How to Craft an Offer That Can’t Be Refused

image of orange on a tree

A few years ago, I ran my first marathon in Seattle.

I’d love to tell you I ran strong to the finish, but by mile 18 I was wiped out, focusing entirely on putting one foot in front of the other. As I trudged along in the final hour, I spotted a volunteer handing out fresh orange slices on the side of the road ahead of me.

Tired as I was, I made sure to change my position, slow down, and gratefully accept the gift. The piece of fresh orange was an offer I couldn’t refuse — even though it was free, I would have gladly paid for it if I’d had the money and was in the right frame of mind to have a conversation. 

Two miles ahead, I saw another volunteer handing out a different gift: halves of Krispy Kreme donuts. Unfortunately, this offer did not excite me (or any other runners I saw) at all.

I’m no puritan. I’ve have eaten more than my share of donuts over the years. But three hours into the longest race of my life was bad timing for a sugar rush. The offer was unattractive and a poor fit for the context.

Ironically, there were no donuts available after the 26.2-mile race, something many runners would have been thrilled to see. Keep this in mind if you are ever in charge of providing donuts for marathoners.

An offer you can’t refuse

A compelling offer is like a slice of orange at mile 18.

It’s a marriage proposal from the guy or girl you’ve been waiting for your whole life.

An offer you can’t refuse is like the $20,000 Bonderman Fellowship offered every year to graduating seniors at the University of Washington. The fellowship has very strict rules: Take our money in cash and travel the world on your own; don’t come back for eight months. Oh, and once in a while send us a quick note so we can tell your parents you’re alive. If you’d guess that hundreds of students compete for the fellowship every year, you’d be right. 

So how can you construct an offer that your prospects won’t refuse?

Remember, first you need to sell what people want to buy — give them the fish. Then make sure you’re marketing to the right people at the right time.

Sometimes you can have the right crowd at the wrong time. Marathon runners are happy to eat donuts after the race, but not at mile 18.

Then you take your product or service and craft it into a compelling pitch … an offer they can’t refuse.

Here’s how you do it.

1. Understand that what we want and what we say we want are not always the same thing

The next time you get on a crowded plane and head to your cramped middle seat in the back, with a screaming infant seated behind you at no extra charge, remember this principle.

For years travelers have been complaining about crowded planes and cramped seats, and for years airlines have been ignoring them. Every once in a while, an airline creates a campaign to respond to the concern: “We’re giving more legroom in coach!” 

It sounds great, but a few months later they inevitably reverse course and remove the extra inches of space. Why?

Because despite what they say, most travelers don’t value the extra legroom enough to pay for it; instead, they value the lowest-priced flights above any other concerns. Airlines have figured this out, so they give people what they want — not what they say they want.

A good offer has to be what people actually want and are willing to pay for. 

2. Most of us like to buy, but we don’t usually like to be sold

An offer you can’t refuse may apply subtle pressure, but nobody likes a hard sell.

Instead, compelling offers often create an illusion that a purchase is an invitation, not a pitch. Social shopping services such as Groupon have been successful in recruiting their customers to do most of their marketing for them. Indeed, the biggest complaint about these businesses is that they sell out of deals too quickly, also known as “They won’t let me give them my money!”

As you might imagine, the path of least resistance is a good place to stand.

Marathon runners do not need to be sold on the benefits of fresh oranges after three hours of running. Adventurous college students will grasp the value of a $20,000 “go travel somewhere and do what you want” fellowship without much explaining.

Offer Construction Project

Here’s an exercise that will help you put together the offer your audience won’t be able to refuse.

Remember the Magic Formula:
The Right Audience + the Right Promise + the Right Time = 
Offer You Can’t Refuse


  • What are you selling? _______
  • How much does it cost? _______
  • Who will take immediate action on this offer? ________


  • The primary benefit is ________
  • An important secondary benefit is ________


What are the main objections to the offer?

How will you counter these objections?


Perceived value and the expensive Starbucks run

After nearing the end of a five-hour drive from Boise to Salt Lake City, I stopped off at a Starbucks about twenty minutes away from the bookstore I was speaking at that evening.

On the way inside, I grabbed something from the trunk and left the keys inside. Nice move, Chris. It was even worse because I didn’t realize my mistake until I had finished my latte and email session an hour later, shortly before I was due to arrive at the bookstore.

I was mad at myself for being so stupid, but I had to think quickly.

Using a combination of technology (iPod touch, MiFi, cell phone), I located the number of a local locksmith and quickly rang him up. “Uh, can you please come as soon as possible?” He agreed to be as fast as he could.

Much to my surprise, the locksmith pulled up in a van just three minutes later. Impressive, right? Then he got out his tools and approached the passenger door. In less than ten seconds, he had the door open, allowing me to retrieve my keys from the trunk and get on with my life. “How much do I owe you?” I asked. Perhaps it’s because I don’t own a car and the last time I paid a locksmith was ten years ago, or maybe I’m just cheap, but for whatever reason I expected him to ask for something like $20. Instead, he said, “That will be $50, please.”

I hadn’t discussed the price with him before he came out and was in no position to negotiate, so I gave him the cash and thanked him. But something was unsettling about the transaction, and I tried to figure out what it was.

I was mad at myself for locking my keys in the car — it was obviously no one’s fault but my own — but I also felt that $50 was too much to pay for such a brief service.

