This article was originally published on WPMU DEV Blog –

Many sites these days offer one-off free gifts like eBooks and discounts in exchange for joining their mailing list. It’s become so common now that users almost expect it. If your business uses this technique, how’s it working out for you?

Is your conversion rate high? What about your traffic count?

The truth is, it’s getting increasingly difficult to raise these rates and the standard marketing practices may not work for everyone.

Users are getting savvier. They no longer wish to be bombarded with free gifts that don’t deliver on big promises and an inbox full of emails.

Fortunately, there’s a way to ramp your free gifts to maximize your conversion and traffic rates – and it worked successfully for me. The secret is infusing some behavioral psychology into your site and your free gift offer.

With what I like to call a “layered” free gift you can guide your visitors into forming a habit of visiting your site and the trust that goes with it. When I implemented this strategy into my life coaching business, I saw an 110% increase in my conversion rate.

In this article, I’ll explain some of the psychology behind layered gifts and how you can implement this strategy on your site.

Why Current Email Marketing Isn’t All That Helpful

Currently, most of the sites you can see across the web that sell products or services have a system for offering a free gift. Essentially, the visitor is asked to enter their email address and name in exchange for a gift.

Sign up for free downloads. But what kind of downloads, I wonder?

This has been a popular way to grow email lists for many years and there’s a good reason why: It’s incredibly successful for many companies. But with so many sites implementing this strategy, it can be easy for many businesses to fall short.

It becomes especially difficult when users are becoming less enticed to fork over their personal information. There are also many reasons for this.

Here are the top reasons why visitors may not subscribe:

  • Many users are becoming picky when it comes to whom they choose to give their information to if only to avoid a flooded inbox of newsletters
  • Too many sites offer a free gift that sounds fantastic, only to fall short when it comes to delivering what was promised
  • The newsletters that companies send often aren’t interesting enough and don’t offer real value
  • Offering only discounts or sub-par blog posts is a huge reason many people are becoming wary
  • What’s worse is offering newsletters your subscribers aren’t interested in too frequently

What’s the bottom line? Visitors won’t subscribe if they don’t know what they’re getting in exchange for their email.

People everywhere prefer quality over quantity and if you can’t deliver the former, they won’t open your emails anymore, let alone subscribe.

An example of an email campaign that regularly offered only discounts.
I stopped caring about emails that offered steep discounts so long ago, I had to dig through my junk mail folder to find this example.

I saw this first-hand at companies I worked for in the past. I would offer clients the option to subscribe to email newsletters and, anecdotally, about one in 1000 clients actually signed up. Does that shock you? My estimation is quite conservative, too.

It’s no surprise when you consider the offer was guilty of each of the points listed above. How do I know? Let’s just say I realized this after receiving a lot of interesting feedback. What I took away from the experience was if you want to separate yourself from the herd, you need to be seen and noticed. To do that effectively you need to do things differently – and better than everyone else.

Sound familiar at all? It’s pretty close to Apple’s slogan (and philosophy), “Think differently.”

At the end of the day, it can be difficult to capture leads and especially ones that are of good quality. You may be wondering how presenting a free gift in layers could be more effective than the common method.

Here’s why I’m convinced (and why it worked for me):

What’s the Difference?

"I am undeniably, incredibly and happily addicted to Pinterest."
Pinterest is an undeniably, incredibly habit-forming service.

The difference can be seen in many companies including Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Evernote. Nir Eyal MBA explains this best in his book Hooked. He has found thathabit-forming products and services enjoy the most success.

When your business becomes a habit in your customer’s daily routine, your company should see enormous growth. For example, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest have all become household names because their business models hook their customers.

There are four cyclical steps to creating a product or service that hooks customers:

  1. Trigger –  A visitor is alerted. You can alert visitors in the form of an email, link, and app notification, to name only a few
  2. Action – The visitors does something, expecting a reward
  3. Variable reward – A different but equally enticing reward is subsequently offered to keep the visitor engaged
  4. Investment – The visitor works by putting something into the product whether it’s time, data, effort or money, for example. Whatever the investment is, it’s necessary that it improves the visitor’s experience of your product or service
The Simpsons: Tapped Out loading screen.
The Simpsons: Tapped Out app is just one of many great examples of habit-forming games and products.

One of the best examples I can think of to illustrate this model is freemium games, such as my favorite, The Simpsons: Tapped Out. Freemium games are those that are free to play but offer in-game bonuses if you invest some money into it.

It starts by installing the app to your phone or tablet with a call to action – that’s the trigger. The user is rewarded with bonus scenes featuring the game in the style of the hit animated series, The Simpsons. They are also rewarded with access to the game for free. The user is rewarded again with premium, in-game currency and items for completing a few simple actions. These are examples of variable rewards.

The daily play combo in The Simpsons: Tapped Out freemium game app.
The freemium game rewards loyalty, time and effort with in-game prizes.

