When Free Giveaways Backfire

by Mr. Cheap

I love free giveaways, and last Sunday Harvey’s (a Canadian burger chain) was giving away its original burger free from 10:30-3 pm. I swung by, looking forward to munching on the beefy goodness, and gave up when I saw the lineup was out the door and down the sidewalk. Not being willing to wait for 20-30 minutes for a $3 burger, I shrugged my shoulders and headed to my office to work.

Years ago when I was an summer intern at an Ottawa tech company, there was a big promotion at a local bar with free beer. Tons of young people went out for the night and if there was any free beer available, I didn’t get any of it. When I asked servers there, they kept saying “later, later”. Then suddenly it became “its all gone”.

The obvious defense if someone complains about something free is “well, do you want your money back?” Mike and I don’t charge visitors to our blog a dime, so there’s a limit to how much complaining we’d put up with from a visitor. HOWEVER, businesses that decide to do free giveaways do them for a reason, and I think they’re sometimes undermining themselves when they do them poorly.

In the case of Harvey’s and the bar, they clearly are saying to their customers: “Come try our product free, its so good you’ll become a regular”. However, in both cases when I went to sample their product, I was dissatisfied. So their free giveaway alienated a potential customer instead of converting them. I never went back to that bar, and my view of Harvey’s has shifted a bit to viewing it as a place with long lineups and slow service.  I’ll still eat there, but when I’m trying to decide where I want to go out to grab some grub, I’m sure it’ll factor into my decision on some level.

In both cases, if they wanted to give away a free sample, they should have tried to make the experience as good as possible, even if that means having more staff on hand, or more samples to give away. Otherwise why even bother?  I can’t see the point of teasing people with “we have something for free / cheap” then making it difficult for them to try it.

In terms of our blog, we’ve never hit the point where we stop listening to someone complaining (Mike always forwards the complaints with the most cursing in them to me – although usually we just laugh). Even though visitors to the blog don’t pay us directly, we like traffic and higher traffic translates directly into more options for monetizing. They may not be paying customers, but we want visitors to have the best possible experience.  If they complain, we welcome that as an opportunity to learn how to improve what we’re offering.

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