The Problem With Offering Free Stuff In Exchange for E-mail Opt-ins

If you’ve been hanging around the Internet for a while you’ve likely noticed that a lot of companies – and I mean a lot – really want your E-mail address lately.

E-mail marketing is, of course, nothing new. The first known mass E-mail was generally agreed to have been sent by Gary Thurek in 1978 of the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and E-mail has been mainstream for a long time. Since the social media gold rush in the early 2010s, the dawn of inbound marketing and the emphasis on the idea that “content is king” E-mail marketing has taken on a whole new meaning.

Companies will absolutely hammer you from the first point of contact to obtain your E-mail address by any means necessary. In some cases they’ll just add you to their newsletter even if you haven’t specifically opted in. This has been an unfortunate design trend in recent websites where the emphasis on securing the E-mail address almost takes precedence above the design itself. In many cases website development companies explicitly mention that they emphasize opt-in marketing in design like some sort of badge of honor.

It’s easy to see why. For a time it was speculated that E-mail would lose prominence as a way of reaching customers compared to social networks and messaging platforms. In an ironic twist of fate E-mail is now the more reliable way of reaching potential customers as social networks’ increasing reliance on algorithms make it far less likely that you’re reaching an audience on Facebook or Twitter. Unless you’re ponying up advertising dollars you generally reach 20-30% of your total audience. E-mail doesn’t have that problem even if marketers are still gnashing their teeth at being confined to the Promotions tab of Gmail.

One of the most popular methods of trying to wrangle peoples’ E-mails from them to add to marketing lists is the universal allure of free stuff. Free 20% off coupon on your next visit, free meal, free drink, free E-book, free consultation – whatever your business is offering, that magical free word is often seen as the holy grail of E-mail opt-in enticements. Who doesn’t want free stuff? Even the most cynical of media workers will concede that it’s a great hook.

Except the free stuff E-mail enticement has a simple, major problem: In an age of excessive E-mails it incentives burner E-mail accounts.

I recently started working with a sandwich shop. The owner was upset and concerned that her E-mail promotion (free meal coupon for opting into her mailing list) hadn’t resulted in any opens from follow up E-mails. Initially she had been absolutely thrilled when it resulted in a whopping 150 new E-mail addresses through some localized Facebook advertising; not bad for a local shop in a relatively quiet area with only four employees.

Things started going south when the owner sent multiple follow up E-mails and the open rate was under 5% for each of them. Not a single person responded to her surveys or attempt to solicit feedback for new sandwiches and toppings. When I received access to the MailChimp account, I opened the E-mail list and saw a large number of suspect E-mail addresses, of which I will provide some samples:

imnotgivingyoumyemail at gmail dot com
a0hsnd0an30nfa at aol dot com
yeeaaaaaahboi at verizon dot net

This also doesn’t include several temporary E-mail services that had since self-destructed, which contributed to the bounce rate.

The implication became clear to the increasingly dismayed owner: People had largely used spam or burner accounts that they normally never check to claim the meal coupon. After which the followup E-mails were sent into inbox equivalent of empty voids. In other words, she had offered up a considerable number of free meal coupons in exchange for very little.

Something similar happened to me fairly recently that puts this in perspective. A different local deli was offering a free meal, one per person. Intrigued, I pursued their claim offer only to immediately X out when it required I automatically opt-in to their newsletter.

I had a couple of burner accounts that I could use but I couldn’t even be bothered because I knew what would happen: I would be added to a newsletter list that I would either have to opt-out of manually or just ignore the E-mails that some poor graphic designer probably spent a fair amount of time designing.

E-mail continues to be prolific despite the rise of social networks and mobile messaging software and I’ll even go as far as saying it’s a perfectly viable item for the marketing toolkit, but the problem is that every business has been jumping on it without abandon. For many businesses across many industries it’s not even an option; it’s a standard regardless of how viable it is, and end users are getting burnt out.

The result is that people are getting increasingly cagey at the prospect of trading their E-mail in exchange for anything, or just resorting to burner accounts that mean promotional E-mails will never be opened.

This isn’t even an indictment on any particular business’s skill with E-mail marketing so much as it is a reflection on the state of the industry. Even if you’re offering the best E-mail capture the media industry has ever seen you can only open your E-mail so many times and see the flood of E-mails all offering 20% off before getting overwhelmed and underwhelmed at the same time.

The other issue is that the “free stuff” incentive really doesn’t reflect the basic ideas of inbound marketing Inbound marketing provides information, an improved customer experience and builds trust by offering potential customers information they value. You can provide value to people in a meaningful way without dangling a “free” carrot in front of people, and you’ll do much better in the long run.