A R T I C L E S ~ A B O U T ~ O N L I N E ~ M A R K E T I N G
The Art of the Free Sample
Using a free sample as a sales tool dates back to the serpent in the Garden
of Eden. Adam and Eve couldn't resist the apple, and neither can we. That's
why the giveaway has become almost cliche in Internet marketing. It's one
of the most effective ways to promote books online.
The trick to free samples is reaching a large audience without angering
online authorities. A botched campaign on the Internet can lead to a steady
stream of flaming e-mail. On commercial services such as America Online and
CompuServe, you must satisfy forum moderators who can remove your postings
or revoke your access. The following tips will help you structure a
giveaway campaign that will reflect well on your company and keep you in
the good graces of the net cops.
Almost any book can benefit from a giveaway campaign. For fiction, the best
approach is to offer a sample chapter. You want to pick a passage that
contains the strongest writing, pulling people into the story so that they
need to know what happens next. For poetry, pick powerful poems or ones
that represent a cross-section of the poet's style.
Non-fiction books lend themselves to free resource lists of tips or
instructions. Try to sculpt the sample so that readers will want the
in-depth information found only in the book. For example, I crafted a
campaign for a book on building-related illness that offered a sample
chapter on how buildings make you sick. The text is compelling, and almost
any reader would want to know how to prevent the trauma described.
The length of the giveaway is not critical. About ten pages of text is
typical. Non-fiction resource lists are often much shorter. Fiction
excerpts can be quite a bit longer; readers will hang in there if they like
Content is a bigger issue than length. You should try to pick something
geared toward the Internet audience. Look for passages that deal with
computers or business. Cyber-fiction and science fiction work well.
Anything that helps people in their careers is good. Other popular subjects
include sex, health and pop culture -- anything that a youthful,
business-minded audience would find interesting.
Care must be taken to prepare the giveaway for electronic delivery. First,
be sure that your sample contains instructions on how to buy the book. You
can include phone and fax numbers, your mailing address and Internet
address, the names of distributors, wholesalers, and retailers, how to
order the book online, even contact names for media or rights inquiries.
The next step is to save the file as text. This will allow you to
distribute the file to the greatest number of people with the fewest
technical headaches. When you save as text, you lose all your formatting
commands: bold, italics, tabs, large point sizes, etc. You should view the
file before launching it to make sure it looks decent.
You are now ready to place the file online where people can view it or
download it. Your Internet Service Provider may provide an FTP directory
where you can store files. Otherwise, ask sympathetic people on the net if
you can put files on their sites. You might find ones that cater to science
fiction fans or cooks or gardeners, etc.
America Online and CompuServe allow members to upload files into libraries
located in each of the special interest forums. You need to find an
appropriate forum, then look in the library for uploading instructions.
It's a good idea to print these instructions for future reference.
Both America Online and CompuServe welcome member contributions and even
credit your account for the time it takes to upload files. Before you
upload, you need to think of a catchy name for your file (eight letters or
less is best) and write some teaser copy telling people what the file
contains and why they would want to read it. The teaser copy will be stored
as an abstract that people view before downloading the file.
On America Online and CompuServe, the file will be checked for viruses and
content before being placed in the library. It might take as long as two
weeks for the library administrator to release the file. If they reject it,
you can re-work the file to fit their criteria or look for a more
When the file appears in the library, view it yourself to make sure there
are no technical problems. Sometimes the line endings are messed up.
Technical difficulties are usually caused by not saving the file as text
before uploading. If something is wrong with the file, ask the library
administrator to remove it and try again.
Now that your file is ready for prime time, you can tell the world about
it. On the Internet, you can post messages to discussion groups telling
people how to get the free sample. Your announcements should be short and
sweet and only posted to groups that have a strong interest in the
One newcomer to the net posted his financial services announcement to a
cancer support group reasoning that these people would need estate
planning. I don't have to tell you his posting came off as callous and
insensitive. He should have stuck to the financial discussion groups.
On America Online and CompuServe, look for special interest forums where
your announcement should be welcome. Forum moderators will remove
announcements if they sound too commercial, so keep the ad copy in the
giveaway file and stress the free sample in your postings.
The useful life of a free sample is about 10 days. Most people either
download it right away or forget about it. The commercial online services
will remove your excerpt after one month, possibly burying it in an archive
before purging it from the system.
You can extend the life of your free samples by offering them via e-mail.
You might include a line in your "signature" that says something like: "Top
Ten Tips for Business Success: Send E-Mail for Free Sample." The signature
file is appended to all outgoing e-mail and Internet postings. When you get
a request, simply attach the giveaway file to your reply.
STEVE O'KEEFE is author of the books Publicity on the Internet (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), and The Complete Guide to Internet Publicity(John Wiley & Sons, 2002). You can reach him by e-mail at info@PatronSaintPR.com.