Providing Free Services or Products

“It’ll be good exposure for your business.”

How many times have you heard that phrase or something similar when being asked to do something for free?

I really dislike this phrase. It’s presumptuous and often not based on fact.

The underlying basis of the pitch is that it’ll be a good marketing opportunity for you…so therefore it’s not really asking that big a favor for you to do something for free.

It can be free services or free products, but it still has a cost for you in time or cost of goods, or both.

Whether it’s providing donated products for a nonprofit fundraiser or leading a free workshop in your specialty for a group, the presumptive quid pro quo is that providing this “freebie” will ultimately be to your benefit.

But is that likely to be true? And as small business owners should that marketing long shot really be our motivation when we give away our goods or services?

I don’t believe so.

Free Isn’t Really Free

I’m often asked to do free workshops or provide pro bono services for organizations. And I do. However, I’m very clear that I do it because I believe in the organization’s mission or cause, not because it’s disguised as a marketing opportunity.

Sure, maybe I’ll meet a prospective client or get a new business lead, but the only thing that’s certain is that it’ll cost me time and out of pocket expense…and that it’ll be good for whoever is doing the “ask.”

So when I agree to a request, I understand that it’s actually a donation or volunteer opportunity to support an organization, not a free marketing opportunity.

There are probably thousands of variations on this theme. But whether it’s using my intellectual property to provide free content for an organization’s conference attendees or it’s auctioning off an artist’s donated work to raise money; it’s all the same result.

The real benefit is on the other side of the transaction. And I just wish we’d stop playing “let’s pretend” about it.

Choose When to Donate and When to Market

As business owners, we need to be clear with ourselves about why we do, or don’t, agree to a request for goods or services. Is it an instance of making a donation to some kind of worthwhile cause or is it a marketing opportunity with real potential for return? Then we can decide whether or not to participate based on our true motivation.

I’m happy to write a check or put my volunteer energy into a good cause, but there is something that irks me about being complicit in this “let’s pretend it’s good for me” approach.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a very strong advocate of businesses supporting community activities and nonprofit organizations with both money and volunteer time, but there are many other more targeted and cost effective ways to market my business.

Marketing is a data driven activity that has a predicted financial return on the investment.
Donating is an activity that comes from a commitment to support a worthy cause.

We need to be clear about our reasons and expected return for participating in either activity.

Make an Informed Business Decision

Let’s keep the two activities separate. As small business owners, let’s be vocal and upfront about the probable lack of marketing value when we are asked to do something for free. We can be gracious and say “sure I’d love to donate my goods or services” to support the cause.

If you decide to do it, be articulate about why you are doing so. It’s a way to be clear about the value of what we are providing and reinforce that our motivation is to support their organization, not our business.