Marketing / Business marketing

When offering free downloads goes bad

‘Find what potential customers are looking for, give them valuable information that fills that need and you will eventually turn them into customers.’ That's one of the golden rules in content marketing. But what happens when free downloads go pear shaped?


This story, like all good stories, started many years ago. Like many small business owners who have leapt out of the rigid corporate world, I looked at selling ebooks on the internet as a way to supplement my income.

Given my first 20 years were in human resources, it seemed logical that I create a series of products based on my HR expertise.

One of my patches of particular skill was performance reviews – setting them up for organisations, implementing them, improving them, and helping tackle the thorny problems they could surface.

I ran the numbers and found that people were looking for performance review training. There was a massive untapped need for free performance review questions and free forms.

After a few weeks, I had created my handy dandy ebook, recorded a series of training MP3’s and created two downloads to meet the untapped need.

"Don't fully fill a need with your free products. Give the system not the solution."

I initially set up the free downloads so that you had to exchange your email to get them. Simple – right?


My email list exploded (did I mention the untapped need before?) And so did my complaints.

I received daily abusive email after another demanding to know why people had to give their email address to get the free download.

If people did join my list and I had the temerity to email them with HR articles and tips, or information about other relevant HR products, I had massive unsubscribe numbers and sky-high spam complaints.

… And no sales.

After rocking in the corner for a while, I decided to take the products out from behind the email capture process, and offer them as no strings attached downloads.

I upped the promotion of my other products in the ebooks and added in more links back to my email subscribe location to entice people to subscribe voluntarily to my email list.

Want more articles like this? Check out the business marketing section.

Even bigger Boom!

I was getting links back from major universities and schools (Yay) … and every spammer selling male medicinal products known to human kind. For every one great link, 1000 seriously crappy ones appeared.

And what of my sales? A few here or there – nothing to write home about.

My voluntary email list? Even more crickets. People studiously ignored the links in the same way that teenagers can step over dirty plates on the lounge room floor.

I went into panic mode.

I added in AdSense and Amazon affiliate links, with handpicked books relevant to the product to monetise the high traffic pages.

I also added the product to ClickBank to try and get affiliate sales from it.

Even more massive Boom!

Free downloads of my ebooks went through the roof. But sales of my ebook stayed at micro levels.

Then armies of Acai Berry sites and Forex sites joined all the male enhancement sites linking back to my site … all adding their crappy links back to my site.

I started to hyperventilate and I moved the products and freebies over to their own domain, but the SEO damage had been done. Once you have 40,000+ crappy links to pages on your site, there is no going back from them!

After five years, I still haven’t had enough to buy a cup of coffee from Amazon. And the AdSense account delivers about $100 a year.

The paid ebook sales for that product come from my general mailing list and not from the free download (or from Clickbank).

So what went wrong with my free downloads?

1. I gave away the farm

My free products FILLED a need. People needed questions or forms. When I filled that need – they didn’t have any more needs. That meant they packed up their tents and moved onto the next village.

Giving a taste is one thing. Given the full banquet is something altogether different. Getting the balance right is darn tricky!

The lesson is: don’t fully fill a need with your free products. Give the system not the solution.

2. I ignored the ‘free’ flag

The keyword that people were looking for was ‘Free’.

If free is a main keyword term, then you can pretty much guarantee that they will never put their hand in their pocket to buy anything. My lesson is if people are actively looking for ‘free’ anything, then I need to run as fast as my unfit legs can carry me away.

3. I forgot about the background emotions

There is something about performance reviews that brings out the worst in people.

Being prompted with extra training on how to have great reviews, or deal with tears or anger in reviews just reminded them how much they hated performance reviews in the first place. So they took out their hatred on the nearest available object. Me.

4. I sacrificed my main business website

In my zeal to embrace selling on the net – I sacrificed my main business site as I didn’t realise the impact that affiliates, scammers and scrapers could have. Always put your e-products where you have no control over potential vendors at arms-length from your main site.

5. I persisted too long

After seven long, painful years, I am pulling the plug on my most popular site, with all the links from .edu and .gov sites.

I am packing up my own tent and moving on in the same way that the hordes of people who have enjoyed and used my free download have over the years.

I will still sell the product (it is a darn good one). But not there. Not through Clickbank and not on my main site. And there will be no more free stuff to get there.

Filling a need is one thing.

Filling a business need is another thing altogether.

Ingrid Moyle

from Heart Harmony Communications is a psychology-based copywriter and web designer who works with small business owners to help them convert lookers into buyers online. When not hardwired to her computer, she quests for the perfect coffee while playing Pokémon Go (Yes, it is still a thing).


127,219 people use Flying Solo to help them create a business with life. Do you?

Connect with Flying Solo

Explore the benefits of membership