While it may seem counterintuitive to simply give away albums that you've poured so much blood sweat and tears into, this new piece from Chris Robley reveals how giving away CDs in pursuit of growing your mailing list can, ultimately, be profitable.
By Chris Robley of CD Baby from the DIY Musician
How to build your audience (and NOT lose money) by giving away free CDs.
Last year I started doing something kinda unusual.
I offered to mail fans a FREE signed CD of my album The Great Make Believer if they’d help me cover the shipping and handling.
Even after factoring in advertising costs to share the offer on Facebook and Instagram, I ended up making a profit and adding a bunch of people to my email list.
In this article, I’ll tell you how.
What is a “Free + Shipping & Handling” offer?
I said this kind of campaign is unusual, but only within the music business. “Free Plus Shipping and Handling” deals (F+S&H) are common in other industries.
An author might offer a book for free in hopes you’ll want to attend their conference or sign up for an online course. Or a company sends you a free knife in the hope that you’ll buy the whole set.
You pay the shipping, plus a little extra to cover the cost of mailing materials and the time it takes them to pack and ship the order.
They send you something for free while simultaneously:
- demonstrating the value of their product
- increasing their potential for later revenue
- boosting brand loyalty
- building their audience
- offering an upsell during the “checkout” process
Now let’s translate that for musicians, and assume YOU are the one running the campaign.
What do you get in return for giving away your merch?
- You build your audience and grow your list
- You deepen your connection with listeners
- You turn casual fans into CUSTOMERS (or something close to customers, since they’re providing credit card information for the shipping costs)
- You re-energize existing fans by revisiting older material in a creative way
- You potentially generate a profit
Our friends at Indepreneur offer some great guidance about Free + Shipping campaigns, so a shoutout to them for the idea in the first place.
If you want a super deep dive into this kind of thing, check out their course.
If you want the key pointers for success, as well as some common mistakes to avoid, listen to Episode #229 of the DIY Musician Podcast: “How to build your list and make a profit giving away your music.”
Or read on…
When is the right time to launch a Free + Shipping & Handling offer?
Every album has a rhythm for sales and engagement. Inevitably, interest dwindles. At that point, if you have large quantities of underperforming merch still lying around, put it to use!
What is the right merch item to give away during a Free + Shipping campaign?
You don’t want to LOSE a bunch of money on this. So it’s best to give away low-cost, high-margin items — things that are cheap to manufacture relative to the price you’d normally sell them for — like posters, stickers, buttons, CDs, etc.
Do people still want CDs?
I mean, maybe not ALL people, but lots of ’em.
EDM, modern-pop, and hip-hop are genres where digital has greatly eclipsed physical formats. But CDs and vinyl are still important for many artists.
Even if fans never rip off the shrink wrap (maybe they don’t have a CD or vinyl player), it’s a memento.
It’s a way to take home a piece of a live concert that moved them, or an online purchase that celebrates the connection they have with your music, or simply a means to invest in your career.
If YOU rip off the shrink wrap to autograph the product, even better. Then it’s a memento they might actually put on display.
Think about CUSTOMER ACQUISITION COST
It takes a lot of effort, time, and advertising money to grow your fan base the typical way. Many new businesses draw up their 5-year plans assuming they will LOSE money for years in order to gain customers and brand advocates. Hopefully, EVENTUALLY, they turn a profit.
A Free + Shipping offer helps you skip a few of those steps with way less financial risk. You need to get fans into the game, even if you have to give them something to get their butts off the bench. At worst, you lose a little money to make it happen (again, customer acquisition costs). At best, it pays.
WARNINGS! A few things you should know first:
- Embrace mass failure. A Free + Shipping campaign is (or is a part of) a marketing funnel. You’ll get the message in front of many people, and many WILL NOT ACT upon the offer. Some folks will be indifferent. Some don’t want to pay the shipping. Some are too busy. Some people who see your ads hate your music. Don’t worry. 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 strangers. This kind of campaign, as I mentioned earlier, is for getting lukewarm audiences off the fence and into your inner circle. Did I just mix metaphors? I did.
