Indie music maverick Chris Robley walks us through the process of building an audience by giving away free CDs — and making money in the process.
This post originally appeared on CD Baby’s DIY Musician blog. Reprinted with permission.
I added a bunch of new people to my email list and ended up making a profit — even when you factor in advertising costs for broadcasting the offer on Facebook and Instagram.
What does “free plus shipping and handling” mean?
While it might be unusual in the music business, “Free (Plus Shipping and Handling)” deals (F+S&H) are common in other industries. An author might offer a free book in hopes you’ll buy other books or want to attend their conference or sign up for an online course. A cutlery company might offer a free knife in the hope that you’ll buy the whole set. The customer pays the shipping, plus a little extra to cover the cost of mailing materials and the time it takes to pack and ship the order.
The customer gets something for free, while the company:
- Boosts brand loyalty
- Demonstrates the value of its product
- Builds an audience
- Increases potential for future revenue
- Offers an up-sell during the “checkout” process
Now let’s translate that for musicians and assume YOU are the one running the campaign.
When you give away music or merch, you:
- Deepen your connection with listeners
- Build your audience and grow your list
- Re-energize existing fans by revisiting older material
- Turn casual fans into CUSTOMERS (or something close to customers, since they’re providing credit card information for the shipping costs)
- Generate a profit (potentially)
The folks at Indepreneur offer some great guidance about Free + Shipping campaigns. If you want a deep dive into this idea, check out their online course. If you want the key pointers, as well as common mistakes to avoid, listen to Episode #229 of CD Baby’s DIY Musician Podcast: “How to build your list and make a profit giving away your music.”
When is the right time to launch an offer — and what should you give away?
Every product has a rhythm for sales and engagement, including your latest album. Unless you’re charting on the radio, inevitably, interest dwindles. At that point, if you have large quantities of under-performing merch lying around, put it to use!
Of course, you don’t want to LOSE money on this endeavor, so it’s best to give away low-cost/high-margin items, things that are cheap to manufacture relative to the price you sell them for — like CDs, posters, stickers, buttons, etc.
Do people want CDs?
Yes! Maybe not ALL people, but lots of ’em do. Even if fans never rip off the shrink wrap, it’s a way to take home a piece of a live show that moved them, invest in your career, or make an online purchase that celebrates the connection they have with your music.
The cost of acquiring customers
It takes a lot of time, effort, and advertising money to grow a fan base. Many businesses draw up five-year plans assuming they will LOSE money in their efforts to gain customers and brand advocates. Hopefully, eventually, they turn a profit. An F+S&H offer helps you jump-start the process with less financial risk. You may lose a little money to make it happen (aka customer acquisition costs). At best, you make a little in the process.
Before you begin…
- Embrace mass failure. An F+S&H campaign is part of a marketing funnel. Get the message in front of lots of people knowing many will not take you up on the offer. Some folks will be indifferent. Some don’t want to pay anything. Some people hate your music. This is normal. Beyoncé has millions of fans, but she probably has millions of haters too. It’s all a numbers game. In fact, success often looks like failure if you only consider the surface-level stats. The goal is to find the small percentage of people who WILL act and take them from point A to Z.
- Don’t assume this offer will appeal to cold customers. This kind of campaign is for getting lukewarm audiences off the fence and into your inner circle.
- Don’t bitch about giving things away. Again, consider customer acquisition costs. Prove your music is worth some attention. Once you do, people will be way more likely to buy from you later on.
- Don’t factor the cost of recording and manufacturing your CD into your cost analysis. Think of these merch items as things you’ve already paid for. It’s oil in the barrel, not in the ground.
- Don’t factor in previous marketing and advertising costs into your cost analysis. Both the merch item and the audiences you’ve built will serve you beyond just THIS campaign.
- The keys to profiting are your “order bump” and your “up-sell” (two additional products you offer at a discount during checkout), so you should choose tools that allow you to easily display those “extras” AFTER the person has entered their payment info. If those options appear before payment, or if they’re offered up-front as bundles on the landing page, you are introducing obstacles to the person actually paying for shipping and getting the main offer. As a rule, the more up-front choices they have, the lower your conversion rate.
