How to rock out free sessions


I recently created a week-long giveaway of 30-minute free sessions.

It did very well (three dozen free sessions, fifty new subscribers, thousands of dollars of sales) with bugger-all promotion (one newsletter, one article, maybe five tweets? I was sick, it was all I could manage).

I’ve had a number of people ask how I’ve been so successful with free sessions this time and in the past, and I promised to write an article detailing all the specific strategies that have proven effective.

More importantly, I’d also like to analyse the reasons why these strategies work for me, so you can adapt them to work for you, too. Because there is nothing more depressing than giving something away for free and getting no takers.

P.S. These guidelines apply to giving away other things, too, with some obvious tweaks.

Say it with me, kids: Specific. Tangible. Outcome.

The free session had a very specific focus. It said:

  1. People use Valentine’s Day in terrible ways, mostly as an excuse to take their partner for granted 364 days of the year, and then fix it with flowers.
  2. This is a pattern in many businesses, too.
  3. Let’s break the pattern for one aspect of your biz, in 30 minutes!

Any client who has ever worked with me for any length of time knows I have an addiction to two words: specific and tangible. A free offer – any offer! – MUST be both. Your target person will read this offer and imagine it in their life. Do they need this? Would it suit them? Will it fit in the living room?

And if the offer is vague they won’t – as people seem to hope – define it for themselves in the most positive light and decide this for them. Instead, they won’t make any decision at all, and will forget about your offer immediately.

Actually, I take that back. SOME people will take a vague offer and define it as perfect, and this people are your ABSOLUTE WORST CLIENTS. The ones with completely unreasonable expectations, with minimal grasp on reality, the ones you pray never give you money ever again.

Short version: don’t be vague, lovey!

Sure, most people who read it won’t need the specific thing you’re offering this time. But there’s always next time, something you’ll be encouraged to do if you get a blisteringly enthusiastic response to your offer instead of a tepid one.

Never devalue the work

When I’m offering free or discounted services, they are never the work I already get paid to do.

I see a lot of people go wrong when they offer a freebie or a sale of their work; they unconsciously broadcast the message “My work is not worth paying full price for.”* I don’t want to ever, ever give that impression (plus I don’t want the people who paid me full price to feel sad) so I don’t do free or discounted versions of my work. Sometimes I add bonuses, but that’s as far as I go.

On ze other hand, I don’t want to create something completely new, because that is hard damn work. Generally, I create something that is a specific (there’s that word again) slice out of a bigger work, or a themed approach that uses tools already in my toolbox. This Valentine’s Day offer was both.

*I mean, it’s certainly possible to offer your paid thing for free without that subtext of “This is cheap ‘cos no-one will buy it at full price”. But you need to be both a) totally confident about the value of your work, and b) 100% lacking in any form of desperation when you make the offer. For me, a) can occur around brand-new offers, and b) may manifest because I tend to make offers like this when something needs shaking up – whether it’s my empty calendar or my approach to the work or my energy levels. So I prefer to play it safe and stay far, far away from my paid work when doing giveaways.

Short version: make sure that your free session doesn’t undermine your paid work.

I could do this in my sleep!

I chose something I was reasonably sure I would be able to deliver with near-perfect consistency.

Because this offer uses the same tools that I use every day in my sessions, I felt superbly confident – even with the usual wild cards of brand-new readers thrown into the mix.

Plus it had the bonus of being a brilliant sample of my work for new peeps, which often leads to more business later. (And much happier clients, since they already have extremely accurate expectations about how the work will go.)

There seem to be a lot of people who get uncomfortable and weirdly ashamed when they let it be easy. QUIT THAT SHIT RIGHT NOW IT WILL KILL YOU, SHEESH.

I mean, I had at least two sessions a day on top of my regular work – one memorable day was six hours of sessions with only one break in it – while also running the rest of the business and client load and oh yeah, still being sick. Why on earth would I make this hard on myself?

Short version: the parts that are easiest for you are the ones where you are most effortlessly brilliant, effective, and impressive. So use them!

Follow the fun

One-on-one sessions are my most favouritest thing. Especially when they involve new people and old readers I’ve never gotten to connect with before.

