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

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

By Pat Flynn on

I was always taught to include some kind of 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 shared that when she took out her freebie, more people ended up subscribing to her list.

Why do you think this happened?

My guess is that sometimes a particular freebie 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 freebie, 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 freebie 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 Freebie?

Not so fast. It really depends.

Of course, the best thing you can do is split test your opt-in area (using a tool such as Google Optimizer) 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 freebie, 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.

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:

  • It Helps to Establish Authority: An eBook, course or report does help to show others that you are serious enough about what you’re talking about to go beyond a blog post and package something together. If two sites were exactly the same, except one blog owner had written an eBook, I would absolutely trust and follow that one.
  • It Leaves a Good First Impression: I spent over 2 months creating eBooks the Smart Way, primarily working on the design of it (since most of the content was already written in blog posts), to make sure it would blow people’s minds. This way, when people subscribe, even if they did so just to get the free eBook, I want them to think twice about unsubscribing. I want them to think, “If this free eBook is this good, then just imagine what’s included in the exclusive newsletter”. At least that’s the theory.
  • The Freebie is a Marketing Tool: A freebie can become your best marketing tool – sometimes in an almost viral manner. Every once and a while, I see someone tweet that they read my eBook and loved it (thanks to those of you who did that for me!). They share their experience with their followers and in turn draw more traffic and attention to my site and newsletter. I’m proud of my eBook and I could talk it up as much as I want, but there’s nothing better than someone else’s recommendation. That is social proof at it’s finest.

Cool Tip: In your freebie, 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. My particular landing page can be found at

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 a 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?

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