- This won’t make you rich. The point of this campaign is primarily to build your list and convert lukewarm fans into listeners. In my campaign, I made a small profit after covering my ad costs, but I would’ve been happy even if I’d lost a little bit of money towards the same ends.
Tools for running an F+S&H campaign.
At first glance, running this kind of campaign looks expensive (for the DIY budget), at least if you go the route recommended by music marketers, which requires a ClickFunnels subscription. But let’s look a little closer.
ClickFunnels is a service that helps you:
- Create a squeeze page for the campaign. A squeeze page is a landing page where the only thing a visitor can do is take action or back out: there’s no navigation, no options, no distractions.
- Set different shipping rates based on location.
- Offer order bumps and up-sells.
Here’s the downside. It’s $99/month, unless you get a special “ShareFunnels” rate for $19/month, which limits the number of campaigns you can run at one time.
Could you split an account with five other bands? Maybe. I’m not sure what ClickFunnels frowns upon.
For the record, lots of artists don’t love ClickFunnels because it doesn’t look as sleek as something like Bandcamp or Squarespace (at least not by default) and it’s used by all the BroBillionaires promising to unlock your ideal future/job/body/funnel/party. So the platform itself can come off as not the typical DIY artist thing.
[Note: If you’re a wiz with WordPress, there are some eCommerce plug-ins that allow you to have a similar bump/upsell functionality, so explore your options there.]
You could create a squeeze page on your own website, but the big benefit of ClickFunnels is it also provides you with a simple solution for offering order bumps and up-sells after the fan’s payment and contact info has been entered (because people are more likely to add extra items to their shopping carts AFTER they’ve gotten over the initial hurdle of providing payment info).
I said ClickFunnels is simple, but I did need to do a bit of troubleshooting before it all worked properly. But once it was set, it ran smoothly, and it was easily integrated with Mailchimp.
There are other email marketing services, but Mailchimp is an obvious choice for musicians who don’t have huge lists and who need basic automation tools. Plus, Mailchimp is easily integrated with ClickFunnels and can be integrated with almost any app via Zapier.
If you do a Free + Shipping campaign, you’ll need to send a bunch of emails throughout the process and you won’t want to send them manually! Mailchimp is a good solution for sending triggered emails, including:
- The confirmation email
- The “Did you receive your CD?” email
- The “I noticed you left your contact info but never paid for shipping” email
- The “Now that you’ve got your CD, let me tell you all kinds of behind-the-scenes details” email
- The “Please leave a review or post a pic” email
Mailchimp also gives you an easy way to tag and segment subscribers, so you can send all the emails mentioned above to the appropriate people at the appropriate time.
Stripe is a payment system that’s (pretty much) free to use. If you’re setting up an F+S campaign on your own site without ClickFunnels, you might be able to set something up via PayPal too.
If you were shipping hundreds of CDs a day, I’d recommend ShipStation (or a similar service) to help manage your orders, print shipping labels, etc. But it also comes with a monthly fee, so I canceled my subscription because my order volume didn’t warrant it. I could access all the customer info I needed within ClickFunnels and copy-and-paste from there. You could probably set up a Zapier automation to handle the same tasks.
The keys to turning a profit with a “Free CD” offer
The “order bump”
If you want to break even or make a profit, it’s all about the order bump. In my campaign, after the customer has entered his/her payment info to cover the shipping costs for the FREE CD, an offer appears for my previous album, Ghosts’ Menagerie, at a significant discount.
More than half the people who claimed the free CD of The Great Make Believer also ordered Ghosts’ Menagerie. This is the reason I didn’t lose money.
When I ran out of t-shirts, I shut this up-sell off, but up until then, I believe somewhere between 15-20% of the people who got the free CD also bought a t-shirt.
Time’s running out…
I ended up leaving this offer running, but messaging like “Only 100 CDs left” or “For the next two weeks” can go a long way towards creating urgency and getting fans to act now.
Rely on recognizable brand assets
If you’re putting this offer on social feeds, you need to cut through the noise, which means your pictures or videos should have something that immediately grabs attention.
I had created a fairly big custom audience on Facebook of people who had watched my “Anonymous” music video in which I lip-synced backwards, so when the video was flipped, it looks like everything is defying gravity.
