On this blog, I’ve spoken at length about why authors should be using a mailing list to stay in touch and update their fans with the latest news and blog posts; I’ve also talked about the best ways to set-up and maintain one:

But before you can do any of this, you need visitors to click the ‘subscribe’ button in the first place.

Table of contents

  1. Why you should offer free downloads
  2. What kinds of free downloads should I offer?
  3. How free downloads work (technically)

Why you should offer free downloads on your website

Sometimes, a simple opt-in message asking website visitors to subscribe is enough, and you’ll be relying on the quality of the content of your website to convince interested visitors to subscribe. Or, some visitors may already be a fan of your work, and so subscribing for them will be a no-brainer.

But many other visitors who stumble on your website won’t be familiar with your work, and won’t have time or reason to stick around long enough to get familiar with it. Maybe they heard about your book from a review and only wanted to find out more about that. Or maybe they saw your blog post on Twitter being shared by a friend, and only came to read that. For these kinds of visitors, your website should offer more compelling reasons to convince them to subscribe. One of the best ways to do this is through free downloads.

Freebies are a widespread marketing technique on the web, from services like Netflix and Audible offering free trials and free e-books, to authors offering free chapters of their books or exclusive short stories. It’s so prolific because it works. Free content is great because it rewards visitors for subscribing, and gives them a taste of what your work is like, so they have an better idea of what they’re getting into.

Example: Greg Holman
Greg Holman‘s subscription formGreg Holman offers the first chapter free

What kinds of free downloads should I offer on my website?

As an author, you have many options. As I mentioned, many authors offer free chapters or short stories. Another idea is to run giveaways, by putting new subscribers in a draw to win a free copy of your book or your artwork. There are endless possibilities.

But one thing to keep in mind is that free downloads are not a matter of ‘build it and they will come’. You can’t just smack one on your home page and expect subscribers to pour in. You should think about why people are visiting your website, which part of it they’re most attracted to, and how you can heighten that interest by offering the relevant bonus content.

If your website is focused around your book, then people will be visiting because they’re interested in your book. You can develop that interest by offering a free chapter on your home page. On the other hand, if you’re more known for your blog posts or podcasts, a good idea may be periodic subscriber-only posts or podcast episodes. Or maybe you’ve discovered that one of your blog posts in particular has become popular. In this case, it’s a good idea to capitalise on that popularity by offering a free download on that blog post specifically.

In general, you should be thinking about:

  1. Why do visitors come to my website? Why are they interested?
  2. At what moment during their visit does that interests peak?
  3. What kind of free content can I produce to best capture that interest, in that moment?

How these apply to your website will differ from someone else’s. But these are general ideas worth keeping in mind.

Example: Kit James
Kit James’ subscription formKit James offers a free story

How free downloads work (technically)

From the visitor’s perspective

This is how the download should work from the visitor’s perspective:

  1. They come to your site
  2. They see the prompt and form to subscribe to your newsletter, which mentions that they'll get a free download for subscribing
  3. They enter their details and click ‘subscribe’
  4. They’re then often taken to a ‘confirmation’ page to confirm their subscription
  5. After confirming, they’re automatically linked to the free download.

From your perspective as a website owner

To set something like this up on your website, you might need the help of your web designer, but it’s not as hard as you might imagine to do it yourself.

To give you an idea of how it works, I’ll run through how I do free downloads on my own articles here.

First, I produce both the article and the free download. For example, in my article ‘Why email is the #1 promotional tool for authors’, I thought that if a reader of that article is convinced of the usefulness of email (which they hopefully are!), the next thing they’d want to know is how they might use email for their own goals, so I offered the bonus download of ‘12 email list ideas that turn fans into loyal true fan’.

After producing both the article and bonus, I use an online app called MailMunch to create a subscription form. I set it up so that whenever someone clicks ‘subscribe’ on that form, they’ll automatically be taken to the link where the free download exists. Then, I embed the MailMunch form on my main article, which will look something like this:

Want my 12 email list ideas that turn fans into loyal true fans?
Click here to get them

You might need some help from your web designer to do this last stage of embedding, but it’s fairly quick and easy.

MailMunch itself is relatively user friendly, and doesn’t require technical knowledge to use.

Or, if you use MailChimp for your mailing list, you have the option of creating subscription forms with free downloads directly using MailChimp, which is what I do for my clients.

Example: Anna Housego
Anna Housego‘s subscription formAnna Housego‘s subscription form offers backstory to her novel

In summary

Of course, producing and implementing free downloads shouldn't, and won't, preoccupy the significant portion of your time and resources devoted to building your online presence. Most of that will be spent on producing the content you'll be delivering through your newsletter, whether it be blog posts or updates. That's where most of the marketing work gets done. But creating an incentive for people to subscribe through free downloads establishes a vital foundation for building the size of your mailing list. Having more subscribers means your newsletter content will go out to more people, and have increased chance to be engaged with. And for the little time and effort it takes to implement free downloads, there's no reason you shouldn't try it out.

If you need more help getting started with putting free downloads on your website, or using MailMunch, get in touch, drop a comment below, or subscribe for more articles like this for more tips.