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Sell more stuff by giving it away

COMMENTARY We're all in business to sell something, but sometimes one of the best ways to do that is to give it away. For some owners, that tactic's anathema -- "I'm in business to sell, not to give" -- but their attitude is short-sighted.

A little "gratis action" now can come back to you later, often in a big way.

Especially for small businesses, our own products or services (or a sample or variation) are usually the easiest things we can give away. Our cost is a fraction of the value, and this leverage can buy marketing, PR, goodwill, and more, for perhaps pennies on the dollar, without having to write painful checks.

It's a simple concept, but it surprises me how many small-business owners either don't pick up on its value or reject it, preferring just to sell and get paid. There's nothing wrong with that, but here are some examples of how taking a longer view of the benefits of building some "write-offs" into your marketing plans and budgets can pay dividends:

Thank-you's: Gifts of genuine appreciation always hit home. Maybe you have a customer who's been a regular for years... isn't it about time you sent him a freebie to recognize (and cement) his loyalty? And it's not only about customers -- perhaps you have an incredible supplier or employee who really came through in a pinch. A happily given gift accompanying a heartfelt thank-you goes a long way, will be remembered, and is likely to come back around... good karma, if you will. Be a sport.

Make-goods: Even the best of us screw up once in a while -- orders get mishandled, paperwork is botched, customers get upset for one reason or another. The priority, of course, is to apologize and fix the problem immediately. But once that's done, a tangible gesture can go a long way towards locking in goodwill and loyalty. It goes something like this: "I am so sorry, that's definitely an error on our part, I'll have it fixed by the end of the day. And please let me send you a ('bonus' item / voucher for a free service / deep discount on a future order, et al.) as a small way to make up for your time and trouble."

Prizes: People love to win stuff, and contests are a great way to engage customers and prospects; build web or physical traffic; grow a mailing list; and -- especially nowadays -- expand your social networking reach. Giving away some nice "merch" or services regularly is one of the fastest ways to see your fan base grow. Some people think that "contest junkies" don't constitute real prospects, but with the very low cost of giving some of your wares away (obviously that depends on what you sell) and of promoting contests, you only have to convert a tiny percentage of that growing base to make it worthwhile.

Press: Virtually no form of marketing is more valuable or cost-effective than PR. So if what you sell is conducive to sending to the press for review, don't be stingy with samples when they're requested (conversely, it's rarely a good idea to send samples that aren't solicited or OK'd in advance). Many writers and editors will only cover products they can see and test for themselves, and most won't send them back. (You can ask, but if they say no, don't argue.) Of course you have to be judicious -- in the age of social media, everyone is a "journalist," and you can't and shouldn't send stuff to everyone -- but for credible news outlets, letting samples go could be the best and most painless marketing investment you make.

I'm particularly amazed at how stingy and (for lack of a better word) defensive some business people are when it comes to press requests. But ask yourself this: If you send out a dozen press review samples and get just one "big hit" in a major publication, was it worth the eleven that didn't get covered? It always has been worth it for my company; the amount and quality of press we get every year makes the inventory investment a no-brainer.

Just because: Everyone likes a (good) surprise, and "random acts of kindness" are a great way to put a smile on someone's face and put your company at the top of her mind. Perhaps today you message 10 random Facebook fans and tell them you're sending them something because it's Monday. Maybe you throw an extra goodie into shipment boxes for a few days (great use for excess inventory). Using the cost-effective leverage of your products or time to make people happy builds a personal bond and virtually ensures repeat business.

Certainly much of this is best suited to consumer products, and not every example above applies to every type of business. But even a B2B company or service business usually has something it can offer -- it just might take a little creativity ("we appreciate your trusting us with all your landscaping this year; we'd like to do your fall lawn cleanup just to say thanks.") 

Chances are your products and services can serve your business beyond their own individual, intrinsic sales value. As with most things, a little generosity goes a long way.

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