The Freebie Myth: Should You Include an Opt-In Bonus When Building Your Email List?

Have you included an opt-in bonus for people who sign up to your email list? I break down the pros and cons of including freebies when building your list.

I was always taught to include some kind of opt-in bonus freebie when building an email list. Whether it’s an ebook, a course, a report or something else, a freebie will capture people’s attention and grab new subscribers.

I mean, who doesn’t love something for free, right?

Well, at Blog World Expo last week, an interesting discussion came up during Thursday’s lunch banquet. It started when Maren Kate from Escapingthe9to5.com shared that when she took out her opt-in bonus freebie, more people ended up subscribing to her list.

Why do you think this happened?

My guess is that sometimes a particular opt-in bonus can actually repel new subscribers simply because the freebie isn’t something a person may want or need. In other words, at times the freebie can overshadow what the primary purpose of subscribing is, such as for a newsletter or other exclusive content.

The Overshadowing Effect

This “overshadowing effect” can lead to other possible consequences that you should also be aware of that can happen when people do end up subscribing to your list:

1. A Lot of Unsubscribes

Some people will subscribe to your list simply to get a hold of your opt-in bonus, but don’t plan on them sticking around for long. Once they get any more emails from you they’ll unsubscribe because they already have what they wanted.

2.  A Non-Responsive List

Some people who just want your opt-in bonus will stay subscribed to your list, but will never click on any links in your emails, or may not even open your emails at all. This really messes with your metrics: your active subscriber count, your open rates and click through rates are going to be a little off.

On the flip side, if you do not offer a freebie, your subscribers know what they are getting into and you can be confident that you’ll have exactly the kinds of people you want on your list.

Should You Ditch the Opt-in Bonus?

Not so fast. It really depends.

Of course, the best thing you can do is split test your opt-in area to see which scenario converts best for you. There are a lot of factors involved and each website is totally different, so testing is really the only way to know what’s best.

This discussion did make me think twice about my opt-in bonus, but as you can tell, I continue to offer my free ebook, Ebooks the Smart Way, here on this blog as a bonus for subscribing to my newsletter. I’ve been doing this since I started offering my newsletter at the beginning of 2010, and it seems to be working well for me so far. I currently entertain 6,203 subscribers and am averaging a growth rate of 41 per day. Editor’s Note, 2023: This bonus is no longer offered, as writing an ebook is less impactful these days than it was when this article was published. Subscribers tend to prefer shorter items, such as checklists and cheat sheets.

Although I do have a rather large number of unsubscribes (966, which is about 13.5%), I know that keeping my ebook as a freebie is the right thing for me to do, and here’s why:

Cool Tip: In your opt-in bonus, tell people that if they want to share it with anyone, to send them to particular link which a landing page that describes your freebie and your newsletter, if applicable. Of course, make sure to include an opt-in form on that page as well. This way, you can remind your subscribers that they can share your freebie, and you can make sure their leads get onto your list too.

Although I know I’ll lose some subscribers because of the “overshadowing effect,” I think that in the long run I’ll have a bigger and better list and blog because of all of the above reasons.

If you don’t already have some kind of email list or newsletter setup for your site, you’re definitely behind. I started this blog almost 2 years ago and introduced my newsletter well over a year later. I definitely missed out on the chance of having a much larger email list than I do now. If you don’t know where to start, I recommend you read The Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Newsletter, and if you’re looking for instructions about how to create an opt-in bonus freebie…well…Ebooks the Smart Way is definitely there to help.

So What Do You Think? Freebie, or no freebie—what has worked best for you?



  • Pat Flynn

    Hi, I’m Pat, founder of SPI and host of the Smart Passive Income Podcast. Let’s continue the conversation over in our communities.

Get Unstuck in just 5 minutes, for free

Our weekly Unstuck newsletter helps online entrepreneurs break through mental blocks, blind spots, and skill gaps. It’s the best 5-minute read you’ll find in your inbox.

Free newsletter. Unsubscribe anytime.

Join 135k+

Subscribers