The thing you give away should be something you are wildly enthusiastic about. It transforms the energy from, “Hey. I made you a thing, if you want it.” to, “Guys! GUYS! LOOKIT at this thing I made for you it is awesome do you want it I want to give it to you I sure do ’cos you’re awesome let’s have fun together waddaya say woop woop huzzah!”

Trust me on this. I’ve made a few free resources that Experts recommended would grow my biz and they were, you know, useful and pretty and alla dat, but I wasn’t wildly excited about them. And they accomplished bugger-all in transformative change for my peeps, or in supporting my business. The free sessions, by comparison, are always revolutionary and always a blessing to us both.

Short version: screw the gestalt. Only give away the thing you love. Especially if you need to be involved directly in it.

Give me a reason, sugar

We are suspicious of true generosity. Because, quite rightly, we don’t believe it really exists.

If you’re giving something away, you’re doing it because you’re getting something out of it. And if you pretend different, we’re gonna keep hunting for the attached string.

In this offer, I gave the reason that it’s Valentine’s Day, and I love my readers, and we keep doing this dumb-ass thing, so I wanted to give them a gift. That was enough of a reason to disarm the Suspicious Bastard sniffer for most people. It doesn’t need to be a fancy, elaborate backstory or justification; it just needs to confirm our unstated belief that no-one is really, truly selfless when they give. There’s always some motivation behind the gift.

By now, I probably don’t need to be so explicit about this, because I have developed a reputation over time for not screwing over my people, but in the early days especially it’s vital.

Short version: Be honest and upfront about why you’re doing this – I want to test a new format, I’m feeling sad after my panda died, I’m recruiting you into my army of the undead – instead of leaving it politely unsaid or hinted at.

Be madly generous

To me, extremely limited generosity is boring. Crazy over-the-top generosity is interesting. So whenever I do session giveaways, they’re almost always anyone-who-signs-up-during-this-week-will-get-one. The second time I did this – to simultaneously celebrate leaving the Day Job and also to solve the scary here-I-am-at-my-desk-now-what? problem – I got 90 signups and did most of the sessions over three weeks. Crazy? Yes. The thing that most grew my business in its first stages? Yep.

The first time I did this, I was still in my Day Job, so I spent weeks getting up at 5am to do the 30-ish free sessions before I went to work. Again, kinda insane, but also super-duper effective.

Of course, over-the-top generosity can take many forms, and you have to choose one that suits you and your constraints (which is usually easier when you obey the Fun Rule, but still definitely need to be considered). And crazy-ass generosity is not the only way you can make an offer that is innately remarkable and thus likely to be shared. But I’m a big fan.

Short version: go big. Give remarkably. Make it interesting.

Now, not later

I like using one week as a signup window. It’s a big enough time for almost everyone to have a chance to read the article and sign up, but not so big that they feel they have plenty of time.

(Oh, and international readership trick: I always use “You have until the end of the 20th” as my format. I end the offer when the 20th is finished across the globe. SO much simpler than any other method I’ve tried.)

Give your readers a reason to take action now, not “someday”. That can be as simple as a time or numbers limit, or a special gift for people who fill in the worksheet, or a competition, or a free hedgehog, or just an offer so freaking amazing that they have to move right now ’cause they want it so bad.

Short version: encourage them to do it now. You’ll both be glad you did.

Gift, not transaction

I asked for nothing from my people except for them to show up and allow me to help them. I believe I mentioned my services twice, like when one client was admitting she’d been wrestling with a name for her new thing and I said the Kickass Naming Service could be of help with that if she remained stuck.

But that was it. I spent the whole 30 minutes focused on them, and doing my best to rock their world. I had no sneaky self-serving agenda, and I will be completely and perfectly satisfied if that is all they need from me and they never pay me one dollar.

Of course, quite a few of them will buy something from me, and some already have. Historically, my conversion rate from giving with no expectation of return has been crazy high. Possibly it’s not as high as if I spent the last ten minutes discussing Ways We Could Work Together, but – especially considering number of calls I do – it’s usually enough to be more than worthwhile. And I like it more.

