How do you get 10,000 new people to visit your site in less than 48 hours? Launch a marketing campaign? Get covered by TechCrunch? Buy a ton of Google Ads?

It turns out there’s a much simpler answer: just give away your product for free. This is the story of what happened when we applied this strategy to our book, Discover Meteor.

Free Pays Off

We let people access the whole book completely free for a day. Here are a few stats to get started:

  • Altogether, we saw 12,387 unique visitors on the site.
  • The average visit duration was 05:25.
  • We had 1,788 visits that lasted over 30 minutes.

And more importantly, we saw a meaningful and prolonged increased in our sales following the operation. Read on to find out exactly how we did it.

The Discover Meteor Workshop

First, some background: Discover Meteor teaches you how to build web apps using the Meteor JavaScript framework.

Last week, we held the first ever Discover Meteor Workshop at the Meteor HQ in San Francisco. The concept was simple: for one afternoon, you’d be able to come to the Meteor HQ and read the book for free, with Meteor experts available to answer any questions you might have.

The Discover Meteor Day Workshop.

The event was a success, with over 50 people showing up despite only getting a few days’ notice. There was just one problem: what if you don’t live in San Francisco? After all, I live in Osaka, and my co-author Tom lives in Melbourne. So we’re both well aware of what it feels like to miss out on events.

So we decided to extend the workshop to the rest of the world, and try to get as many people as we could to read the book at the same time.

We called it “Discover Meteor Day”: on Saturday, December 14, people throughout the world would be able to read our whole book for free online, no questions asked.

Preliminary Preparations

The first step was setting up an EventBrite page to give people a place to sign up.

EventBrite gives you many useful tools out of the box.

You might be wondering why we even bothered with sign-ups in the first place, since this was an online event without any attendance limit. Here are a couple reasons:

  • It was a good way to gauge interest in the event.
  • It gave us a way to remind people before the event started.
  • It opened up email marketing opportunities (more on this later).

I also believe that using a service like EventBrite can make online events feel more “real”, since the service is usually associated with real-world, physical events that you have to sign up for.

Putting Email to Work

It was getting late that day and I didn’t have enough energy to write up a full post. I still wanted to do something to get started though, so I quickly emailed my own personal mailing list, which reaches about 5,000 readers.

So what happened? At first, not much. All of this resulted in maybe 200 sign-ups, which is already pretty good but not earth-shatering by any standard. So I went to bed happy but not particularly excited yet.

Inspecting MailChimp stats.

That would all change the next morning when I discovered that a reader of my newsletter had reposted the news on Habrahabr.ru, the Russian equivalent of Hacker News, and over 1,000 new people had signed up.

From Russia with love.

Encouraged by this success, I then announced the event on our blog, and finished by emailing the book’s own list as well, which reached an additional 5,000 readers. When all was said and done, we had about 1,800 sign-ups to our EventBrite page. Not bad for a last-minute operation!

More Than A Book

Now, I should give some more details on what exactly we were providing for free. You see, our book is a little special. Like any other eBook, you can of course download it and read it on your iPad or Kindle.

But in addition, you can also read it online through an interface that is itself a Meteor app. This lets us do cool things like link you directly to GitHub commits, or provide a special area for comments discussing the current chapter, and this is what we were giving free access to.

Inside Discover Meteor.

To make sure we didn’t run into any scaling problems and that Discover Meteor Day didn’t disrupt our “normal” reader’s experience, we set up a separate EC2 instance at http://free.discovermeteor.com just for the occasion.

And in addition to all this, we also set up a special chatroom for the event so we could provide live support to Meteor novices.

The Discover Meteor Day chatroom.

Hitting The Launch Button

All that was left to do was to make the link public. I emailed it, shared it, tweeted it, and generally did whatever I could to get people to spread the word, without forgetting of course to also notify the 1,800 people who had signed up specifically for the event.

I then turned my attention to the x-factor: Hacker News. Although we already had a sizeable audience, I knew that getting a story on the frontpage of Hacker News could give us a huge boost.