- Don’t bitch about giving things away. See above: consider customer acquisition costs. Prove that your music is worth something. Once you have, they’ll be way more likely to BUY from you later on.
- Don’t factor the cost of recording and manufacturing your CD into whether or not your F+S&H campaign is profitable. Think of these merch items as things you’ve already paid for. It’s oil in the barrel, not in the ground.
- Similarly, don’t factor in previous marketing and advertising costs for building the audiences to whom you’re now offering your free item. 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 “upsell” (two additional products you offer at a discount during checkout), so you should choose the tools that allow you to most easily display those “extras” AFTER the person has entered their payment info. If those options appear before payment, or if they’re offered upfront as bundles on the landing page, you are introducing obstacles to the person actually paying for shipping and getting the main offer. The more upfront choices they have, the lower your conversion rate.
- You’re not gonna get rich. Again, the point of this campaign is primarily to build your list and convert lukewarm fans into loyal listeners. 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.
The tools and the costs of running a Free Plus Shipping and Handling 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 check it out…
This is a service that helps you:
- create a squeeze page for the campaign (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 upsells
Here’s the downside. It’s $99/month (unless you get a special ShareFunnels rate for $19/month, which also limits the number of campaigns you can run at one time).
Could you split an account with with five other bands? Maybe. I’m not sure what ClickFunnels frowns upon.
Also, lots of artists get a weird feeling about ClickFunnels because it doesn’t look as sleek as something like Squarespace or Bandcamp or whatever (at least not by default) and it’s also used by all your average BroBillionaires promising to unlock your ideal future/job/body/funnel/party. So the company itself can come off as… not the typical DIY artist thing.
[Note: If you are a wiz with WordPress, there are some fancy eCommerce plugins 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 upsells AFTER the fan’s payment and contact info has been entered.
As I said above, 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 say “simple” because… it’s not. I mean, it’s not stupid simple. I had to do a bit of troubleshooting to make it all work properly. But once it was set, it ran smoothly, and it was easily integrated with…
There are other email marketing services, of course, but Mailchimp is an obvious choice for musicians who don’t have huge lists, and who need some 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’re going to want to send a bunch of emails along the way, and you don’t want to send them manually!
Mailchimp is a good solution for sending triggered emails, including:
- the confirmation email
- the “Did you get the CD?” email
- the “Please leave a review or post a pic” email
- the “Now that you’ve got a copy of the CD, lemme tell you all kinds of crazy things about the album” emails
- the “Hey, I noticed you left your contact info, but never paid for shipping” 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, and it’s pretty much free to use. If you’re setting up a 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 something like ShipStation that helps you manage your orders, print shipping labels, etc. But it also costs a monthly fee to use, so I ended up cancelling my subscription because my order volume didn’t require it. I could access all the customer info I needed from within ClickFunnels and copy-and-paste from there (you could probably set up a Zapier automation to handle the same tasks).
The keys to success with a Free CD offer
The “order bump”
If I haven’t stressed it enough, it’s ALL about the order bump. This is what helps you break even or make a profit.
In my case, after the customer has entered their 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 50% of the people claiming the free CD of The Great Make Believer ALSO ordered Ghosts’ Menagerie. To drive the point home, THIS is the reason why I didn’t lose money.
After they select whether or not they want the order bump, they’re taken to another page with an offer for an upsell. In my case, a t-shirt. At a discount, today, and today only.
At some point I ran out of t-shirts and shut this upsell 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 limits and scarcity
I ended up leaving this offer running, but (do as I say and not as I do) I believe 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.
Use easily-identified visual reference points
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 grabs people’s attention in the first few seconds.
I’d created a fairly big custom audience on Facebook of people who’d watched at least 75% of my “Anonymous” music video — a video where I lip-synced backwards, so when the video was flipped it looks like everything is defying gravity.
Because that custom audience was going to be my first place to test the free CD offer, I thought my video ad explaining the offer should have a similar look, just to remind people who I was without them even needing to have the sound on — so that was shot in reverse as well (see my offer video towards the top of this page).
For your offer video, think of some familiar visual queues you can include that your audience will quickly respond to (color schemes, a logo, references to past videos, etc.)