Sometimes I do more transactional sessions, like if someone emails me asking about whether I could help them with a specific problem. Then of course I’ll do a free session that’s two thirds world rocking and one third where-do-we-go-now.

There’s two vital parts to this:

  1. Know in advance whether you’re giving a gift, or making an exchange.
  2. Clarify your message accordingly.

We’ve all been ambushed by the “informational” teleclass which is just one long ad with three useful tips in it. We’re getting jaded, and cautious, and less free with our attention. Disarm us with honesty.

Short version: if you’re doing a transaction, announce it upfront. Never sneak-attack with it. But consider the possibility that an actual gift might be more effective.

What’s the buzz, tell me what’s a happening

Nowadays I have a big enough audience – and enough people who regret not taking me up on a previous offer! –  that a minimalist announcement and social media outreach is enough to get a very healthy response.

But I did my first offering when I had, oh, forty readers, and I did it very differently back then.

I tweeted, I emailed, I posted the offer in every forum I was a member of… and my audience tripled in a week. It was hard work, and it was brilliant.

Short version: if your audience is small, you need to get the word out every way you can. (Again, this is easier if your offer is specific, tangible and interesting.)

Sell the freebie

There’s no price tag, but this is still a sale, which is something else a lot of disappointed coaches don’t seem to understand. I’ve seen a heart-breaking number of wonderful service providers who think two lines and a Sign Up box is enough to get people to give you a half hour of their time.

To a certain extent, the rest of your website is a sales page. It sells your approach and your values and your skills and your strengths. If those are good enough, you might do okay with a no-description offering. Maybe. But no matter how big your audience, or how clear your branding, you will always do better if you approach your free offering with the same focus and attention you give to the paid ones.

Short version: even if it’s free, you need to sell your offering.

Don’t have expectations. But be open to hopes.

You can’t have expectations of what you’ll get back when you give a gift; expectations immediately create a transaction (and one where you’re likely to be very pissy when you don’t get what you were hoping for).

But you can have hopes.

Because very, very good things always happen to me when I am insanely generous. Most of these things don’t seem to be related to what I’m doing – like a previous Pilot Light client paying me $1300 – but I am firmly convinced that on some level that this works. Good things happen to Generous Catherine.

I mean, I can reasonably predict I will end up with twenty new ideas for articles, and a renewed love for my work and clients. I can hope that some of these wonderful sessions will lead to paid work some time in the future, probably though offerings I create as a result of the work. (This time, it was Your Business Sidekick.)

Those are hopes, not demands. I’m never calculating what I expect in return, or how this will benefit me. And I think that’s the main reason I get such brilliant outcomes.

Short version: I never expect the good things to come. As long as I have done so, they keep showing up.

What’s your thoughts on free sessions?

Do you have any tales of success or woe to share? Any more questions? Want to disagree with me? Please, add your thought in the comments!

I love you, Soda Pop Guy.

I have clients who admit to me, shamefaced, that they hide things about themselves. “I’m too weird,” they say. “I’m too intense, I need to tone it down.”

To them, I say: meet the Soda Pop Guy.

Soda Pop Guy is weird. He is intense. And he is utterly fucking mesmerising.

What did you learn from Soda Pop Guy? Tell us in the comments!

The Valentine’s Day problem in your biz, and a gift for you.

This guy has a lot to answer for.

It’s Valentine’s Day soon.

The Dude and I will be following our annual ritual: ignoring it completely.

Because both of us believe that too many people use Valentine’s Day as an excuse to take their partner for granted every other day of the year, and then “make it all better, for realsies” with a big armful of foliage.

It’s the Big Dramatic Gestures school of thinking. (With a side of the Fix It With Spending philosophy.) Hollywood and Hallmark are both prime collaborators in popularising the Big Dramatic Gesture: they’re attractive, remarkable, a good narrative device. But I don’t think that in the real world they’re very effective.

The Dude and I prefer the Small Consistent Gestures approach. We have more small rituals than I could list, from the good-morning kiss to the bedtime routine. And we add a bajillion small favours, like a back rub or getting him a drink when I go to the kitchen.

We’ve been together thirteen years, and our relationship gets stronger every year. So we think our approach is working.

