World of Free – Lay of the Land


manyadnetworks_small.jpgDM CONFIDENTIAL — Admittedly, we still don’t understand what the “1 Simple Rule” being touted by many flogvertisers actually is.

Every time we see the line, “1 Rule to Weightloss: Obey” or its related iterations, all we think of is Andre the Giant Has A Posse instead of the “miraculous” combination of two free* products. Speaking of flogs, they have their own “1 Simple Rule” for success which combines two distinct items – the abundant use of the word “Free” combined with the first person narrative’s ability to create a trust bridge.

Without that trust, the free trial offer is just one of any number of unbranded, undifferentiated offers. Yet, for many – both the unbranded and the branded – the use of free can go a long way towards establishing that trust and causing consumers to engage in a desired action. And, despite the many, continual abuses the word free takes, its power has barely, if at all, diminished. In our world of performance marketing, before the proliferation of free trials via flogs, the world of free focused primarily on the incentive promotion marketers, whose platforms allowed them to slap the word free onto almost any product under $1500, a world that includes everything from samples of wint-o-green gum to the eponymous iPod.

The problem with the online world of free is that like any ecosystem, it’s complex, sprawling, and tangled. It also accounts for a very large percentage of online media, especially in the performance marketing world, so we thought we’d take a step back from the narrow but significant world of flogs, and look at the broader world of free.


When studying the world of free, we find two distinct groups that use free:

Brands – for this group, the use of free is not directly tied to an monetizable event in the near future. For the brand, the action is the giveaway. That event is their reward and the act of the promotion hopefully translates into new customers or greater ties with existing customers but presumably the former.

Marketers – if there was a saying for this group, it would be something like, let no good inventory get used without being able to make money. The marketer looks to a turn a profit, and almost all givaways are somehow tied to a monetizable event. This group will at times run an offer that the brands have created but only if that brand has attached a CPA to the event. You could easily put the flogvertisers in this group, but we’re leaving that particular strategy out and looking at the much less direct world of free sites.


The world of free has many implementations, but three of them dominate the landscape:

Trials – continuity programs are all about free trials. The word trial generally denotes the first of a recurring series. Some brands use the term trial pair without requiring an ongoing subscription, but they represent the exception not the rule.

Samples – using the word sample more often than not indicates a portion of product or service given at no charge. It’s the online equivalent of walking in a grocery store where they provide tastings, at least that’s the emotional connection most people have with samples.

Gift Card – usually a tipoff that it involves an incentive promotion offer

Coupons – perhaps the most confusing piece of the ecosystem given the number of sites dedicated to coupon codes, coupons tend to provide discounts at the time of purchase rather than anything for free. Coupons generally focus on a percentage discount or the more than common “Buy 1 Get 1 Free”, “Buy 1 Get 1 x% Off,” etc. The coupon world is in many ways far removed from the classic performance marketing world and our world of “free” – a large ecosystem primarily focusing on affiliate network relationships.


It’s one thing to have decided on a promotion, but the trick then comes when thinking about how to deliver it to the user. There are quite a few ways with the following being the ones we’ve seen the most:

Incentive Promotion Landing Page (Destination) – to some degree, many of the roads in the land of free wind up at the classic incentive promotion landing page. Free samples of gum? A washer and dryer set? Slim Fast? Power tools? Very rarely is someone actually giving them away. You get them with completion of offers. While most roads lead here, these pages end up being the second step of the process as marketers have found it harder and harder to buy traffic directly to these pages.

Brand Landing Page (Destination) – many of the major brands have built specific landing pages for their trials and samples. They are not always the most prolific marketers, but these pages are where the more prolific marketers send their traffic.

Surveys – people tend to feel obliged to answer questions, especially about topics that they have some interest. TV shows, movies, and all things celebrity / politics do a great job getting people engaged, which explains why so many revolve around that.

Consumer Deal Site – Blog – the survey sites and the incentive landing pages that they drive people to aren’t necessarily designed to look like a standalone site. They tend to focus on a specific action. The blog sites on the other hand definitely steer users towards taking an action but they don’t scream it upon entry like the pages that tend to follow; they are truly designed to give the appearance of adding value to the user.

Consumer Deal Site – Directory – before the blog became the format de jour, directory sites ruled the day. These were a simpler time, handmade sites were acceptable and while databases made the job infinitely easier, you still could find countless people doing it the hard way. The directory is straightforward links with listings in categories, one that employs a more hierarchical structure.

Jumper – some people just like making the simple splash landing page and have still found a way to get some traffic. How much? Barely enough to qualify for a write up, but they do exist.


Traffic is the what drives volume. It’s a little limited with the only surprises being what is missing.

SEM – no surprise that paid search makes it on the list. Unlike some areas, paid search isn’t the dominant force, but it is the means that new entrants play. With paid search you tend to see more variety in the formats people use than we see in organic search.

SEO – there is a huge volume of traffic around free terms – trials, samples, coupons, etc. What will amaze those who haven’t gone looking is the lack of truly innovative sites among the organic rankings.

Email and Others – while a huge player in some, email is a major but minor player here. Email works great still for promoting the incentive promotion offers, e.g., Your Chance at A Free iSomething, but the vast majority of sites in the land of free are built around search traffic. Social media for example is but a trickle.

Courtesy of DM Confidential editor.

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