A lead-in offer is a modern take on the age-old marketing technique of a loss leader. You give something away for free to get the attention and contact information of people who might buy your products. And, in the end, the margins are substantial enough you gain profits on the product you sold and the freebie you handed out.

In the days of face-to-face, storefront commerce, this was simple. You priced closeout items at a break-even point and did your best to upsell people while still in the store.

For e-commerce, loss leaders are a longer-term game. They’re more complex and have more options. Lead-in offers take more time, energy, and money invested to make them pay off — so you had better make sure they pay off, starting with checking your entire lead-in program for these all-too-common mistakes.

1. Failing to identify your prime customer persona

When you craft any lead, you can’t make the mistake of trying to attract everybody. Broadcast marketing died in the 2000s and will kill your lead-in program before it gets started. This approach will waste time and money, especially in the ultra-personal, ultra-targeted social media age.

Not knowing your customers is a great way to continuously let them down

Instead, craft any given lead-in offer with a specific customer persona in mind. Know their demographics, likes, dislikes, and most recent purchases. Give them a name. Get detailed. If your product is suitable for multiple different personas, it’s better to create various lead-in offers, one for each persona.

2. Skimping on your landing page

Too often, an e-commerce company spends resources on building an excellent lead-in offer, fine-tuning advertising, and even optimizing their sales page, only to leave the landing page for their ads as an afterthought. This is similar to spending a lot for a phone-in ad campaign and putting a temporary staffer on duty to field calls.

Instead, make your website landing page shine. If you have one already, check it over to confirm it features all of the most essential best practices:

  • Colors and graphics that match your overall brand image
  • A strong, attention-grabbing headline that reiterates your value statement
  • Short, well-written copy that says what comes next and why the reader would want it
  • A call to action (CTA) above the fold, clearly and easily visible on the rest of the page
  • Simple, minimal form fields requesting only the most essential information
  • A clear restatement of the lead-in offer that tugs on FOMO heartstrings

If you don’t have a landing page yet, use this as a checklist for what to include while you build one from scratch.

3. Misidentifying the value proposition

This mistake is building a lead-in offer around something you think your leads might value, but which they ultimately don’t. The result is a campaign falling flat because it doesn’t pique enough interest to demand action or motivate sign-ups. It usually happens for two reasons.

The first is you build a lead-in offer around a value proposition that would work for you. The thing is, you’re an insider. You have more experience with the product, a different relationship with the industry, and entirely different needs from the people most likely to buy what you’re selling. Ironically, you are, in many ways, the least qualified person in the world to know what will attract people to your product and offers. You’re too close.

If you get the value wrong, you're building everything for an audience that doesn't care

The second is when you build an inaccurate customer persona. You might guess wrong about what their major pain points are, what they value overall, or even the kind of language that grabs their attention. When this happens, you end up writing your value proposition for people different from those you pay to have your advertising target.

In either case, the solution is to go deeper into your customer personas. Use focus groups and surveys, read reviews for you and your competitors, stalk social media, and have tactical conversations until you fully understand what your prime leads want. Then give it to them.

4. Poor art

It used to be that you could get away with mediocre art for online advertising, landing pages, and even your product purchase page for two solid decades. As long as your goods were tangible and your copy was either useful or entertaining, people would forgive lower production value. It would sometimes even count in your favor, giving an allure of transparency and realness in contrast to the slick corporate players.

Those days are gone for two reasons. First, competition has reached a level that there are enough e-commerce outfits with stellar products, excellent copy, and fantastic art. Second, sites like Fiverr and Upwork make quality art affordable for even one-person businesses with shoestring operations.

There’s just no excuse for bad art anymore.

5. Confusing sign-up CTAs

This one’s easy to fix but surprisingly difficult for many e-commerce companies to spot. That’s because you’re so familiar with your online media, you instinctively know where the various buttons, links, and widgets are. It’s easy to navigate for everybody already involved with your brand.

But if a newbie comes to your landing page, will they instantly be able to know what to do next? Can they find it in the one to five seconds most viewers spend on any given page? Lead-in offers are so common these days, nobody will spend actual effort finding out how to sign up for yours, even if everything else is in good order.

Make sure your sign-up CTA is:

  • Visible above the fold
  • Of different enough color to stand out
  • Accompanied by exact, brief, explanatory text
  • Linked to something even easier to use

6. Single channel interaction

This one can seem paradoxical because, on the one hand, you want to keep your offer simple, both so leads don't get lost and to minimize the resources the lead-in offer requires of your e-commerce business. On the other hand, you lose enrollment if people can’t communicate with you and your brand.

Omnichannel used to be the future. But the future is now.

Keep things open by broadcasting your offer across as many media channels as possible. Owned, earned, and bought media all offer different routes, but they should all carry your message. Once somebody has taken an initial interest, build an intake system that lets them use social media, mobile internet, desktop/laptop access, or text to sign up. The more comfortable and more flexible you make it, the better.

You can take this one step further and build an offer where what you deliver can also be consumed across multiple different platforms and channels. This may take more investment, but it can be powerful if you make it happen.

7. No abandoned cart offer

If you’re unfamiliar with an abandoned cart offer, it works like this:

  1. Lead follows your advertisement to your offer page.
  2. Lead provides some level of contact information early.
  3. Lead does not finish signing up.
  4. Two days later, lead receives an even better offer from you.
  5. Now convinced, they complete the sign-up process.

Abandoned cart offers are incredibly useful because they target the most-qualified leads in the world: people who almost signed up but stopped for some reason. Often, they got sidetracked and simply forgot. That reminder is the last thing needed to bring them on board. Other times, it’s the bonus offer that finally makes the difference.

It’s easy to set up abandoned cart offers for most e-commerce platforms.

8. Thinking no sale = no value

There’s a common misconception among e-commerce businesses that a lead-in offer has to qualify potential buyers before giving out the goods. It makes sense on the surface: Why should you give something for free to somebody unwilling, unready, uninterested, or unable to buy your main product?

The thing is, people who don’t buy can still become devoted advocates for your brand. Somebody unwilling to purchase for themselves could be researching for a friend or co-worker. Unready- and unable-to-purchase leads often care deeply about your industry and will talk about your brand on social media — especially if they have something concrete like your lead-in offer. Those not interested in your main product might still speak to prospective buyers.

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You have to pull the plug at some point, preferably before a lead takes up real time from your team members. That said, you should set that point after they receive the initial lead-in offer so that you can leverage the power of these unqualified but potentially loyal individuals.

Lead-in offer TL;DR

A full audit of your lead-in offer system can be complicated and time-consuming. Worse, if you make a significant mistake repairing one point, it can spiral through the rest of your system and cost you sales all the way.

We recommend addressing one mistake per month. Check your system for it. Think of ways to fix it, consider how they might impact the rest of your system, and then apply your solutions in that context. Once one mistake is solved, move on to the next. By the end of one year, you’ll be reaping more benefits than you previously thought possible.

This is a guest post by Richard Kinsey, writing for MoneyCrashers. Richard is a marketing specialist in Nebraska. He provides insight to several companies.