When a user invests time and effort, they are rewarded with daily bonuses as well as prizes when they reach a new level.  You can also invest social capital by inviting your friends to join. These investments help you move forward in the game and sometimes provide more rewards.

If you invest some money into the game, you can purchase premium characters and items that enrich the game by helping you collect more in-game currency to buy more items that have the same function. This type of investment also helps enhance the game.

The users complete these steps and by now, most of them are hooked. They will cycle back through these steps over and over.

A look at The Simpsons: Tapped Out in game.
If you’re an avid Tapped Out user like me, you might be at least a little impressed by this screenshot.

The only exception is the initial trigger is no longer a link to install the app. Instead, the trigger follows in the form of push notifications on the user’s phone.

By applying these principles to your email marketing strategy, you can help your business become more of a habit in the eyes of your users, rather than an occasional occurrence.

Let’s start taking a look at how we can apply this model to creating a layered free gift that hooks your users and keeps them coming back to your site.

The Key Idea for Maximum Conversion

To create a layered gift that’s truly effective at increasing your conversion rate, you need to identify the core problem that your website solves for your target audience. If you’re just starting out, you may not have found the answer to this, but it’s crucial that you do.

Without recognizing why your business is useful to your customers, you won’t be able to get them hooked. It’s also where many companies fall short, which becomes clear when you come across landing pages and about page that are vague about their purpose.

For example, the solution The Simpsons freemium app provides is not entertainment, but the user’s underlying need for a sense of control and accomplishment. It may sound weird, but there is a basis to this rooted in psychology.

When you’re tapping your way to unlocking goal-based rewards and you’re successful, it feels like you have achieved something worthwhile, even if your day (in real life!) was otherwise unproductive. When you direct the show’s characters to complete chores and jobs based on the sitcom, you may feel like you have control over something, even if your life otherwise feels out-of-control.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
Bonus points for creating a business that creates habits in all these areas.

This is a great example of how to create habit-forming products or services by understanding your clients’ core needs and problems.

So how do you find your target audience’s core problem? You need to look into the psychology of human necessity. To do this, take a look at how your product fits into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, we have five basic needs starting with the most important ones:

  1. Physical – In this category are the basic tools to stay alive (and ideally, not die!) such as food, water, and shelter
  2. Safety – We need to feel safe in our homes, secure in our jobs and in control of our lives
  3. Social – Human beings need to feel cared for and loved by others and feel a part of a strong community
  4. Self-esteem – We need to feel happy in our own skin, have self-worth and feel accomplished
  5. Self-actualization – If we somehow manage to get this far, we start becoming concerned with personal growth and fulfilling our potential

While critics of this hierarchy suggest that these needs aren’t scientifically quantifiable, this theory is widely accepted and used by psychologists. Figuring out where your business fits into these needs is your key to creating a layered gift that will truly convert.

Once you have this figured out, you can start constructing your free gift offer.

Planning Your Free Gift

When you have identified one or two of your potential clients’ core needs from the list above, it’s time to get more specific. Translate the need into how they might be experiencing it in their life as a problem that can be solved by your business.

The solution you come up with can be used to create your free gift offer. It could be an eBook, video or podcast series, a mini e-course or detailed report.

The idea isn’t to give away everything you have for free but to offer something for real value. The free gift should also be unique to your business.

If your free gift includes information that can be Googled in two minutes, you’re not offering anything worthy of your users’ personal information. On the flip side, you should be okay if you offer information that can be Googled, but it would take ages to put all the details together in a meaningful way that solves your clients’ problem.

Once you have decided on the free gift you would like to present on your site, you can begin mapping out the layered offer.

The Structure of a Layered Free Gift

Applying what we have learned about habits and core needs, we can create a free gift offer that really wows your visitors and promotes loyalty. To accomplish this, your free gift should be split into three parts. You will also need to create regularly scheduled free events.

The four step process of creating a layered free gift.
Following these steps will help your visitors create a habit of checking your site.

Let’s break down each of the four phases of the layered gift to help you implement this strategy for your business.

Phase One

In this step, you would place your call to action for visitors to receive your first gift whether on your site or through advertisements. You can also use our PopUp Pro or Slide In plugins to create your ad.

Sample ad for phase one.
You may not be able fit everything into your ad so pick the info that reflects well on your business.

It should excitedly explain that there are free bonus gifts included and the offer is only available to new visitors or for a limited time depending on your specific needs. It should also be clear that the free gifts are available with no strings attached.

Phase Two

At the end of the first gift, let the visitor know they can enjoy their first bonus gift, which is actually the second part of your gift, by going to your site. Additionally, let them know what your selected schedule is for revealing the gifts.

Finally, let them know you won’t be reminding them when the next gift is available so they should mark their calendars. A sense of urgency is created which can help drive your visitor to begin the actions it will take to form a new habit of visiting your site.

