Laws of Marketing Power: Despise the Free Lunch

“There is no cutting corners with excellence.”

–Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power

4073921729_653652a97f_zGreene’s Law 40 is fun to consider because it seems to run counter to marketing wisdom of the ages: Everybody loves ‘free.’ Why should we marketers “despise the free lunch”how does this law apply to us? As hard as it may be to believe, the concept of AWESOME FREE STUFF starts to break down in light of what is truly valuable to your customers (think long-term, sustainable value). We’ve all heard the expressions There’s no free lunch and You get what you pay for. This law underscores these old adages.

If there is no ‘free lunch,’ then we are smart to avoid it or at least maintain a healthy skepticism. Something usually advertised as ‘free’ does hold a hidden cost to the buyer: Privacy, time, an obligation to the individual or organization giving it away. Conversely, marketers that use the tactic of free offerings are smartly tapping into the powerful pull of the ‘free’ lunch. (By the way, I’m not holier-than-thou. I am as guilty as anybody of playing into this element of human psychology.) But could hyping a ‘free’ offering ever come back to bite us marketers in the rear? Yes, if you want to put a premium on the thing that is ‘free,’ perception-wise.

Back to You get what you pay for, this statement precisely summarizes the exchange of value for value. People generally expect to pay top dollar for top products/services. To the contrary, if you pay nothing for something, then that thing is relatively worthless … unless there is a hidden cost. So, for the marketers that want to convey the high value of something, the word free should be avoided at all costs. And everyone knows you tend to appreciate and care for things you earn more than those that are just handed to you. Case in point: When children earn an allowance by doing things to deserve the reward, they will spend (or save) more carefully than if you just gave them money with no conditions.

Another simple example: Fathom has an annual marketing summit for local non-profits. The first time around, the event was free. A year later, we asked for a $10 donation (with the proceeds to go to one lucky attending non-profit). Attendance increased significantly. Of course, you could argue that greater awareness and past reputation among our audience played a role, but at the same time the $10 correlation can’t be ignored.

Gated vs. un-gated content

All marketers know people will take the time to share their own contact information (and occasionally other details) if they feel they are getting a valuable resource in return. The fact that people will give away personal data in order to sign up for a webinar or download a premium report shows the value they place on such content. Smart marketers know they can keep such content ‘behind the gate’ and still gain valuable conversions and potential sales leads if the content justifies the action required by the user to obtain it. In these circumstances, marketers can signal the value of something by asking the user to “pay” for it with their information and even actual dollars.

And the same principle applies to entering a contest or using a Facebook app; you’re giving some brand a ‘like’ or sharing your data with marketers in exchange for a chance to win or the ability to play a game.

In a sense, having gated content is consistent with this law from a marketer’s perspective … assuming your content is sufficiently valuable. By choosing to hold it behind a gate, you are honoring its value and saying to users, “Pay a fair price for this.” The lunch is not free; value is conferred. Marketers who despise the free lunch strive for excellence and expect their customers to recognize it by making a fair trade.


This post is part of a series in which I explore in-depth how some of Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power relate to marketing.


Image courtesy of Linda Tanner via Flickr.

Paul Richlovsky

About Paul Richlovsky

Paul purposefully merges a creative writing and teaching background with his decade-long marketing career. He advises clients on content strategy, editorial direction and PR/distribution. He is a perpetual critical thinker who has written/edited hundreds of blog posts and multiple long-form marketing guides, including those aimed at audiences as varied as healthcare, higher education, financial services, B2C brands and manufacturing. With a BA in English from the College of Wooster, he is also the author of a collection of poetry, "Under the Lunar Neon."He gets really excited about the science of elite performance, usability, brand voice, headlines, digital governance, ballroom dancing, bachata, racquet sports, and romping with his niece and nephews.

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