Because that custom audience was the first place I tested the free CD offer, I thought my video ad explaining the offer should have a similar look to remind people who I was without them even needing to have the sound on — so that was shot in reverse as well.
For your offer video, think of some familiar visual queues you can include that your audience will recognize (color schemes, a logo, references to past videos, etc.).
Bring them into your “inner circle”
Play up the fact that this free CD offer is for your best followers, your true fans, and it’s a thank you. That show of intimacy and appreciation will help with conversion.
Repeat the offer
People need to hear things a few times before they act, so keep sharing this offer on social and email throughout the life of your campaign. Be sure to segment out those who have already converted so you’re not bugging them, and try a few different creative approaches to subsequent offer emails (video, text, still images).
Use paid ads
You are going to depend on paid ads or boosted posts to spread awareness of your offer, and you’ll need to repeat the message enough to give those interested fans a chance to claim their free CD.
It’s already theirs
Don’t treat this like a purchase — make that clear in the language you use. Tell your fans the signed CD is already theirs, they just have to claim it. This kind of language will reduce the friction for paying the shipping costs.
Work your email list
As much as you may want to convert your Facebook engagement audiences into email subscribers, your existing email list will inevitably yield the best results. Yes, they are already on your list, but you’re helping those existing subscribers dive deeper into your music and might sell them some of those extra merch items too.
Segment your list
Segment your lists and audiences and communicate accordingly. If you’re worried that previous customers who purchased the CD will be offended you’re now offering it for free, segment out those customers by using Mailchimp tags, CD Baby sales info, and CSV files from KickStarter, Bandcamp, etc.
That said, a true fan probably won’t care if they paid for something three years ago that you’re now offering for free.
Use pop-ups, YouTube channel trailers, announcement bars, and headers
Leverage all the marketing real estate you have on your website and social profiles to promote this offer.
Create some urgency as your campaign comes to a close; be sure to tell folks when they only have a week/day/hour left to claim their signed CD for free.
Give more than you promise
Reward the people who care about your music by including extra goodies, notes, etc. At first, my free CD came with a behind-the-scenes essay about the album, printed on fancy paper, and autographed. Later I found a couple of boxes of some older posters and threw those in for free as well. I don’t mention these in the offer video; they’re extra surprises that come with the free CD.
Deploy a welcome stream of emails
Automatically add both leads and customers to your email list. When they’re added, trigger a welcome sequence that brings them closer to your music. In these emails, don’t ask anything of them. They just took a leap of faith getting your CD — give them a chance to breathe.
Fulfill the orders
It’s exciting to watch the orders come in, but it takes time and commitment to actually sit down, sign, pack, and mail all these orders. Don’t procrastinate.
Re-target your leads
If someone provides contact info but doesn’t pay for shipping/complete their order, he/she is considered a “lead” in ClickFunnels. Even if there’s no transaction, you still get the email address. An equivalent audience would be someone who you’ve tracked onto the offer landing page via a Facebook pixel, but the person didn’t arrive at the next page, whether it be an up-sell, confirmation, or thank-you page.
Gather those leads and see if you can get them interested in the offer one last time. Maybe they backed out because they were busy and now is a better time for them to finish completing the process.
Reuse, recycle, retweet
Repurpose your fans’ excitement to FB, IG, IG Stories, Twitter, etc. If someone gets a free signed CD in the mail and shares a picture on social, share away! That way you get to broadcast or replay the excitement without having to be the author of the message.
This is just the start…
An F+S&H campaign is a lot of work to create and manage, so make sure you have your next step in mind. Are you building your list to prepare for a new album? To drum up interest in an upcoming tour?
When you pull the plug on this free CD offer, don’t wait TOO long to replace it with some new kind of campaign, whether it be releasing the next album, launching a video, or selling new merch.
If you’re interested in hearing my music, I’d be honored! Claim your free signed copy of my album, The Great Make Believer.
Chris Robley is the editor of CD Baby’s DIY Musician Blog. He writes Beatlesque indie-pop songs that have been praised by No Depression, KCRW, The LA Times, and others. Chris’ poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Prairie Schooner, The Poetry Review, and more.
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