It’s Free! (So why aren’t you taking it?)

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The dichotomy of “free” has been long been known to all of us: it’s exciting, because getting something for nothing is usually great. But it’s also cause for suspicion, causing us to wonder what’s in it for the giver?

Both of these are valid. People love free stuff, but it often comes with conditions: the free trial, where you probably had to give your credit card number and then hope you remember when it ends before they charge you and you haven’t really decided if you want said service; Buy One, Get One free (BOGO), which is cool but only if you need more than one of something; a free e-product or source, in exchange for your email. There are even free product days (ice cream!), where the condition might be only getting a certain type/kind/color of product.

Sometimes it seems like there are no conditions, but that’s never true. There is ALWAYS a pay-off for the giver, no matter what. Here are some examples from my own life:

– When I moved to the forest, there were lots of animal shacks on my property, a lot of fencing, and an above ground pool in good condition with a small deck around it. I did not want any of that, so I listed it on Craigslist for free. If someone could take it down and haul it away, they could have it. The response was overwhelming, and everything was taken. The pay-off for me? I did not have to take it down myself, and I did not have to haul it away to the dump. The people who took those things were happy to have them, and I was happy to have them gone. Win-win.

– When I set up my consulting work I, like any online company, created a downloadable guide with useful information for those who would like to subscribe to my email list. Companies often give something to consumers, such as an e-product or a discount code, when they subscribe to the company list. The pay-off for the company is to be able to communicate with the subscriber about things the company thinks the subscriber would enjoy/want to know about. As long as the information shared is valuable and the subscriber can unsubscribe at any time if desired, it’s a win-win.

– This summer, I started a weekly drawing where I give away an hour of free consulting to whoever wins the random drawing that week. The pay-off: I get to give back to my community (which feels good!) and I get to meet someone new, or reconnect with someone I know and haven’t worked with before, or I get a bonus hour with someone with whom I already work. It spreads awareness about what I do while helping someone at the same time. Win-win. (If this sounds exciting to you, you can read about it here )

The benefits of free are evident and it’s an attractive concept. Have you ever seen someone who was unimpressed with getting something for free? It’s fairly rare…so why are we also so skeptical about it?

The most obvious reason is abuse of the term ‘free’ – people have used this as a bait for ulterior motives for their own gain, which no one likes (cable company contracts…grrr…). When there is no real value in the win for the consumer, or the win-win ratio is heavily skewed in the favor of the giver, it tends to sour the concept of free, and so the consumer approaches such offers with a skeptical eye. They tend to ask not what’s in it for themselves, but what’s in it for the giver. People want to know why someone would give something away for free.

And it’s a reasonable question. You always deserve to know, and if the giver says “for no reason,” that’s often a red flag. As I mentioned, there is ALWAYS a reason, even if it’s just so the giver feels good about him/herself. This is the number one reason people give donations to non-profits – it’s not for the tax write off, it’s because it makes them feel like they are doing good for a cause that they think is important.

So the concept of free is polarizing: it either attracts because the ratio of gain to loss favors the gain, or it repels because of one’s fear that the loss might outweigh the potential gain.

The best way to determine whether a free offer is to your advantage is to weigh the pros and the cons. Here are some examples:

– Free product day: Let’s use the ice cream example (since Free Ice Cream Day is actually a real thing). You know you will get a free scoop of ice cream. For some people, a scoop is plenty of ice cream; for others, it’s a small amount. You know that there will be a ton of people there, most likely with a lot of children. That’s often a loud environment in a small amount of space, there probably won’t be anywhere to sit, and you might wait in line (out the door) for quite some time depending on the amount of people in line and how fast the store is moving people through. So whether it’s worth it to you to get the free ice cream depends on the following formula:

How much you really want to save a few dollars   X   The amount of ice cream you get
How tolerant you are of waiting, large crowds, and (screaming) children

For me, this is a no brainer – I’ll spend the $3 later and avoid the environment. One of my good friends, however, completely disagrees: when asked if she would brave the conditions to get free ice cream, her response was, “Duh! I can’t believe that’s even a question.”

– Get a discount code/free offer/info product from a company online: Typically, the trade-off for this is an email address. You know you will get whatever is being offered from the company. You know that you will have to give your email address in return for it. Whether that’s worth it or not depends on how much you think you would enjoy the offer and whether there is a clear “abandon ship” message (You may unsubscribe at any time!). If that’s the case, you don’t have much to lose since you can unsubscribe if you don’t like it or decide for whatever reason you don’t want to be connected anymore. Thus:

How much you like the offer   X   Your interest/potential interest in the company
How easy/difficult it is to reject the circumstances if you don’t like them

This is something on which I don’t mind taking a chance. There are many companies from which I like to receive info and offers because I find their products/services to be valuable. To avoid inbox craze, I have a dedicated email address for these things. If I find that a particular company is emailing me way too much for my taste (Dear Sportsman’s Guide, 2-3 emails a day is really too much…) or if I no longer care for the value, I may unsubscribe from that email service even if I still like the company and the products/services.

Some sites provide email preferences, where you can adjust the kinds of emails and the frequency to your satisfaction. Just like the value of the ice cream, this is individual for each person.

So, to each their own. Rather than jumping at free or shying away from it, find out what the payoff is for the giver (if possible) so that you know whether it’s an awesome/fair offer and if it’s actually something to be excited about or not. Turns out there are a lot of great things available for free, if you’re willing to invest the time. And sometimes the only amount of time needed is very little – just enough to read about the offer itself.

(P.S. It should go without saying, but ethics should always play a part in this as well. Just because something is free doesn’t mean it’s right to take it. Be sure it’s being offered legitimately.)

I’m giving away free consulting! Click here to get access to my free subscriber info, including marketing tips and exclusive subscriber deals, delivered once a week to your inbox. You’ll also get a FREE copy of my QuickGuide, The Best 3 Ways to Make or Break Your Performance Career, and you’ll be entered into a weekly drawing for a FREE hour of consulting! 🙂