Giving It Away to Sell It

There were 700 local business people in attendance at the Gala Dinner and Auction, our local Chamber of Commerce’s largest annual fund-raiser. On huge posters on all the walls, on the stage backdrop, and on every single placemat was listed the names of sponsoring businesses, ours included. Covering one long, nicely-decorated table at one end of the room was all the goods and services donated to the fund-raiser.

Among them was a $200 gift certificate for our charter boat business, to be used for our standard sightseeing cruise. The gift certificate was the centerpiece in a display that included a print-out of our website (in a nice folder), our brochures and business cards, and an 8″ x 10″ glossy photograph of our boat.

Yes, we were giving away a $200 trip. We’ve given away at least five a year since we started our business, and it’s one of the most lucrative off-line promotions that I know of. I’ve used the same tactic with other businesses in the past, and there are several reasons why I highly recommend it.

First of all, the pre- and post-event marketing is done by OTHERS, and doesn’t cost you a cent. Post-event marketing? Yes, inevitably, the organizing committee places an ad in the local media the following week thanking all the sponsors – by name. Secondly, you can use the fact that you’ve contributed to a community event in further marketing of your own (not to mention how good it feels to ‘give something back’ to the community that supports you in the first place)! For example, we have a “2000 Gala Auction Supporter” sticker in the window of our boat now – right beside the 1998 and 1999 decals.

Another reason why this is an effective marketing tool is because whatever you’re giving away really only ‘costs’ you the amount of your costs. In the case of our cruise give-away, our only ‘real’ cost (since we would see our time as a donation) was for the boat – fuel, insurance, etc. If you look at any other traditional method to reach that many people that effectively, you’ll find that the costs are often prohibitive.

Finally, the most important aspect of giving it away to sell it is this: the certificates are rarely redeemed! We’ve given away, in various businesses over the last two decades, everything from maid service to balloon bouquets to press release packages …. and less than 50% of those gift certificates ever come back to us! I’m not sure why that is … and I’m not about to ask.

There are some issues to consider if you’re going to give it away to sell it. First of all, pick and choose your recipients carefully. Because we are seen as a community-minded business, we are approached constantly to give something away – but we only participate in a small percentage of the opportunities that are presented to us. The criteria are:

How many people will our message reach?
Does this event cater to our target market?
How organized and extensive is the marketing?

Using these guidelines, we have given gift certificates to celebrity golf tournaments, scholarship funds, and other large annual events like the auction – but we’ve turned down the local Little League and a fashion show.

Another issue to consider is to put a deadline date on your give-away, and stick to it. (I keep a little notebook on my desk to keep track of who we’ve donated to, and when the certificate is redeemed). Finally, make sure that you get the name and phone number of the person who either won your gift certificate or purchased it at a fund-raising auction. I always follow up within a day or two of the event with a phone call.

I hope giving it away to sell it works as well for you as it has for me!
Author Marilyn Guille owns Comprehensive Virtual Editing (CoVE) Services, which provides press release writing and distribution, general and business writing, editing, and ghostwriting services. Guille has been a professional freelance writer for two decades, and lives on a classic boat on which she and her husband do sightseeing charters. You can check out her website at