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Will the word "free" boost or kill your e-mail marketing objectives?

Susie Kelley
By Susie Kelley on April 09, 2013
Will the word
Will the word

Will the word "free" boost or kill your e-mail marketing objectives?

Susie Kelley
By Susie Kelley on April 09, 2013

Free: the most powerful word in the selling universe! At least that’s the accepted wisdom handed down by generations of advertisers and marketers.

In everyday life, the word sure has drawing power. Consider how hard it is to avoid a farmers-market table full of “free samples” or pass by a theater offering “free admission.”

But when used in inbound marketing – particularly in email subject-line marketing – “free” can be a double-edged sword:

  • It might encourage opens and click-throughs if your offer is genuinely unique and valuable.

  • Or it may just get the eye-roll and instant “delete” from recipients who have been burned by this word all too often.

And that’s assuming your email even makes it into an inbox. For years, spam-blocking software was on the lookout for “free,” thanks to a generation of bait-and-switchers, fly-by-nights, Nigerian princes, and other shady Internet characters.

But is the word truly verboten in your email subject line, or will it only enhance your marketing objectives?

The debate goes on. 

Full speed ahead!

AWeber Communications cited a Yahoo tool that tracks email volume around the world. “Every time we take a look, the word ‘free’ is hovering steadily in the ‘delivered’ zone,” noted AWeber. “’Free’ subject lines are getting delivered. It’s safe.” (A commenter to the article begged to differ: “I just looked and it had Free as a top Spam keyword now.”)

Smart Insights likewise has no problem with “free” in the subject line. Many years ago there was some truth” to the danger of using the f-word, writer Tim Watson says, “as at that time email was largely filtered based on content. The biggest spam filtering factor now is reputation, which itself is heavily based on spam complaints.”

Danger, Will Robinson!
Spam filters work by assigning ratings to email content. One judicious use of "free" may get the go-ahead; but continuous use can send up flags, as can screaming subjects lines (FREE! FREE! FREE!) or use of the word with other triggers like "sample" or "trial." That algorithm has trapped more than one well-meaning marketer. Sometimes, you'll learn the truth only after your email has been spammed out of existence.

Using “free” safely and smartly

Give it recognizable value. “Free estimate” is a standard phrase, but have you ever encountered a company that actually charged for an estimate? This kind of offer doesn’t exactly set you apart. If you’re going to give something away, make it something your competitors don’t offer. And give it recognizable monetary value –  "free car wash with every tire rotation (a $5.00 value)."

Make it exclusive.
Your marketing efforts can include a valuable freebie to only your best customers and prospects – as a thank-you or an incentive. This kind of offer delivers cache that may enhance your image. Your challenge in the email’s body text is to convince recipients that they are, in fact, part of an exclusive group.

Stay calm. Free is a pleasant word; FREE!!!! smacks of desperation. Keep to the high road in messaging, using language calmly and "slams" (!) sparingly.

Other spam triggers
Lest you think “free” is the only word that can get your email sent to the spam folder, HubSpot calls out dozens of trigger words covering several marketing categories, and the list includes 21 variations on “free.”

  • Some triggers, like “Viagra” and “Make $$  now!,” need no introduction.

  • Others, like “sale” and “success” are words you may likely choose for a subject line

Free yourself of worry

You can use "free" in your email subject line and in your body text as long as you play nice with your recipients, offering something of genuine value.

Effective email marketing should always be part of any successful inbound marketing strategy. Want to know more? Click the link below. 

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