Thankfully, after a few worrying minutes where the link languished with barely two upvotes, it started picking up steam and ended up staying on the frontpage for a good chunk of the day.

Getting Traffic

The first benefit from all this was of course increased traffic to both our special site and our regular landing page.

Our landing page saw a marked traffic increase.

Traffic came from the usual suspect (Twitter, Hacker News, etc.) but also unexpected sources. For example, it turns out there’s a fairly popular subreddit entirely dedicated to freebies.

And a fair chunk of our traffic came from the Meteor site itself, since they were nice enough to feature our campaign in a blog post.

Our overall stats for free.discovermeteor.com.

Here’s the breakdown of our traffic:

  • Direct: 12,758
  • Twitter: 1,809
  • Hacker News: 400
  • Reddit: 397
  • Habrhabr: 331
  • Facebook: 286
  • Meteor: 115
  • Pocket: 112

One interesting thing to note is that Hacker News traffic was broken up across multiple alternative HN UIs: hckr news, cheeaun.github.io/, hn.premii.com, and ihackernews.com.

The Social Book

You might have noticed that social media (especially Twitter) played a big role in bringing in traffic. But how do you make a book more social without detracting from the reading experience?

I settled on three techniques. First, I simply asked people to tweet about the event in the emails I sent. This works great if you’ve got a good relationship with your audience and they genuinely want to support what you’re doing.

Second, I also added tweet and share buttons on the event landing page itself. I tried to do this as unobtrusively as possible by adding the buttons to the page’s sidebar, away from the main content.

But while I was at it, I figured maybe I could also make the normal book more social too. So inspired by games that let you tweet out your progress, I added tweet links to the bottom of each chapter so readers could announce their progress to the world.

The end-of-chapter tweet button.

I wanted to make sure I wasn’t interrupting readers with annoying popups or alerts. So once again the links were purely static and easy to ignore.

This low-touch approach paid off: overall the #DiscoverMeteorDay hashtag was tweeted out 261 times!

In fact, 41% of all visitors ended up coming from Twitter, and 6.6% from Facebook. In comparison, only 4.5% were tracked as coming from Hacker News, despite the link staying on the HN frontpage for several hours.

Twitter love for #DiscoverMeteorDay.

Another unexpected benefit is that the twitter integration I added to the regular edition of the book also paid off. Even though Discover Meteor Day is long over, people are still regularly tweeting their progress through the book.

Return On Investment

If you’ve made it this far in this article, you probably want to know if it was all worth it or not. Well, here’s your answer:

The Discover Meteor sales graph.

The green line shows the number of time the product was viewed on Gumroad, while the bars represent number of sales and income made.

The big spike corresponds to our Iron Router update. It seems like a lot of people had been waiting for it before making their purchase.

But more interesting is the zone at the right of the graph. As you can see, not only did Discover Meteor Day create a sales spike as could’ve been expected, but what’s even better is that sales number have stayed higher than usual over the past week. In fact, the week immediately following the event has seen a quadruple increase in month-over-month sales.

Of course this all might be temporary, but we’re hoping that thanks to the 12,000 fresh pair of eyes we drove to our free site, we succeeded in permanently increasing our audience and thus our daily average sales.

The Power Of Free

Who thought giving something away for free could end up increasing its sales so dramatically? The trick of course is that we weren’t giving away the book for free forever: we just gave people enough time to preview it and see if it was right for them.

The result was an added publicity boost up to the event and a dramatic increase in the number of people who became aware of our book, both of which translated into increased sales.

A lot has been said about the pros and cons of the freemium model as it applies to Software-as-a-Service, with many examples of companies seeing increase in revenue when they removed their free option. But I think our experiment shows that free can also be an extremely powerful weapon when used judiciously.

So if your book sales are slowing down, or you want to drive some traffic to your product, why not give it a shot? Hopefully this article will have given you some ideas to get started!