As Dr. Alex Lickerman explains in his article Eight Ways to Remember Anything, you’re more likely to remember something that truly interests you. Your free gift with its highly valuable content would excite your visitor so much, it should help them remember the details better.

Phase Three

Example bonus.
You can create a bonus that requires minimal effort as long as it delivers a ton of value.

At the end of the second portion of the gift, mention the next part, framing it as a bonus. Continue in the same way as in phase two where you remind them of the regularly scheduled date and time in which you are releasing the next reward.

You should emphasize that you aren’t going to remind them when the reward is coming out, so they need to remember the details on their own to receive it. Don’t forget to let them view your reward even if they miss it.

Phase Four

The final part of the layered free gift is to offer regularly scheduled, free events that deliver a high value to your users if they join your mailing list or sign up for an account on your site.

These events don’t have to give away the farm, but they do need to be considered as immensely valuable to your visitor. The events could take the form of blog posts, product launches, videos, podcasts or similar benefits.

No matter how you choose to continue engaging your users, be sure to continue offering content to your users that provides solutions to problems you previously identified.

You can begin to email them about your regular events, although, your emails should be focused on reminding them about the events if they haven’t visited your site in a while. If not, you should be enticing them to pursue the habit of visiting your site.

Limiting the number of emails you send your clients may seem counter-intuitive, but it prevents you from overwhelming your users. If you constantly send emails with content they don’t care about, it could influence them to quit visiting and caring about your business.

That being said, if regular emails have been working for you, then all the power to you. Keep going and don’t worry about limiting the emails you send. If this is the case, you’re offering massive value to your users and that’s fantastic!

Crucial Steps You Need to Take

There are some critical aspects that are important to understand and integrate to ensure the effectiveness of this process:

  • Each part should solve a portion of the problem you identified and lead into soft selling the next phase of the free gift
  • Each portion of the free gift should deliver a ton of value
  • UI and UX are paramount. Make it easy as pie for visitors to receive the gifts – they shouldn’t be frustrated at any point during the process
  • Each part of the gift should be slightly different in some way – this could be done by covering different topics under the same umbrella subject or using different media formats
  • You shouldn’t ask the visitor to sign up until the last phase
  • Don’t send emails reminding or prompting your user to view the next gift
  • For your layered gift and regular events, you could offer content on a weekly or daily basis. The content should be released at the same time, every time (every Friday at 9 AM, for example)
  • If the visitor misses the scheduled gift or event, it should still be made available to them. Add a colloquial message to show them that you think of them as your equal. The subtext here is that you care about them as if they were your family and friends. The message could be something like: “Sorry you missed it! Heck, life’s a bit crazy and you cared enough to come back, so I care enough to still give you your free gift.”

Letting your users access the gifts they missed can also help delight your members and build loyalty to your business.

The idea here is to have your user expend some effort to remember that if they want to receive all the rewards, they need to complete an action. In this case, they need to remember to visit your site on a specific day in order receive the gift.

Repeating this three times helps your visitor form a habit of checking your site. By the time the free gifts are all received, they are offered regularly scheduled free events on your site if they sign up or join your email list.

Not sending them reminders also helps avoid your users from becoming complacent about your gifts. If your members know they will receive updates often, it becomes easier for them to ignore your messages and forget all about your offer.

The regular events help reinforce the habit to help keep visitors continuously coming back. If done right, your ideal client will follow through to the very end.

You may be wondering why they are ready to be sold to at this point. Simply put, it’s because you offered them massive value for free. They’ll be curious about how fantastic your paid products will be if you were able to offer as much as you have already for free.

They should also be in the habit of going to your site regularly to receive rewards. Habits are difficult to break so if you keep it up it will become an easy option for them to opt in for premium products.

If you would like a bit of a shortcut, consider using sites that are already a part of your users’ daily routines. For example, you could post your gifts as videos on YouTube or promote your free gifts on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and the like. But just remember: Using other sites won’t help your traffic count.

Please Use Responsibly

As Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben cautioned in the film Spider-Man (2002), “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s a sentiment worth remembering in this case.

A fictitional carton of Twitter, unfiltered cigarettes.
Sometimes members become addicted despite your best efforts.

Since your layered free gift works to help form a new habit for your visitors, it’s important to realize that habits can turn into addictions if the routine is a destructive one. You have the power to create a habit that affects your users negatively and you need to be cautious.

It’s crucial to consider the habit you want your users to form with your site, gift offer, products and services. It’s incredibly important to make sure your business promotes positive habits rather than destructive ones. It can also help place your company in a positive light.

Of course, you can’t control everyone else and their internet usage, but you are responsible for your actions as a decent human being, so it’s important to do your part to deliver products and services that ultimately help your clients in a positive way.

When you consider this a part of your planning process, you can give yourself a pat on your back.  While you’re at it, why not call yourself super-man or super-woman for a while, too, if it floats your boat.

What have your experiences been surrounding your conversion rate and traffic stats? Feel free to start a discussion and share your observations in the comments below.

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