The other day I was walking to our neighbor’s house to let his dog out. It was noon, bright, and hot. No wind, my hands in my pockets, my thoughts somewhere else.
As I rounded the corner, I ran into another neighbor — a thick, weathered man with short black hair. He was rolling a lawnmower to the end of his driveway.
He said, “You know anyone who wants a free lawnmower?”
I stopped and contemplated his offer. A free lawnmower? “Does it work?” I said.
“Yep,” he said.
I don’t need a lawnmower — mine is less than a year old — but the resourceful spirit of my grandfather said take it. You can figure out what to do with it afterwards.
That’s what free can do to you.
But then another voice, the Spartan spirit of my father, got the better of me, and I decided not to deal with it. To remain light. Lean.
My neighbor was still staring at me.
“No, I don’t know anyone, but I’ll ask around,” I said, and moved on.
Free has a funny effect on people
Our eternal attraction to free is equivalent to a child’s obsession with toys. We will never tire of it or evolve away from our love of free.
This is good news for marketers. But just because you give something away for free doesn’t mean you will get the conversion. Free’s job is simply to flag down the reader.
Let me explain.
When free content fails
Part of my job at Copyblogger Media involves reviewing the Content Marketer Certification application bundles. Inside each bundle is an article, promotional email, and landing page.
An applicant’s landing page often gives something away. An ebook, autoresponder series, or white paper. On average, there is a headline, a smidgen of introduction copy, three bullets, and then a call to action.
Each time I see landing pages like this I recommend more copy. Way more copy. And my reply amounts to this:
You can’t expect me to exchange my email address for that little bit of information — especially since there are thousands of other people, companies, and institutions enticing me with free content in exchange for my email address.
Your copy — even for free products — must build a formidable argument on why I’d be stupid to walk away from this particular content. I still may walk away, but I should regret it.
That’s harnessing the FoMO.
What happened when I fell into this trap
During my stint on Unbounce’s Page Fights, where we critiqued 10 landing pages in less than an hour, I also noticed some writers were happy to keep their copy at a bare minimum when it came to offering free content.
Now, I understand the temptation. I fell for it as a young cub. But it was John Carlton who woke me up from my dream with a stiff shove.
I sent him copy for a postcard promoting a free resource. He was kind enough to reply within minutes with a lengthy critique, but the essence of his message was, “You are being lazy.”
Why we fall into this trap
So why do we copywriters give in to the temptation of writing too little when it comes to promoting free content?Heidi Grant Halvorson has the answer:
There’s a bias we call the transparency illusion, which is again almost entirely universal. And it’s that we all tend to think that our intentions and thoughts are much more clear to other people than they actually are.
As copywriters, our thinking goes something like this: because we understand the value behind the headline, introduction copy, three bullet points, and call to action, we assume our visitors have that same knowledge.
In other words, we fall under the curse of knowledge.
But in reality, when your prospect comes across a landing page that’s light on copy, something entirely different happens.
In an automatic, very rapid, and completely below awareness way (what Halverson calls “phase one of perception”), our prospect examines the copy and assumes if the copy is thin, then the free content is probably thin, too.
Fortunately, the fix is simple.
How to fix free content fails
So a simple fix is just to say it. Like say more, be more explicit. If you think to yourself, well, I bet he knows what I meant, no, he didn’t. Go back and say it. Say it explicitly.
The advice is reminiscent of the sales proverb: “The more you tell, the more you sell.”
Halverson’s advice lines up with Carlton’s advice, which ultimately follows a long tradition of direct response copywriting.
What I hope you get out of this post
You want your ideal prospect to encounter at least one thing she must know when she reads through your copy.
More than likely, though, she’ll discover other things she must know. This, in turn, increases the value of the offer while decreasing her resistance to handing over her email address.
You, dear writer, have to sit yourself in your writing chair, assume nothing, and pile on as many benefits as possible so your ideal prospect feels silly walking away from your offer.
Even if it’s for something free. Like an old lawnmower.
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