t need to manipulate your peeps to get them to buy in… remember, they really do need your help. They want your help – or rather, they need someone’s help.

And do you really want to be the person who manipulated them into seeking out your help? Or would you rather be the person who builds real trust (not this bullshit perceived trust that relies on social triggers and mind games)?

Getting something in return for the hard work you’ve put in to creating resources is NOT gross or sleazy… acting like you’re giving away resources for nothing when, in fact, people’s contact info is one of the most valuable resources a business can have? That is gross, sleazy, and dishonest.

So what’s a values-based business owner to do?!

You don’t want to be manipulative, but you DO need to build your audience… and yeah, it would be REALLY nice to gather those emails so you can make offers directly to your audience. (And, you know, pay the bills…)

Here’s the thing; providing valuable resources to your audience is a GOOD thing. Gathering emails from your audience is ALSO a good thing.

The thing that’s NOT good is playing games of bait and switch.

If you’re going to offer a freebie in exchange for someone’s email, be honest. Tell them that you’ll be adding them to your newsletter list, and that they may receive offers from you in the future.

Make it EASY for them to unsubscribe from your list if all they wanted was the freebie (trust me, you’re better off with a small list of people who actually want to hear from you anyway).

Don’t be one of those asshats who makes the “unsubscribe” button nearly impossible to find (true story, I once got an email from a company who made the entire “here’s how to unsubscribe” sentence the exact same color as the background. I knew it had to be there, so I just selected all text and voila – there it was. Jerks.)

Also, for the love of all that’s holy, make sure the resource you’ve created is actually useful for your people! There’s more than enough crap freebies on the internet already (and dear lord, PLEASE don’t give a tiny useless “taste” that’s really just a sales pitch for your Awesome Expensive Program – i.e. nearly every webinar ever).

That doesn’t mean you have to build something huge and complicated – in fact, small and simple is generally better for a “small taste” kind of resource… but again, it does need to actually solve a problem. Preferably the problem you told them it would solve (again, no bait and switch, that’s for the fisher{people}).

Which reminds me, do everyone a favor and don’t oversell your freebie.

The internet is all about hype these days, but the more AMAZING(!!!) you try to make your freebie sound, the harder it’s going to be to live up to expectations. Part of not being a Sleazy Internet Marketer is being honest – plus, as a values-based business owner, this will work in your favor. It’s MUCH easier to share your stuff when you’re not trying to fake SUPER HYPE EXCITE and can just talk honestly about what it is and how your Right People can benefit from it.

Finally, consider alternatives to the typical “freebie funnel”

  • Share snippets of your newsletter on social media, and invite people to sign up to read the rest (does this sound too simple to work? It’s not. In fact, this is how I ended up on the only lists I’ve kept and read)
  • Let people know that newsletter subscribers get first dibs on new deals / products / services / whatever it is you sell
  • If you really like creating resources, you could put a resource library on your website, password protect it, and make it accessible to subscribers only (like this!)

How do any of these differ from the freebie fishhook? Good question!

The traditional freebie fishhook promises a benefit, but relies on bait and switch; “here’s this free thing that you can get, if you just sign up here!” they say. And then they take that contact info and put it to all sorts of additional uses. Sure, savvy internet users know by now that they’ll be getting added to newsletters and sales pitch lists… but it’s never explicitly stated up front. And not everyone is as savvy as you and I.

The alternatives I’ve listed above also offer benefits in exchange for contact information. But there’s no bait and switch.

You tell your peeps, “I’d love to connect with you, and I want to make it worth your while, so if you give me your contact information, here are all these cool benefits you’ll get in return.” (Feel free to steal that. Post it all over the social medias. Honesty is sexy, yo.)

Ultimately, only you can decide what the best option for you is.

But consider this; do you really want your readers to feel like fish reeled in on a hook? Or would you rather build relationships based on mutual values and respect?

Postscript – giving credit where credit is due;

Many thanks to Kelly Diels, whose recent newsletter helped me clarify my own feelings towards the “freebie fishhook funnel” (as I’ve started to think of it), and to Fabeku Fatunmise, whose own rants about crap freebies inspired me to think more critically about the freebies I create and offer to the world.


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