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Getting Rich Online – The power of free

King Gillette’s safety razor was a terrific invention in the late 1890′s — a disposible razor blade. At the time people were using a straight razor, which had to be sharpened regularly and was quite dangerous to use. His razor used blades that could be used until they were dull and then thrown away. In 1904 Gillette had one of the best marketing ideas in history — give away the razors so people will use his new blade and become customers for his new blades.

Free works for two reasons:

1. We love to get something for nothing. Getting free stuff appeals to us on so many different levels — we feel like we outsmarted someone and got them to give us something valuable for free.

2. It gets us to try something new. It’s difficult to get someone to invest in something new. One of the top reasons is usually price — we all have a sliding scale of how much we’re willing to risk on something new. Giving it to us removes that obstacle and that objection.

There have been many variations on the Gillette theme, but the idea is the same — giving us a bit of the product or service’s benefit to try for ourselves.

There are three different marketing strategies that have an element of free in them:

1. The Razor and Blades strategy – This is King Gillette’s strategy from above — give away a product that uses another product that needs to be purchased frequently to stay fresh. The modern day Gillette Safety Razor? One is Anti-virus software. You can get a free copy of Symantec Norton Anti-virus, but you need a subscription to the virus updates to keep it working. Symantec sold $1.5 billion of antivirus software in 2005. You can also give away some blades to sell the razor or other blades. See my examples for more information.

2. The Nibble strategy – My supermarket sets up sample carts around the store offering a taste of different products. The idea is that once you try a nibble of the product you’ll want to buy the whole thing. It doesn’t only work for food though. Some years ago I got a letter from Ford Motor Company. They offered to let me take home a Ford Thunderbird for the weekend and try it out. I did, and I loved it. They were hoping I would see how terrific the car was and buy one.

In the computer world we have Shareware. The idea of shareware is the same — once you try the software you’ll see that it does what you need and you’ll pay for it.

3. The Light version strategy – This is a variation on the Nibble theme that I think deserves to be separate. Two different versions of the product or service are created. The first has limited functionality and is called the light or personal version. It may also only work a certain number of times or be otherwise limited. It’s also free for the asking. The better version, usually called Professional or Deluxe or something else that denotes greater value, costs more money.

All of these strategies can and will work on your site. It depends, as always, on what you’re trying to sell. I’m going to give you ten examples of sites that use these strategies online and what variations they use, starting with an affiliate program I think use these strategies the best:

1. SiteSell – Strategy Variation: Razor and Blades. SiteSell is a terrific example of this strategy. The blades (product you use continuously) is their internet marketing system that includes hosting, site design, SEO and other services. They give away many different information-related blades to get you to try their main blades. They also employ a bit of The Nibble by offering a trial of their service.

Some other examples:

2. WordTracker – Strategy Variation: The Nibble. WordTracker has a free trial program that is limited but effective, and the number of people who go on to subscribe to the full version is quite impressive.

3. Yahoo! Directory and many competitors. Strategy Variation: The Light Version. Want to get listed in the directory? No problem — it’s free. It may take two years for them to review your entry. Want something faster? $300. A year.

4. SiteMeter and many competitors – Strategy Variation: The Light Version. Sitemeter offers a fairly decent traffic counter and reporting system for free. If you want advanced features like referrer tracking (which I don’t think is really advanced), you have to pay.

5. Flickr – Strategy Variation: The Nibble and The Light Version. With Flickr the photo sharing site you get to display 200 free pictures a month. You can store as many as you want, but once the 201st picture gets displayed the first picture gets bumped off. Brilliant. If you want to display them all you need to pay for the Professional version, which also designates you as a professional in your profile.

6. DNForum and other forum sites – Strategy Variation: The Light Version. In many forums such as DNForum you can post and read messages for free. There are some areas of the forums that are reserved for the more professional members. These are the posts that I always click on, and I don’t find out that I don’t have the right access until they’re clicked. Quite effective.

7. WeatherBug – Strategy Variation: The Light Version. Who doesn’t want to have a widget that sits in your system tray and shows you the weather when you want it. 23 Million people have it on their computers. 100,000 of them pay extra for the Pro version that has weather alerts, different skins, camera shots and international and historical weather reports.

8. LoopNet – Strategy Variation: The Light Version. This is a perfect implementation of this strategy. LoopNet shows commercial real estate listings. If you are a free member you will see all of the listings, but the newest ones will only show as locked. In other words, you will know that there are listings that everyone who pays can see, but you can’t. If you need commercial Real Estate in a hot market you will have to pay to get the information before someone beats you to it. Nice.

9. MergerNetwork – Strategy Variation: The Nibble. I love this one too. You can see the listings for every business for sale, search the site and display all of the data — except how to contact the seller of the business. Want that info? Get out your credit card.

10. Keyword tools – Strategy Variation: Razor and Blades. There are plenty of keyword tools out there that offer free software that analyzes keywords, sites and other related items. I hesitate to mention any particular one here because I’ve never tried any of them, but you know which ones they are. The software is free but you need to buy a subscription to fresh data that runs the software.

Hopefully the examples will get you thinking about how you can incorporate free into your marketing strategy. Again, it depends on what you’re selling and how you’re selling it.

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