How Much Is “Free” Worth? $19.99

Jim Hamilton
Jan 7, 2013

The e-card below (sender’s name obscured to protect the guilty party) got me thinking about what people are willing to part with in exchange for their private information, their buying intent, or an advertisement on a message sent to a friend.


I have a problem with e-cards in general, but adding an advertisement to a personal message couldn’t be more impersonal. I mean, just look at it. I like Snorg Tees, but come on, who wants their holiday greeting to come with an advertisement?

The odd thing is that most of us already agreed to do something very much like this when we signed up for a free e-mail account, social media access, or some other desired e-item. We may not even realize that we have given anything up but we definitely do when we allow Facebook, Google, Twitter, or some other group to advertise to us.

The cost of opening ourselves up to advertising is hard to calculate, but for one popular Internet offering the cost is very clear. In the case of Vistaprint, the cost of ‘free’ is $19.99. If you want 250 free business cards Vistaprint will send them to you. You have to choose from a subset of template designs and the resulting business cards have the Vistaprint logo on the back. If you pay $19.99, you have a broader choice of designs and the Vistaprint logo no longer appears on the back. Pay $24.99 and you can insert your own photo or logo. It’s a nice upsell strategy for Vistaprint.


Yet a Vistaprint logo on the back of your free business card sends other messages. In part it says I’m happy to advertise for Vistaprint. It says “My brand is not important enough to warrant paying for business cards.” It also implies that the business can’t afford to pay for business cards. All of these things may be true for students or independent contractors but most businesses have higher aspirations.

In the case of a greeting card, the issue is less about money, and more about self-respect. Have you no shame? Didn’t you know a busty t-shirt model might appear next to your holiday greeting? Was the card’s design or the application’s convenience worth selling ad space on your holiday greeting e-card? Not long ago it would have been unthinkable for someone to include a retail advertisement on their holiday greeting card, but now you can if an e-card is your thing, that is. According to a recent survey of UK households, Pitney Bowes found that 85% of folks have a preference for a printed holiday card. They prefer a ‘real’ card over an e-card because it’s more personal and thoughtful. Amen!

Ironically, in a world of “free” communications, print is becoming a medium that cuts through the clutter. Your mailbox isn’t as full as your inbox because the “cost of print” forces thoughtfulness in design, targeting, and frequency. The result can be a more impactful message, especially when coupled with other communications channels.

In closing, here are some related items that may be of interest:

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