Are Freebies Dead?

My mind has been focused a lot lately on how to attract and entice higher-end businesses to my business. And over the past year, it’s become exceedingly clear that the tactics I used to market to business owners for my DIY course and products were not going to work to attract bigger businesses.

But why?

In early 2017, my operations gal and I decided to run a reengagement campaign, clean my email list of people who were no longer engaged, and then survey the remaining people on my list about what they were interested in.

We did this because I wanted to shift my focus from selling DIY products to done-for-you services. (I’ve always offered those services, but I wanted to focus my attention there; and I still offer DIY courses, but I rarely promote them.)

In any case, the results were kind of staggering to me. 

We started with a little over 6,000 people on my list, and when the cleaning was done, that number was cut by more than half. Of the 2,500 or so people who remained, only about 60 of them said they were interested in strategy.

(For those of you doing the math at home, that’s just under 2.5% of my list interested in what I actually wanted to sell. OUCH.) 

Once I got through the grieving process — because take my word for it, there was grieving involved! — I started thinking about why. Why was my list so heavily interested in tactics (ie: DIY) and not in strategy, when I thought I’d been talking about strategy all along?

Know thy customer

Digging into this really brought me back to business 101, which is the old chestnut that you have to know your customer almost better than you know yourself. 

I thought that my ideal customer for my services was probably just further along in business than the people who would be ideal for my course. In my mind, that meant that they would probably be interested in the same sorts of content. I assumed they had the same problems, but would want to solve them in different ways. 

That’s still mostly true. One thing I’ve learned working with and paling around with more experienced and more successful entrepreneurs than I is that the problems tend to be the same, they’re just bigger. 

What I did not take into account, however, was how those people like to consume content. 

All throughout 2016, I focused hard on creating how-to content, free worksheets, and doing webinars to grow my business. But all those people I added to my list were only interested in the DIY stuff.


Because more experienced, more successful entrepreneurs simply do not do the same things that newer entrepreneurs do: They don’t sign up for many email lists; they aren’t tempted by freebies; and they have to really trust you to take an hour out of their day to watch a webinar.

When I polled a community of my ideal customers about their email habits, exactly zero business owners mentioned an opt-in freebie that got them to sign up for someone’s list. Some said that they still sign up for lists for self-care or personal subjects, others said they would sign up to a list to study someone else’s marketing and try to reverse engineer it. But overwhelmingly people said the only reason they got on an email list was because they liked the person and found them interesting.

Freebies aren’t the path to every customer

Clearly, freebies and lead magnets are not enticing to my ideal customer these days. That’s not to say this tactic doesn’t still work for a lot of niches — just not for mine. 

I find this fascinating because still, to this day, most of the content marketing advice I see out there suggests having a lead magnet to gather email addresses — regardless of who your target audience is.

Retail store? Offer a freebie.
Celebrity life coach? Offer a freebie.
Accountant? Offer a freebie.

But it has become excruciatingly clear to me that this isn’t a one-size-fits-all tactic.

Does it build your email list? Absolutely.

Will those people be customers? …Maybe not.

It’s on us to do the reconnaissance to know whether or not our ideal customers even want a freebie, let alone what kind of freebie will entice them. 

What’s the alternative?

If freebie offers aren’t enticing the kinds of customers I (and maybe you) want to attract, what’s the alternative?

Instead of guessing this time, I’ve instead cozied up to my frenemy data and started looking at my own numbers. Turns out, my biggest sources of good clients are word-of-mouth referrals and a business membership group I belong to — to the tune of 70% of my business combined! 

And only a tiny fraction of my customers have actually come from my email list.

For my clients, it varies widely. Some of them are having absolutely stellar results running challenges and free email courses. Others are doing well offering webinars. Some are still seeing results with classic lead magnets like worksheets and ebooks by using aggressive and targeted follow-up email campaigns. 

The point is, we have to keep an open mind about the strategy and tactics that will work for our particular business. It’s no longer enough to settle for the one-size-fits all solution — and it’s no longer enough to assume that something is working for you without the data to back it up.

Are you still getting good results with classic freebies and opt-ins? If so, let us know in the comments below along with what you sell and your target market. I’d love to do an informal poll!  

