The Biggest Trend in Online Marketing: Just Give It Away for Free

There’s SO much amazing, insightful, thoughtfully-crafted free content available right now.

Terrible, right?

As a consumer, it means there’s just too much good stuff to choose from. It’s like you’re at the biggest free buffet in the world – no matter how much you’d like to gobble up everything in sight, there’s only so much you can have before you need to switch to stretchy pants.

Homer eating donuts

Mmmm…free content.

That makes things just as tricky from the business perspective, too – especially when it comes to creating opt-in offers.

Your email list can be a huge traffic driver for both new blog posts and older ones – and an invaluable way to promote new products and sales – but only if you can get people to actually sign up for it! And while you can do things like use Twitter in creative ways to drive signups, growing your list is also a matter of what you’re offering – not just how you’re offering it.

Sure, sometimes offering something like a newsletter is enough. (Who doesn’t want regular updates from one of their online faves?)


If you really want to grease the wheels, go the extra mile, and do whatever other cliche idioms you can think of, you might take a little inspiration from some of the really heavy-hitting opt-ins that are out there.

Some opt-ins promise something so unique, so compelling, and so irresistibly good that you can’t NOT give ‘em your email address. And we’re gonna take a closer look at a few of them right now.

So, who’s really crushing it with their opt-ins – and what can you learn from them? What can you actually offer people up front – including people who have maybe never even heard of you before – that’ll make them want to join your list right then and there?

Video and Webinars

Whether you’re more comfortable with the energy of a live webinar or you prefer perfecting an instructional video over the course of a thousand takes, putting yourself in front of the camera can be a compelling way to drive opt-ins.

We mentioned Ramit Sethi the last time we wrote about webcasting – now let’s take a closer look at how exactly he makes it work for him.

Here’s a glance at one of his opt-in landing pages:

Ramit Video Opt-in

Ramit’s opt-in doesn’t just subscribe you to the list he uses for sharing his expertise – it hooks you up with an exclusive video guide, too. That immediate payoff can be the tipping point for someone not sure if they want to commit to yet another email list, because c’mon, aren’t you at least a little bit curious what he has to say?

Part of that curiosity comes from his level of authority – even if you’d never heard of him before, that fancy, professional-looking screenshot says that this is a guy you may as well take seriously. (But hey, everyone starts somewhere.)

Even still, looks aren’t everything. Ramit also sells the heck out of this video’s actual content, too:

Ramit's Bullet Points

These make you curious because they’re concrete – they ask very specific questions to which the video promises answers.

Compare it to the bolded section from that first image, which promotes his email list. “Tactics” and “insights” are great, but they’re also things that literally anyone can promise you – and you can’t know ahead of time if his are any better than the next guy’s.

The bullet points selling the video promise things nobody else can – success stories, cautionary tales, and specific lessons that this person learned firsthand, and wants to pass on to you.

Make your leads a promise that only you can make. Offer something unique and concrete – ask a question, and tease the answer.

This is something we do with our own webinars, which promise information like:

Edgar Webinar Bullets

See? Specificity is your friend!

Video is just one of those things that fancy online marketer-types like to call “premium content,”  and it belongs in that category because you can actually pitch it as its own free product – even though the thing you really want is for someone to fill out your opt-in form.

Think of it this way: that form subscribes someone to your list, and in cases like these, it also gives them an instant reward. From the user’s perspective, which is the primary incentive, and which is the bonus?

It’s kind of like McDonald’s Happy Meals. McDonald’s is selling food, but they know it’s really the toy that your kids want. (So much so that in 2010 – when McDonald’s spent more than $115 million advertising Happy Meals – a San Francisco law barred them from incentivizing unhealthy kids meals by including free toys.)

Fortunately, the emails you’re sending are undoubtedly healthier than anything you’ll find in a Happy Meal, but the point remains – the extra incentive you offer with your opt-in may technically be a bonus, but to your leads, that may be the primary reason they sign up at all.

With that in mind, what other things are people offering as an incentive to filling out an opt-in?

Ebooks and Mini-Courses

Ebooks and mini-courses are a perfect example of the types of premium content that can drive opt-ins. Anyone can make them, because unlike video, you don’t need to deal with any potentially unfamiliar technology – if you can type, you can whip one up.

Here’s an example of a mini-course:

Mini Horse

No, no – mini course! Like this:

Copy Hackers opt-in box

That’s a popover you’ll see when you venture over to Copy Hackers – one of our absolute favorite resources for studying copywriting. (We’ve mentioned them before in this post.)

You can (and should) read up on the philosophy of that two-button opt-in on their blog, but for right now, we’re focusing not on how they’re making the offer, but on what they’re offering.

For one thing, they’re not blowing smoke when they say that free book is a $21.99 value – you can buy it right here, if you really want to.

