In addition to their acclaimed Too Many Bones game, Chip Theory Games has become somewhat famous for a genuine, goodwill-driven marketing strategy: Every now and then when someone posts on social media about a hardship (or even just a concern if the game is a good fit for them), Chip Theory responds to offer them a free game. This ends up being notable at least partially because at $130, Too Many Bones is not an inexpensive game.

Before I jump into the nuances of this “random acts of freeness” strategy, I want to share my favorite type of opportunity to serve Stonemaier Games customers, human-to-human: My heart swells when someone contacts me in an effort to do something special for someone they care about (other than themselves). Typically this results in me making a quick video to wish someone happy birthday (or something like that), but on occasion it also involves a free product. 99% of these conversations happen privately.

Let’s jump into this topic! Are random acts of freeness good business? Do they inspire loyalty, goodwill, ROI (return on investment), first-time customers, and repeat customers? Or are they in the category of “let’s be good to our fellow humans” without a business-level motivation?

My instinctual answer is that it’s a mix of all of the above, largely depending on the situation and the delivery. Just as I think it’s fine to do something publicly altruistic that also benefits you (particularly since it may inspire others), I also think it’s great to show private compassion with only the recipient benefiting from the support.

Here are some situations and examples of random acts of freeness. I’ve included some quotes from Stonemaier Ambassadors who recently shared their thoughts with me about this strategy.

Hardship (fires/floods, medical issues, job loss): Sometimes people post publicly and privately about how they’re going through extreme, sometimes sudden hardships, and a special gift at the right time can restore their faith in humanity. As one of our ambassadors said, when a publisher steps in to provide such a gift, “it can be a beautiful way to humanize a company and highlight their values.” I just recently heard a touching story about the pet supply company Chewy–a customer contacted them to unsubscribe from Chewy’s birthday card list because their pet had passed, and a few days later they received a bouquet of flowers and a sympathy card from Chewy. That’s beautiful. I think what’s really important here is that the act is genuine, not obligated.
Selfless Celebration: This is the category I mentioned at the beginning of the post in relation to Stonemaier Games. Sometimes these are public posts celebrating a friend’s, partner, or child; sometimes they’re private requests.
Complaints: A customer complains publicly about a product they received. While some companies react to this by sending a replacement product, I think this is often solved by simply sending the customer a replacement for the defective component (and by replying publicly, the company teaches other customers that there is a way to request and receive such parts without making a public complaint). There are also complaints that are more difficult to address, like if a person simply didn’t like the product. For those, I agree with one of our ambassadors: “It encourages other consumers to be publicly and possibly loudly negative about your product/company in hopes of getting free stuff.”
Doubts: Sometimes a customer isn’t sure if a product is a good fit for them, and I’ve seen a few instances where a post about “Is this game any good” receives a reply from the publisher saying they’ll send the customer the game for free to try out. Perhaps there’s a right time for this, but it seems like a bit of an insult to everyone else who researched the game and then bought it (which still comes with a risk).
Feedback: One of the wonderful things about social media is that companies can learn so much from customers who are willing to publicly share constructive feedback. In most cases, I think it’s appropriate for a company to simply read along and express their appreciation. But sometimes a random act of freeness can be nice too. A friend recently tweeted to Bombas (a sock company) with an idea about a bundle that would let customers compare 2 different types of socks. He was surprised and delighted soon afterwards when Bombas replied privately to say that they wanted to send him a few styles for free.
Personal Achievement: I always think it’s neat when someone shares that they just played their 20th, 50th, or even 100th session of one of our games. That’s amazing! Sometimes it’s enough just to share my excitement in the comments, but other times I want to share something tangible with them. However, if someone has played a game that many times, they probably have all the stuff for that game.
Sales: A fellow publisher once liquidated an entire product line by offering it for free on their webstore (customers paid shipping), partially in the hopes that customers would add other products to their cart. The results were that despite selling out within 24 hours, hardly anyone added other products, nor did those customers return in the future.

One commonality I’m seeing in these examples is that the human side of these random acts of freeness works best when BOTH parties are genuine and selfless. If a customer demands a free product, even if the company obliges, the entire experience becomes uncomfortably transactional instead of an opportunity for two humans to connect with each other.

Also, random acts of freeness are far from the only way for a company to express kindness, empathy, and compassion. I try to view this as I would treat a friend. If a friend has a tough day, there may be occasions when I might treat them to a meal or drink. But I also might just listen to them, sit with them, give them a hug, or do them a favor. I think the same applies to customers.

Last, from a management perspective, I think it’s helpful when companies enable their employees to treat customers exceptionally (which sometimes includes free stuff). I’ve seen this at Trader Joe’s when an employee offers a customer a free pack of chocolates. They don’t need to go to a manager to approve the transaction; rather, they’re trusted with authority and autonomy.

What’s your take on random acts of freeness? Have you seen (or experienced) a company do something like that in a way that was a win-win-win for the recipient, the spectators, and the company?

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Also read:

The Danger of Free
Why I Don’t Give Away Our Products for Free
The 5 Love Languages of Crowdfunding

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