19 thoughts on “Are Freebies Dead?

  1. Wow, thank you for this. I’m only starting out but I have been thinking I need to rethink my strategy. I’ve just started my first creative writing program and what you’re saying has been nagging at me…most of the people who have signed up or shown interest with me don’t seem to care much about my freebie. Why would they? I offer individual writing feedback…that’s not in the freebie, of course.

    1. Yeah! It’s a fine line to walk, isn’t it? Maybe you can rethink what’s in the freebie to appeal more to your ideal customer. What do people who get your individual feedback need BEFORE they sign up?

  2. The point is, we have to keep an open mind about the strategy and tactics that will work for our particular business. It’s no longer enough to settle for the one-size-fits all solution — and it’s no longer enough to assume that something is working for you without the data to back it up. This stood out cos, I have been working on my automation for a while now and it just doesn’t give me joy and I have been thinking of going the way of community based lead-generation and then inviting people to have a coffee date over business with me. I don’t know how that will work, But I am sure going to explore it.

  3. Am not surpised with the success you’re seeing with referrals. You’re benfiting from a trust-exhange that doesn’t directly involve you. the freebie is a gesturethat begins to develop a trusting relationship. But higher end clients don’t need it – maybe because they don’t have time – they want results sooner. Just a thought…

    1. Absolutely! I think online biz owners who have been in biz longer have probably also burned out on those tactics a bit. They’ve gotten way too many worthless freebies and spammy emails; they’re less likely to pony up their email address just on a whim.

  4. I’m restructuring my business to work mostly with editing online materials and hardcover books for health & wellness practitioners. I find myself slipping into freebies to help them create an editorial calendar and/or blog effortlessly. The result? Not much traction. Those I most want to work with have no desire or need for the opt-ins. The people that seem interested in the freebies are pretty much starting out in their online ventures.
    So, I’m guessing the best option is the business relationship route as opposed to convincing people to subscribe to an email list.

  5. I’ve gotten all of my copywriting clients through word-of-mouth, Facebook groups, or cold pitching. My email list engagement is PITIFUL. For my fiction email list? That bad boy just keeps growing. It really does depend what you’re pushing! But this post has taken the pressure off me to try and build a list for a business that works better when people have the chance to talk to me first.

  6. Really smart post. I had been wondering if I really needed a freebie like all the gurus suggest, but this confirms my gut instinct that there’s just no need for that in my business. I am also aiming for a higher-end clientele. My question is, should I still have an email opt-in?

    1. I would ALWAYS give people the option to get on your list, because if they want to hear from you, that means they’re engaged.

  7. A great post thank you. My coaching business is young and I have a small list and it’s like pulling teeth to get women to want a freebie that I pour so much energy and time into creating – but they tell you to do that. I built my other business of 30 years, on building relationships with face to face networking and referrals. This is difficult to scale as a coach, so I’m beginning to formulate a plan to do this with video to see if that will encorage a relationship.

  8. Yes!this. I’ve been struggling with this as well because my clients tend to be higher end with no time for freebies or opting in, or frankly doing it themselves. They come to me for quick and effective action, but start with getting to know me on a call. So, really, my opt in is a free call.

  9. This post is perfectly timed as I want to add more DIY resources for a secondary audience. Email marketing is like pulling teeth for me but I’m trying something different that will lead to videos and blog posts to educate and give away information. I do get my DFY clients by word of mouth and the approach to that is different from email marketing because they don’t want to sign up for another list.

    Long story short…you’ve given me great food for thought.

    1. I always think you should try to play to your strengths, Lee. So if email marketing is hard for you, either outsource it or focus on a different marketing channel.

  10. Thanks for this, Lacy! I’ve recently realized that my list probably aren’t really big ticket item buyers either and I’m trying to decide if I should create low ticket items to help create more buyers and then move them down the funnel.

    Most of my big ticket clients found me through word of mouth, joined my mailing list and then contacted me individually OR found me on social media and never joined my list.

    In other words, I’m trying to figure out if I need a list in the first place if they’re not really clients and if so, why. Why do you continue engaging with your list if they’re unlikely to become buyers?

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