How to use the “F” word properly.
Of all the four letter words in the world, few are more potent than the notorious “F” word. It can turn people on and it can turn people off. And among all the words that begin with the letter “F,” this one is, perhaps, the most widely misused and over-used of them all.
To be clear, we’re talking about the word “free.”
Use of the word has proven to boost responses to email offers. That is, if the email can get past spam filters. The word has also been known to generate long lines of foot traffic in certain places. That is if the free thing is the new iPhone or draft beer.
Many times, however, the word “free” acts as a deterrent. People “devalue” things that are free. And giving things away, if not done properly, can diminish the perceived value of the product, or even worse, the brand attached to it. “Free” is a problem child.
Take, for instance, a recent social media effort by Taco Bell to give away a FREE 99¢ taco. Regarding the effort, a post on Social Commerce Today quotes Chief Public Affairs Officer of Taco Bell’s parent company Yum! as saying, “We haven’t even been able to give away food, let alone figure out how to sell it online.”
In the post, the author compares Taco Bell’s efforts to give away tacos that of P&G’s social media efforts to sell diapers. It should come as no surprise that P&G’s efforts resulted in selling 1000 diapers in less than an hour on Facebook. Meanwhile, only 3% of Taco Bell’s 7 million Facebook fans took them up on the free taco offer.
It’s fair to say that tacos and diapers aren’t apples to apples. Still, the key motivator for P&G fans was the fact that, even though purchase was required, fans were given special access to a diaper that was available only to Facebook fans. Taco Bell, on the other hand, was giving away something anyone could get at any Taco Bell any time. One of these strategies leverages scarcity. The other doesn’t. Which is, perhaps, the reason it failed.
Had Taco Bell offered Facebook fans a free first taste of a something new, they might have been more successful. Regardless, it seems they overlooked one very important point. Free only matters to people if it’s something special. More importantly, they overlooked the fact that they were dealing with humans, not automatons.
Collecting friends on Facebook for the purposes of pushing messages out to a captive audience is a short sighted approach to social media. Real success, as the story above illustrates, comes when brands treat Facebook fans like special consumers, instead of just pairs of eyeballs.
Which is to say that when used in the right context, the word free can incite many happy returns. In the wrong context, however, free is a “four-letter word.”