For another, a book isn’t the only thing they’re offering. Opt out from that popover, and you’ll still see this right there on the blog:

Copy Hackers blog opt-in

It’s there on the left – a simple opt-in form and a couple of oh-so-specific bullet points teasing a boatload of free instructional material. (A seven-part course, for crying out loud!)

Clicking on that CTA in the bottom-left corner calls up another popover that really drives home that point about what’s “bonus” and what isn’t:

Copy Hackers opt-in variant

Opting in is just the price you pay for the thing you really want: the book. (Wouldn’t you rather give them your email address than shell out 22 bucks?)

On a related note, this is another reason that you should invest time in blogging on a regular basis.

The Copy Hackers blog is an intensely valuable resource for anyone who wants to step up their writing game – it offers in-depth case studies and instructional guides that range from beginner-level material to the crazily advanced.

Putting that expertise on open display kind of makes you wonder:

“If this is what they give away to just anyone, just imagine how valuable the BOOK must be!”

Think back to Ramit. His blog reaches half a million readers every month – that’s a lot of potential leads who know, like, and trust the guy. If you’re trying to do all this “premium content and opt-ins” stuff without blogging first, it’s like you’re trying to build a house by starting on the second floor.

Invest in your blog, show off your expertise, and people will want more of it.

Here’s another example:

Intercom Ebook

This is an ebook from the team over at Intercom (and yes, they also have an exceptional blog).

Just like Copy Hackers, Intercom offers this book for free in exchange for an opt-in – but this offer also comes with an ingenious twist:

Intercom opt-in

Don’t want to surrender your email? Your money’s going to a good cause. Otherwise, you can go ahead and just opt in – and when you do, you’re giving Intercom another lead.

Here’s the important thing: clicking the “share with a friend” option does NOT subscribe that person to Intercom’s list. (That’s up to your friend, as it should be.) But it does put Intercom and this book on their radar, just as if you’d sent them a link to a blog post you thought they’d like.

What matters most is that Intercom is offering you something that provides serious utility for the small price of an email address, and for spreading the word on their behalf. Not a bad deal, from the lead’s perspective – and that makes it a seriously compelling opt-in offer. (Just look at that testimonial quote in the image above. The book is free, but they’re committed to promoting it as its own product.)

Speaking of promoting your freebie as its own product, check out what this last uber-famous Internet entrepreneur gives away to connect with new leads:

Something Personal

Neil Patel is pretty much online startup royalty. Blogging superstar, architect of four multi-million startups, and the guy just plain knows his stuff.

Which is why the opt-ins for some of his businesses are so interesting.

Here, take a look at two of them. First, Quick Sprout:

Quick Sprout opt-in

Next, Crazy Egg:

Crazy Egg opt-in

Easy to see what they have in common, right?

Each of these sites offers you a custom report right off the bat – and that personalized touch can be pretty curiosity-inducing! (Just ask anyone who offers free tarot card readings.)

Of course, it isn’t quite as simple as those landing pages make it seem – enter your URL, and you’ll be greeted with this:

Crazy Egg permissions

You’re not just giving them your email address – you’re giving them access to the data in your Google Analytics! That’s some pretty intimate stuff, and it undoubtedly allows them to keep ridiculously detailed records on their leads.

Not that it isn’t worth it. (After all, think of how much personal data you willingly surrender to sites like Facebook. It’s just the cost of doing business.)

What really matters here is that Crazy Egg and Quick Sprout offer something personalized, and that’s hard to resist. It’s like how we talked about making a promise that only you can make – where else can you get a free heatmap for your website? (Granted, you have to sign up for a free trial with Crazy Egg to actually access it, but once you make it that far in the process, your mind is probably made up.)

When you’re offering something personalized like a free consultation or analysis, just remember that there will come a time when it HAS to be scalable.

Starting out, it may not be too difficult to give your time away for free if it means gaining leads. Once you start picking up momentum, though, it becomes all too easy for freebies to take up way more time than they’re worth.

The solution in these examples is to automate the process. Neil Patel isn’t personally creating heatmaps for everyone who opts in – those people are just getting free access to a program. Plenty of programs and apps offer free trials for the price of an email address, and these are no different.

Don’t have software to offer? You don’t need it. A free tool doesn’t have to be personalized by you – it can be personalized by the person using it. Spreadsheets, planning guides, custom calendars, and other templates you design can provide real utility to the people who need them – and you only have to create things like that once.

Whether you’re thinking of creating resources like those or any of the other types of premium freebies we’ve been looking at, the thing to remember is this:

It’s worth the effort

Creating the sorts of premium content we’ve been looking at is a question of short-term effort, long-term gain – and that means it’s easily worth it.

It may feel at first like too serious a time investment for something that might not pay off. After all, it’s not unlikely that a lot of your leads won’t become customers.

But considering how valuable your email list can actually be, investing time and energy into enticing people to sign up is more than worthwhile.

Will you see the payoff right away? Probably not! But you can certainly see a slow and steady return on your investment – and sometimes, that’s the best kind anyway.