Free offers during a pandemic-induced lockdown – what next?

There are so many digital services that have offered their product completely free as a response to the global coronavirus pandemic.

I cannot even begin to make a list of such services, but some of the ones that caught my attention include the ‘our entire catalog free for one month’ offer from Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle, and most ed-tech start-ups’ online courses going completely free.

Now, why did these otherwise-paid digital services offer their product fully free?

Is it because these businesses were in an altruistic mood? Did they feel sad for the people under lockdown and wanted to ‘help’ them by giving away their content for free?

Hardly. Companies are in the business of selling to an audience making money. That is their legitimate business model.

So, all these offers are simply sampling techniques. To put it coarsely, the freebies were an opportunistic (and I do not mean to say that it is ‘evil’ or ‘bad’; it is just taking advantage of an opportunity) attempt to let people—when there is heightened attention from a lot of people who suddenly cooped inside their homes and have a lot of time—sample the product and try to convert them into paying customers at some point eventually.

So, 2 questions there.

1- What is that ‘some point’? How soon is soon enough that it doesn’t seem inappropriate to people in a lockdown?

2- What is the best way to broach this subject with people in a lockdown?

Take Amar Chitra Katha’s example. They had clearly indicated a time period for the freebie/sampling offer – 30 days. I signed up on March 17th and got an email on April 10th reminding me that the free offer will expire soon and “as a token of [their] gratitude for [my] loyal support, [they are] offering an exclusive early-bird renewal discount of an additional 15%”.

And, “This offer is only valid for the next 48 hours!”.

3+ days later, the offer still stands on the link they had sent me.

I haven’t signed up since my daughter, for whom I had availed the free offer in the first place, didn’t seem too keen on continuing it.

The other example is Byju’s. Ever since I signed up for some classes for both my son and daughter, they have started calling within a few hours, with random things – feedback, other offers, other courses etc. It was so persistently annoying that my wife and I have blocked as many numbers of Byju’s as possible on our phones. And yet, they find a new number to call from.

I’m sure most of the brands that are giving something away during this difficult period have a plan on monetizing the sampling exercise. The opportunity is too big and too good to resist, and rightly so. It’s just that they also need to think through the plan of ending the sampling exercise and make it somehow purposeful as an activity.

It need not always be a pivot to turning someone into a paying customer. There are many other tactics that a brand could employ.

And the most important factor for making the decision on what and how to convert a user? Data!

These are digital services. So there should be a treasure-trove of data in terms of usage patterns. With all the data, it is imperative that the team uses it to create as many user cohorts as possible and customize the offer to convert a free user into something else.

For instance, you could ask for constructive feedback without dangling the ‘start paying up’ call-to-action. That may lead to great some feedback.

Another option could be to ask a user to leave a good review on an online platform that matter for new users.

Or, you could ask a user to refer to someone else, with an offer to extend the free offer for another period of time.

You could even ask a user to pay a much smaller amount as a habit-forming exercise. Say, if the actual subscription was Rs.200 per month, ask them to pay ‘only Rs.50’. Rs.50, in front of ‘free’ is any day better, and it gives the user an opportunity to get used to paying for a digital service for the first time. The cost-benefit analysis would be ‘Rs.50’ vs. ‘Rs.200’ and that turns into an advantage for the brand.

For instance, I have no idea what my daughter read on Amar Chitra Katha in the past 30 days. But Amar Chitra Katha would surely have more than enough data. If, for example, they find that my login (that is, my daughter) read a lot of titles from Tinkle, or about freedom fighters of India, that is great data to extend a contextual offer, instead of all-you-can-read offer.

Whichever it is, brands should use a well-planned, data-led strategy for the next step after the freebies.

There is no need to feel queasy about asking people to pay, after the offer period, lockdown or not. Companies have to survive too, alongside people; and they need to pay salaries too.

But this freebie offer is happening in an extraordinary situation that has never happened in the lifetimes of all the people on the brand side and users’ side. That should remain the back of the minds of people who are planning the next step after a free offer, along with smart and thorough use of data.

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