Free Isn't a Four-Letter Word

Free_sign_med_3Writing in The New York Times last month, Randall Stross suggested that Starbucks should do with its Wi-Fi service what the movie palaces of old did with air-conditioning: offer it for free.  According to Stross, theater owners didn't regret their decision:

Before the "refrigeratory process" came along, theaters could not draw customers during the summer because of the unbearable heat in confined space.  With air-conditioning, patronage increased so sharply that even the largest investments were quickly repaid.

Giving it away can work for a lot of businesses, not just movie houses.  Legend has it that Mass. based tech company EMC jump-started their business by giving away their storage units until they caught on.

Free can work for cause marketers too.  Here's how to start and grow a cause marketing program without ever having to haggle about price.

To compete you must retreat.  The reason you have to give away the goods is simple: many businesses don't understand or value cause marketing (yet).  It's new for them, especially for the mid-size businesses I suggest you target.  If a business is unfamiliar with your organization and cause, they'll weigh your cause marketing offer--and its cost--on its ability to generate business.  Which means they'll stack it up against other forms of advertising: print, radio, direct mail, TV, yellow pages, etc.  But being new and untested, cause marketing will come in dead last, and the business owner will buy the traditional media they know and understand.  However, if you offer your program at no cost, you'll trump all other forms of paid advertising.  The business owner will say yes for the same reason you or I would: because it's FREE. 

Give'em a test ride.  To convince companies of the bottom-line benefits of cause marketing, I'll sometimes let them dip their toes with a free sponsorship.  The first year of Halloween Town, we tried to recruit a beverage partner, but no one would pay for a sponsorship.  So we picked the beverager with the best potential and let them pour at the event for free.  Fortunately, Halloween Town was a huge success and they were wowed.  The second year they became a zone sponsor, which saved us over $20,000 in entertainment, prizes and decor.  This coming year, the event will be part of their in-store Halloween displays--great promotion for us--and they're helping to recruit a retail partner for a mobile program, which typically raise $50k+.

Volunteering is another way to engage a company.  Halloween Town demands hundreds of volunteers so we approach new companies knowing that if their employees have a fun, memorable experience we'll have a whole cadre of champions to promote greater involvement.  This just doesn't work with big, glitzy events like Halloween Town, but with dinners, marathon programs, jail'n bails, etc.  Seeing is believing, and it all starts with getting a company in the showroom and out for a test drive.

Passing the buck.  I love presenting a cause marketing program to a business owner whose eyes grow larger with each benefit I discuss.  With trepidation, the owner asks: How much?  My reply: Nothing.  Thankful beyond expression, and on bended knee, they propose to me.  Well, maybe they don't go that far, but they are elated.  You're probably thinking: What are you crazy?  They were ready to write you a big fat check.  Yeah, maybe a fat check for them, but it would have been nothing compared to what I could raise by passing along the cost of my program to a far more lucrative entity: their customers.

How well does this work?  Consider the experiences of Bobby Shriver and Bono when they went calling on corporations about RED.  Happy to meet with the biggest rock star on the planet and sympathetic to the plight of AIDS victims in Africa, companies quickly offered to write RED a check.  Bobby and Bono's response?  Keep your money.  We want your customer's.  They knew that whatever check the company could write, RED could make millions more if say Apple sold an iPod from which RED could receive a portion of sales.  To date, RED has raised $20 million.

The lesson for the rest of us is that you should target companies on the retail side that have the customer base to underwrite your cause marketing program.  The retailer will love it because the program comes at no direct cost to them, and they'll be happy to facilitate the ask via a product (e.g. RED iPod) or mobile program.  The customer makes a small donation, usually a buck.  The charity gets the money and the visibility.  Win-win-win.    

If it feels free it must be.  Giving away a cause marketing program doesn't mean you don't get anything in return.  You most certainly do.  If you give a company a free sponsorship, you get their attention and engagement, and the potential they'll buy one next time.  If a company allows you to solicit their customers, you get access and participation--and a lot more money than you would have ever gotten from corporate.  Another strategy is to ask the company for something that is "free" to them but not to you.  Let me give you a few examples.

At Halloween Town we needed a lot of pumpkins for our "Pumpkin Patch" set.  So as part of a local supermarket's sponsorship of the event, we asked them to donate 15,000 pumpkins.  It saved us a lot of trouble and expense, especially with the poor pumpkin crop New England had last year.  Valuable to us?  Certainly.  But what did it really cost our supermarket partner to give us those pumpkins?

A large company turns down our request for cash for an event because their sponsorship budget is committed for the year (if I had a buck for every time I heard that...).  We counter that they go to their vendors for better pricing on a significant expense for us: printing.  The company agrees and goes one step further.  With plenty of extra money in their printing budget and stronger leverage with printers, they agree to cover our printing costs, which exceed $40,000.

A top three radio station here in Boston has an important client that wants help securing a large block of tickets to Halloween Town.  We exchange tickets for air-time, knowing that we each value what we got a lot more than what we gave.

A teacher of mine used to always say that you get nothing for free in this world.  He's right.  "Free" is just a word people use for things they think have no strings attached, but do.  So don't worry about giving away your cause marketing programs.  You're just using free for all it's worth.