Back in 1990, I got a job at a Japanese travel agency to pay my way through college. From the beginning, one of the ladies in the office seemed to think that picking on me was a great way to enhance her life.

Maybe she'd liked the guy I'd replaced, and subconsciously resented me for the fact that he'd quit. I don't know. But it made work a lot less fun.

A few months later, without realizing what was about to happen, I did one thing that turned the whole situation around.

What was it?

I wrote a computer program.

Okay, obviously there's more to it than that. Let me explain.

When I first joined the company, they were using typewriters to generate most of their forms. Whenever something needed to be updated, there was a lot of whiteout and/or retyping involved.

As a programmer, I'd much rather type up a program, and let it do the retyping. So I pulled out my Turbo Pascal and created a program to handle the printing of the vouchers. Everybody saw how useful it was, and asked me to make a program for printing itineraries. I wrote a program, installed it on their computers, showed them how to use it, and like magic, the lady became my friend.

Now you might think it was because I'd made her job easier. And I suppose that probably had something to do with it. But the biggest reason for the change in her attitude was that for the first time in her life, she felt competent using a computer.

That was back in the days before the world wide web, when a 16MHz 386 (which is what we had in that office) was reasonably fast, everybody had amber monitors, and computers weren't yet part of a typical person's everyday life. But they weren't so esoteric that she didn't feel a little slow not knowing how to use them.

I can still visualize the delight on her face as she made that program work by herself.

Think About What You're Giving People

Giving freebies to get mailing list subscribers, etc., is a staple of internet marketing. But all freebies are not created equal.

Reader Comment:
Antone Roundy said:
Hi Seth, Good point. We do seem to have a gift for blowing isolated incidents out of proportion and spending billions of dollars or passing ridiculous laws to keep them from happening again. I do think it's unethical to create fears in order to...
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Particularly in industries where consumers are accustomed to all the free stuff, giving a freebie to a freeloader won't necessarily win you a fan. Not only is it nothing out of the ordinary, but some even feel like you owe it to them. "Information wants to be free."

Needless to say, the freebie has to deliver value. But even massive value may not be enough. When was the last time the average person felt a swell of gratitude for the creators of Linux, WordPress, Apache, Firefox, or any of the other massively valuable freebies we use every day? Some of us do. But most people don't even give a second thought to the fact that there are people behind these things, much less who they are.

What you're aiming for is emotional impact. If you can solve one of their insecurities, if you can help them accomplish something they feared was beyond them -- in short, if you can make them feel good about themselves, then you've got a fan.

Think about that when you're choosing which problems to help people solve. If your target market is looking for solutions to inconveniences and fears, go for the fears. If they have issues with efficiency and identity, go for identity.