Of course this brings me to business – doesn’t everything?

Because I think the Big Dramatic Gesture thinking is equally prevalent when people think about their business. And I think it’s equally daft in that arena, too.

It can happen in all sorts of areas: from ignoring your cashflow for weeks and then having the Oh Shit I Am Now Desperate Sale, or skipping your marketing for months and then drowning everyone in a firehose explosion of Let Me Tell You About All The Things, or of course running yourself into the ground and then disappearing for a fortnight while you try and catch up on six months of self care.

It’s bonkers.

So for this Valentine’s Day, I’m going to give you a present.

You and me, spending half an hour talking about how to bring more consistent attention and affection into your business. How you can make changes, right freaking now, to make your biz feel more loved and more nourished every single day.

For free.

I’ve opened my calendar wide and I’ll help anyone who signs up in the next week. Even if there’s two hundred of you, I will deliver to anyone who shows up.

Yes, that includes people who have never heard of me before today.

Yes, that includes people who have been reading me for years.

Yes, that includes you.

All you need is something resembling a business, and one area where you’d really like to quit the Big Dramatic Gestures approach and work on bringing the love every day.

[Edit: this is now over, my lovely! Thank you to the dozens of wonderful peeps who signed up.]

Are you a light switch or a thermostat?

Are you a light switch or a thermostat?

A light switch has two settings: on or off. Frenetic or exhausted. Rich or broke. Everything or nothing. Worshipped or isolated. Bursting or starving.

A thermostat has levels: high, medium-high, medium, medium-low, low. Frenetic, energetic, relaxed, tired, exhausted. Rich, abundant, comfortable, scraping by, broke. Worshipped, admired, friendly, lonely, isolated. Bursting, full, satiated, hungry, starving.

Maybe you do it differently in different areas of your life. With money you might have two settings – say, BUY ALL THE THINGS and OMG DOOMFLAIL – but in your health you have a more nuanced outlook.

Or maybe, like me, you’re a light switch pretty much everywhere. (MADE OF PUDDING versus MOTHERFUCKING GOD OF EXERCISE, ferinstance.)

I’m assuming that being a light switch is bad for everyone. I certainly wish I wasn’t one, and am working on developing a more thermostat-ey approach. (If you think that being a light switch is actually awesomepants, please come explicate why in the comments.)

It’s definitely a bad idea in your business to only have two settings.

Take cash flow for example. When the switch is on you’re all, “Woo, never need work again! Time to chillax.” But then the light will turn itself off over time and suddenly you find yourself saying, “I have to sell sixty copies before Tuesday to pay the mortgage. Ohcrapohcrapohcrap.” And then you sell from desperation. And that never works well.

Desperation: the only scent that travels over the internet.

It is much preferable to have a sliding scale, one which does two vital things:

  1. Informs your actions.
  2. Tells you when to stop putting more energy in.

Imagine for a second: all of the areas in your biz and life are thermostat dials, from 1 (Terrible) to 5 (Mind-blowingly amazing) with 3 representing (Sufficient). All these dials are together in one place where you can see them and direct energy and attention to them together.

Suddenly you know a lot of things about your priorities.

  • You know that anything on 1 needs immediate attention and energy.
  • You know that anything on 2 should get energy next.
  • You know that anything on 3 is adequate, and you should be grateful, and give it at least enough energy to maintain it and make sure it doesn’t sneak on back to 2.
  • You know that anything on 4 is doing very well, and if you have no other urgent priorities you could put in a bit more energy to crank it up to 5.
  • You know that anything on 5 does not need any extra energy put into it. Also, confetti.

Isn’t it a beautiful system? I’m strongly considering getting out my craft stuff and making myself a physical version. It’d have dials for Self-care, and Clients, and Newsletter Subscribers, and Projects, and some others, too, I guess. (Not too many.)

Fuck it, I’m gonna go make this.

[EDIT: I made it! This is the photo – before it is calibrated with reality.]

This is my first thought on the things I most want to measure.

What dials would yours have? Tell me in the comments!

(All love and thanks to my coach Leela. This is her model.)

photo by: SeveStJude