Give-It-Away Marketing

My bank did something extraordinary today. Something creative. Something, dare I say, brilliant. In fact, in my 40-plus years as a consumer of banking services, I’ve never before experienced this particular innovation. Until now.

Here’s what happened…

While visiting my local branch this morning – an activity in which I take great pleasure, since I only do it when I have checks to deposit – I sensed that something was different. As I approached the middle counter, it dawned on me: The leaky, intermittently functioning, chained-like-a-nomadic-dog, pens had vanished.

In their place was a tray of shiny, new, free-ranging click pens, unattached and there for the taking. Each one, proudly emblazoned with the bank’s name and logo.

I couldn’t help but smile. Someone – and I don’t know who it is, but someone – at the Milford, Massachusetts branch of BankNorth was putting relationship marketing to work.

Here’s what I mean. Giving away free, no-strings-attached value to clients and non-clients alike – whether in the form of a pen, a newsletter, a response to an e-mail question or just a few minutes of time on the phone – is a fantastically effective way to stand out, build relationships and drive referral traffic to your business.

Why? Three reasons that I can think of at the moment:

Reason #1: It screams trust. Don’t you find it a tad annoying that your bank expects you to trust it with your life savings, and yet they don’t trust you to be alone with the pens? Doesn’t the idea of a bin full of complimentary pens change how you think of them? Doesn’t the added expense seem like a worthwhile investment for the bank, as a means of building good will? Don’t you wish I’d stop phrasing everything in the form of a question?

As professional service providers, we have the same opportunity. We can guard our precious E-Newsletters or whitepapers by demanding all kinds of personal information up front. Or we can just give them away.

We can be stingy with our time and knowledge so that nobody gets our wisdom for free. Or we can decide to be helpful, letting it spill where it will, in phone calls, e-mails and casual conversation.

If we want people to trust us – which for my money, is the biggest hurdle in a prospective client’s decision to hire someone – we need to behave as if we trust them.

Reason #2: It spreads the word. People think they’re being prudent by guarding the door. “We bill by the hour, we can’t give our time away.” “If I explain how to do it, they won’t need to hire me.” “The pens cost us money, let’s anchor them to the counter.”

At some level, of course, watching the door is necessary. After all, you can’t make a living if you don’t charge some people for some things. True enough. But you can’t make a living if nobody hires you either. And marketing, I’m guessing, is the single biggest business problem you’ve got.

So why not think of it this way?: Those brief encounters aren’t “missed revenue opportunities,” they’re inexpensive marketing events. Each is a chance to demonstrate your expertise, show up on someone’s radar and make a targeted, personal connection. Not a bad return for a five minute phone call.

Reason #3: Your competition is afraid to do it. I have to admit, one of the things I like most about a “make yourself available and share your expertise with no strings attached” marketing approach is that most companies don’t like doing it. They’re afraid that if they start giving things away, pretty soon, nobody will want to pay for anything.

I haven’t found that to be the case. In fact it seems to me that the experts who publish books, just to name one “give your expertise away” example, are the most highly compensated in every field.

But many of your competitors just don’t see the world that way. To them, every interaction needs to be monetized and the only good expense is a reduced expense.

That’s good news for you and me. Because with all the companies out there – large and small – who make every decision with only an eye on today’s bottom line, we can stand out without a whole lot of effort. Respond to e-mails, return phone calls, publish plenty of free information and you’ll be on your way.

Here’s the real bottom line: A little extra effort and expense is all it takes. Make “giving away free and useful information” the theme of your 2009 marketing plan and just watch what happens. And yes, you can take that to the bank.

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