Use “inner circle” talk
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 message
Peeps need to hear things many times before they act. So keep sharing this offer on social and email throughout the life of the campaign. Segment out those who HAVE converted so you’re not bugging them, repeat the message a dozen times to everyone else, and try a few different creative approaches (video, text, still images).
Paid ads are your friend
Well, a friend you pay for. Which I guess isn’t a friend. But you know what I mean. You’re gonna depend on paid ads or boosted posts to spread awareness of the offer, and repeat the message enough to give those interested fans a chance to claim their free CD. And on that topic…
It’s already THEIRS
As you explain the offer, don’t treat it like a purchase. 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.
Lean on your 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 for the lowest (no-est) cost. That’s fine.
Yes, they’re already on your list, who who cares? You’re helping those existing subscribers dive deeper into your music, and maybe selling some of those extra merch items too.
I said it above: 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, CSV files from PledgeMusic, KickStarter, Bandcamp, and so forth.
That being said, I don’t think a true fan will care if they paid for something three years ago that you’re now offering for free. We get how the real world works, right?
Popups, announcement bars, headers, YouTube channel trailers…
Use whatever marketing real estate you have on your website and social profiles to spread the word.
LAST CHANCE messaging!
Create some urgency as your campaign comes to a close; be sure to tell folks when they only have a week left, a day left, an hour left, to claim their signed CD for FREE.
I’d planned to do this, but then decided to leave my campaign running. That being said, whenever we run a sale at CD Baby, it’s almost always the case that we see a big spike in the final day or two before the deal expires.
GIVE more than you GET
Impress the people who care about your music. Include extra goodies, notes, etc.
At first, my free CD came with an easily digestible behind-the-scenes essay about the album, printed on a fancy piece of paper, and autographed. Later I found a couple boxes of some older posters and started throwing those in the packages for free as well. I don’t mention these in the offer video; they’re just surprises that come with the free CD.
Deploy your welcome sequence
Auto-add both leads and customers to your email list. Then trigger a welcome sequence that brings them closer to your music. In these emails, don’t ASK anything from them. They just took a leap of faith getting your CD. Give them a chance to breathe.
Your automated follow-up helps you AND them
Write an automated follow-up email that goes out about two weeks after they claim their CD, asking if they got it.
Do they like it? If so, ask them to please share pics on social, or leave a review, or tell a friend about the deal, or add their favorite track to a playlist.
This email also keeps YOU on your toes, because you’ve GOT to ship things NOW if you know an automated email will be triggered two week from now.
It’s exciting to watch the orders come in, but it takes TIME to actually sit down, sign, pack, and mail all these orders. Don’t procrastinate.
[Just to give some visual reference, this was one day’s trip to the post office.]
As I mentioned above, if someone provided contact info but didn’t pay for shipping, they’re considered “leads” in ClickFunnels. You still get their 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 upsell, confirmation, or thank-you page.
Gather those leads, and see if you can get them interested in the offer again. Maybe they backed out because they were busy and there’s a better time for them to finish completing the process.
Syndicate your fans’ excitement to FB, IG, IG Stories, Twitter, and beyond
I just wanted to use that word. But seriously, if someone gets their free signed CD in the mail and shares a picture on social — re-gram, retweet, share away. That way you get to broadcast or replay the excitement without having to be the author of the message.
Have a plan for what’s next
A 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 stir interest in an upcoming tour?
When you pull the plug on this free CD offer, you don’t want to 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.
Don’t disappear. Build.
I hope this article gives you an idea for how to put some old merch to work for you again, build your list, get some fans off the fence, and make some money while you’re at it. It’s a bit of work to set it all up, but for me it’s been worth it — and fun!
If you want to get into the nuts and bolts of a Free Plus Shipping and Handling campaign, check out Indepreneur’s course HERE.
And hey, if you’re interested in hearing my music, I’d be honored!
Chris Robley is the Editor of CD Baby's DIY Musician Blog. I write Beatlesque indie-pop songsthat've been praised by No Depression, KCRW, The LA Times, & others. My poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Prairie Schooner, The Poetry Review, & more. I live in Maine and like peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, a little too much.