The Freebie Niche: A Secret and Powerful Vector for Social and Viral Marketing?

This past Friday I noticed one of my sites was getting a lot more traffic than usual, after digging into the referring sites report in Google Analytics I saw the site had been posted to a large number of “freebie” websites and forums. As of this writing, just under 72-hours after it began the freebie niche has sent over 10k visits to my site. This is digg and stumbleupon amounts of social media traffic here, but what differentiates it is that over 100 different sites sent traffic in the first 3 days. Graphing the traffic sent by the 80+ sites that sent 2 or more visitors (the blue line) against what we’d expect to see from normal power law distribution (the red line) we find that we have an overly diverse stream of traffic. When you get 10k visits from more “traditional” geeky social media (like digg or stumbleupon) far less sites send substantial traffic, usually a small handful of sites are responsible for the vast majority of new visitors. This robust long tail of sites also means that my site now has a large number of traffic-driving links pointing to it, but it is still to early to study any potential SEO benefits.

Digging a little further into this “freebie” niche, I did some keyword research and found 9 of the most popular terms to research a bit more. Comments posted on forums linking to my site as well as the focus on the word “baby” in the keywords may indicate this niche is demographically very similar to a WAHM (work at home mom) audience.

First, I ran the keywords through MSN’s demographics tool and the gender breakdown jumped out at me. When marketers think of social media, we’re generally picturing a largely male and geeky audience (a 2006 report indicated 94% of diggers were male and other data shows 64% of the top 50 stumbleupon users are male), but this niche appears to be overwhelmingly female.

The traffic generated by the freebie sites led to over 700 new sign ups to my website, of which 94% were female, corroborating MSN’s gender data.

Another area where this niche is surprisingly different from other social media niches is the age breakdown of the audience. Here we see that with the exception of two outliers (student free stuff and free christmas stuff) searchers tend to belong to a unified age group older than normally seen on social sites.

In fact, the majority of searchers in this niche are aged between 25 and 50 in stark contrast to the much younger audiences of sites like Digg (that 2006 data said most digg users were 20-30, though the average top 50 stumbler is 34).

I was also able to look into the geographic location of the new sign ups, unfortunately MSN’s geo data was unusable for this. Data from my site showed yet another data point on which this audience was notably diverse and distinct from more well known social media site visitors. There seems to be very little (if any) of the “usual” skew towards urban locations beyond what sheer population density would account for.

Many of the freebie site’s I’ve seen so far appear to have old designs and cater to a less technically-savvy audience, so I checked into the technology the new visitors were using and neither connection speed nor screen resolution seem to indicate that this audience is unsophisticated. They use Internet Explorer primarily (diggers tend to use Firefox), so the niche appears to be non-technical but surprisingly savvy.

A percentage of the traffic sent to the site came from low-traffic live journal blogs, which tells me that these users may in fact be blogging about offers they’re exposed to on freebie sites (I did find at least one instance where a user posted a link to my site on livejournal that I believe is the result of the new traffic), meaning of course that this niche could be very profitable for SEOs to market to for link development.

Many of the comments posted about my site indicated that the users weren’t interested in my site, instead they just wanted to get the freebie I was offering, but other comments indicated that users were exploring other items on the site and forwarding it to friends they thought it would be more relevant to. Freebie users seem to understand that there is an exchange, where they complete some action (in this case sign up to the site) and in return they get a freebie. Implicit in this exchange the user is willing to provide a large amount of personal information, making the niche a goldmine for research. Posts on freebie sites show that these users will likely at least be using separate email addresses so email list building here is dubious. If substantial numbers of these users have their own blogs however, the requested action could have been linking to my site. One of the areas I’ll be looking into more will be exactly what is the level of social media engagement and sophistication possessed by these users.

A large portion of the new traffic the site received was from web based email clients, indicating many users were emailing the site to each other and perhaps the site had been listed on one or more email lists. The rest of the visits came from freebie blogs and forums, formats that allow for this community to be easily seeded with new offers, I’ll be doing substantial testing of this niche in the coming weeks and will report my findings here. I was able to identify which small site(s) posted a link to my site in chronological order, however the individual sites generally do not mention where they first saw the offer. The other area of focus in my research will be understanding the social graph at work behind the flow of offers between these freebie sites.

I’d love to hear if any other webmasters or marketers have experienced anything similar to my story, or have actually succeed in doing something like link development via this niche.

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