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The Power of Free: It Can Be Priceless For You

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

Posted 3.8.24

Free delivery.”
“Subscribe for free.”
“Buy one, get one free.”

Yes, I’ll click or buy or subscribe! That’s the power of free — that magic four-letter word that moves readers to act. I read the word “free,” and I don’t want to miss out.

When you learn to use “free” in your content, you spur readers to download, give, buy, respond, engage, comment, sign up. It’s a powerful tool to have in your writing arsenal. And studies show us why.

Different ways to say "free" in content with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter #PowerWords #WritingTips #PersuasiveWriting

The power of free: it’s proven

It’s got to do with the phenomenon known as the “zero price effect.” Consumers place a disproportionate value on free items compared to those with even a small cost.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely demonstrated this principle in his New York Times bestseller Predictably Irrational. He did so by using chocolate — Lindt truffles and Hershey Kisses, to be exact. In Dan’s experiment, he offered subjects a truffle for 15 cents (about half its actual cost) or a kiss for 1 cent. Nearly three out of four subjects chose the truffle. That’s a logical outcome, given the relative value of the two treats.

Then, Dan made a second offer: he reduced the price of each product by one cent. Subjects could buy a truffle for 14 cents, or they could choose the kiss for free. In other words, the difference in price between the two chocolates remained the same.

However, the results of the experiment were not. More than two-thirds of the subjects chose the free chocolate kiss over the bargain-priced truffle. And just to make sure the choice was not based on convenience — that is, not having 14 cents in change — Dan repeated the experiment in a cafeteria line, where the pennies were added to the subjects’ totals.

Free kisses still won.

For writers, the experiment shows us why the word “free” works.

  • “Free” means no risk. Consumers perceive “free” as a gain without the gamble. Why spend 14 cents when you can spend nothing and still receive?
  • “Free” means no effort. It offers a reward with little to no exertion. You needn’t search through your purse for a bit of change or pay even a slightly higher bill. Instead, you can get a piece of chocolate by simply putting out your hand and accepting it.
  • “Free” means value. “Most transactions have an upside and a downside, but when something is free, we forget the downside,” says Dan. “‘Free’ gives us such an emotional charge that we perceive what is being offered as immensely more valuable than it really is.”

The power of free means a higher response

Like other high-value power words — including you, because, and easy — “free” is persuasive. But …

“Free” is different because it persuades the reader to act. It lifts response.

Case in point: Burger King used the power of free to increase sales during its Scary Clown Night campaign. On Halloween 2017, the fast-food giant offered a free Whopper burger to any customer dressed as a clown. More than 110,000 clowns snapped up the sandwich at no cost. But rather than putting a dent in profits that day, Burger King’s receipts increased by 15%.

Even if your offer simply appears to be free — but has a non-monetary cost — it appeals to readers. The Journal of Marketing Research reported that consumers are just as likely to accept pseudo-free offers (such as completing a survey or providing your email address) as comparable truly free offers (with no costs).

How to use the power of free in your content writing

Yep, it’s a power word. But if you toss about “free” too freely, you’ll diminish its impact. What are the best ways you can use this four-letter powerhouse to your advantage?

  • Use “free” to expand your reach. Offer free resources (e-books, guides, checklists, webinars, downloads) to attract a wider audience and increase your visibility. You’ll foster goodwill among consumers and position your brand as a valuable resource in your niche.
  • Use “free” in titles and subject lines. When you have a freebie, announce it in your headline. Doing so captures audience attention. That means higher open rates and click-throughs. Caution: be sure the content that follows does indeed offer a giveaway. Otherwise, your headline is clickbait. Worse, your authority shrinks because readers can’t trust you to deliver what you promise.
  • Use “free” in your call to action. Whether it’s a limited-time offer or a complimentary trial, use the promise of something for free to motivate consumers to act. In other words, tell the reader what to do. Explain there’s no cost for signing up for a newsletter, reserving the webinar slot, filling out a form.
  • Use “free,” but provide genuine value. When you’re offering something at no cost — whether it’s information, resources, or samples — make sure the quality is such that people would be willing to pay for it. No, you’re not leaving money on the table. Your high-value freebie builds your credibility and fosters loyalty … which leads to higher engagement and future sales.
  • Use “free” to increase urgency. Move readers to act with limited-time promotions or exclusive deals. You’ll generate a fear of missing out (FOMO), which prompts people to take advantage of the offer before it expires.

The power of free in other words

You can leverage the power of free by using other terms that mean the same thing — or nearly so.

  • At no cost
  • Comp
  • Complimentary
  • Cost-free
  • For nothing
  • Free of charge
  • Gratis
  • On the house
  • Without charge
  • Without cost

A final tip about the power of free

Too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing. The word “free” can be a powerful tool, but not when you overuse it. Incorporate “free” strategically — for instance, when you have a download or eBook in exchange for a reader’s email address.

That way, your offer becomes irresistible. It’s free to the readers. And it’s priceless to you.

More power words to use in your content

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