Sparkfun Free Day

Sparkfun, who sell a variety of electronics doodads, held a cheap real viagra england “free day” wherein they essentially gave a $100 credit to the first $100,000 worth of people who claimed it. It’s was pretty good marketing ploy, with press on all your favorite geek blogs. The promo ran from 9am to 11pm or until the $100,000 ceiling was hit.

For the amount of buzz generated, it was probably a good use of $50k.  And they got some general goodwill points for giving stuff away at all. Gee those Sparkfun guys are nice, lets give them a big hug. Unfortunately the “starts at 9am” part of the execution meant that starting around 8 (and some the night before) their servers were slammed so hard checkout was pretty much impossible unless you hit refresh like it was your job. They essentially DDoS’d themselves.

Mind you, they’re giving away free stuff. And few people on the internet feel so entitled as those who are getting something for free. There are a handful of whiners on the internet (very vocal whiners, mind you) complaining that they “wasted” hours of their lives and “will never buy from Sparkfun again.” I suspect most of them never bought from them in the first place.  There are even conspiracy theories about how Sparkfun didn’t really give anything away, or it was all just a hoax. These people are of course crazy blowhards.

But while I wouldn’t call the Sparkfun Free Day a fail (contrary to the twitter hash tag), I’m not sure I’d call it a complete success either. Frustration with checkout undoubtedly left a bad taste in the mouths of some, although I doubt there will be many long lasting effects to that end. But it was a missed opportunity of both marketing and upselling.

Because of the intense traffic, you couldn’t really browse the site during the onslaught. I’m almost positive the only people who made it through checkout are those who loaded their cart beforehand. While Sparkfun’s stats haven’t been released yet, I suspect the number of people purchasing more than $100 worth of stuff is lower than it would have been had they had more time to contemplate their extra purchases. With only every 100th or so request getting through (if that much) you certainly don’t have time to go back and add that thing you forgot. So you’re losing a lot of impulse purchasing. Purchasing that could offset the cost of the promotion.

Sparkfun also made its way into the Twitter trending topics which, and it kills me to say this, is a decent opportunity to familiarize the unwashed masses – non hackers – with the brand. Except during it’s few moments in the godawful twitter sun, the site was unreachable. It made me think of the mLife commercial during the 2002 Super Bowl. AT&T ran a bunch of cryptic ads telling you to go to mLife.com. Except the site was unreachable. So you couldn’t find out. AT&T is an extreme example; Sparkfun failing to reach out to compulsive hashtag checkers on Twitter is nowhere near the level of fail AT&T pulled off. But there’s something to be said for having the mic handed to you and then not being able to speak.

At the end of the day Sparkfun did what they set out to do: give away free stuff and put their new hardware through its paces. It’s unfortunate that some people got frustrated during the stunt, but they’ll get over it. But at the same time I feel like it’s a good lesson in contest/giveaway marketing. The “first come first serve” model of internet giveaways is tired. I can think of dozens of more interesting ways of giving out loot. But if you insist on sending a flood of freeloaders to take down your services, you might want to do it separate from your shopping cart. Let the army of nerds hammer your “get a coupon” site, but leave the cart itself out of it.

It was an interesting experiment, and it sounds like the Sparkfun guys had fun, so all’s well that ends well. But I hope they and other online retailers take away something from it, so we’re not all doomed to repeat it. Or refresh it, as it were.

1 thought on “Sparkfun Free Day”

  1. I was waiting the whole 2-3 hours and I only got to the payment screen (not even the Enter the Free Day screen) before the money ran out despite many attempts to get further. I did have $150 worth of gear but even if I wanted to buy it at full price, the site was still unusable.

    There were lots of nitpicking things about the checkout process that really should have been picked up like that the buttons you needed to get to the next stage had no alt text so you couldn’t click on them if the images weren’t loading. Maybe they could have even had a special one page, no eye-candy order form for this special event! A better event design (coupons handed out on a special server?) would have been just as effective though.

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