free.jpgTo put a new twist on an old song, what have you done for free lately?

In a down economy, some businesses are prospecting for clients by doing a few free jobs, the Wall Street Journal recently reported. The story quotes one Boston firm, Studio G Architects, that took on some pro bono design work for nonprofits to keep staff busy after business dropped. The result: more than $100,000 in paying contracts from the charities, after the projects Studio G designed won funding. What a win.

There's a tendency when business is down to just sit around quietly moping. Or to panic and lay everybody off. But instead, consider the potential upside of keeping your team together and your company's name out there with some free products or services. Free stuff can be a powerful draw to bring you good paying clients down the line.

In the tech world, giving away services for free has proved a popular way to suck customers in, get them excited about what you do, and get them to pay for something else you offer. Think of how those free downloads of Adobe Acrobat Reader get you used to working in Adobe's universe...and later, maybe you're dropping $2,500 for their Creative Suite. The free thing hooks you, then you want more. Prominent venture capitalist Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures recently called this My Favorite Business Model

Freebies, "freemiums" and other forms of giving part of what you've got away are also lauded in Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson's new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Mashable writer Stan Schroeder recently noted that Monty Python's posting of free clips from its movies and TV shows has created a huge spike in their DVD sales.

If you think it won't work with your product, consider Debbie Fields. When nobody came into her first store in Palo Alto, Calif., she put her product on a tray and walked around the mall handing out free samples. What happened? You've heard of Mrs. Field's, I assume -- more than 30 years later, they've got nearly 400 stores.

If you need more business, think about what you could give to your prospective customers. It can pay off big.