As I drove away, I realized that I secretly wanted him to take longer in getting to me, even though that would have delayed me further. I wanted him to struggle with unlocking my car as part of a major effort, even though that made no sense whatsoever. The locksmith met my need and provided a quick, comprehensive solution to my problem. I was unhappy about our exchange for no good reason.

The problem of perceived value

Mulling it over, I realized that the way we make purchasing decisions isn’t always rational. I thought back to something that had happened in the early days of my business. I had produced a twenty-five-page report on booking discount airfare and sold it for $25. Many people bought it, but others complained: Twenty-five pages for $25? That’s too expensive.

I knew I couldn’t please everyone, but I didn’t understand this specific objection.

The point of the report was to help people save money on plane tickets, and many readers reported saving $300 or more after one quick read. What does the length of the report have to do with the price? I remember thinking about that one complaint.

If I gave you a treasure map, would you complain that it was only one page long?

It turned out the joke was on me: All of us place a subjective value on goods or services that may not relate to what they “should” be.

Just as what we want and what we say we want aren’t always the same thing, the way we place a value on something isn’t always rational. You must learn to think about value the way your customers do, not necessarily the way you would like them to.

The good news …

The good news is that when you do understand what people want, everything else gets a lot easier.

Like the orange slice at mile eighteen of the marathon, an offer you can’t refuse comes along at just the right time. As you follow your blueprint to freedom, think carefully about how you can create a similarly compelling offer.

The next step is to take your offer out into the world. Are you doing that?

About the Author: Chris Guillebeau is the author of The $100 Startup, available today from or your favorite local bookstore. The book provides a blueprint for creating irresistible offers that increase income and improve the state of the world. You can also read his free blog at

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Reader Comments (38)

  1. says

    “An offer you can’t refuse may apply subtle pressure, but nobody likes a hard sell.”
    Great point! No one wants to feel like they are being pushed around by a sales guy. It makes everyone look for “catch” or think someone is trying to convince them to buy something they don’t need.

  2. says

    Great points Chris.

    Getting to “that point” where your offer “unlocks the car door” so you can get your keys out… and charging $50 for that service (were YOU going to unlock the door?) is the critical part of the offer IMO.

    Most offers fall far short of this.

  3. Erica Friedman says

    This will sound like a fictitious situation, but when it comes to IP, it is not:

    What are the main objections to the offer?

    1. I can get it for free with a simple Google search
    2. I do not realize (or care) that I am stealing when I find it for free
    3. I do not care that the author/artist does not get paid, because I get it for free.

    What compelling argument is there for making “Buy This Book” an offer that can’t be refused?

    • says

      Sure thing, that comes up a lot.

      Whether you’re talking about music, ebooks, or any other form of paid content, your best defense is a relationship with your audience.

      I’ve found that some people will steal content no matter how cheap it is, and some people will pay for it no matter how expensive. But even people who routinely steal content (say on music sharing sites, torrent, etc.), can sometimes become paid customers if they understand that the copyright holder is a real person who has a living to make.

      Sometimes you can also add an element that can’t be stolen because it can’t readily be duplicated. For example, an ebook or other premium content can include access to a private membership community where questions are answered and the buyer has additional access to the content creator. Or even something as simple as some free Q&A sessions held once a month or so for buyers. A musician’s version of that could be a site with interviews and private live virtual “concerts.”

    • says

      I’m glad you asked that question. I sell music, and I find it hard to come up with a compelling offer when someone can stream the song that they want to hear (or rip it right from a site) that someone illegally uploaded at YouTube. It’s a bit frustrating.

      • LL says

        I think the response is “if you could steal from your neighbor and be 100% sure you’d get away with it, would you do it?” Everyone knows that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Most people aren’t scumbags who would step over their own grandmother to get a freebie, they just don’t connect streaming something illegally with an actual harm to a real person. Something like this would probably work: ‘Guys, I work hard to produce the music you enjoy. Give a girl some sugar and cough up the 99 cents. You know you should.’

  4. says

    Loved the storytelling interjected in your writing. A non-profit I belong to runs a duathlon fundraiser. We have plenty of donuts and oranges. ! :):)
    “Mulling it over, I realized that the way we make purchasing decisions isn’t always rational.” — We’re talking about emotions role here. Great research has been done support the fact that over 50% of all our buying decisions are based on emotions.

    Again great content….love your writing style. bg

  5. says

    Loved this post, Chris! Especially the formula for crafting “THE” offer. And it really is true that our logic behind pinning a value to the services we buy often defies all logic. Very important to keep in mind when thinking through the value proposition of our own services!

  6. says

    My Dad was a locksmith and I can remember one time us going on a service call.
    He got there, pulled out his tool, popped the guys door open in 5 seconds and asked for $30 (this was a long time ago).
    The guy was shocked that my Dad would ask him for $30 for a 5 second job. He said, “What!? That’s robbery!
    So my Dad, without saying a word, locked the door a closed it back up and started walking back to his car until the customer begged him to come back.
    Thanks for reminding me of this story!

  7. Deó Volenté says

    This article was masterfully done: succinct, concise, thorough & insightful. However, as a fellow writer, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a writing/ spelling error 101. Perceived, is your cross here. Pardon the pox. Thankyou.write on.

  8. says

    Excellent post. People don’t like being sold to but they loving buying.

    This post relates to a recent post you wrote about Four Sales Page Elements That
    Get People To Buy Now

    As a former athlete i also know that some people always feel like they’re running a marathon so they’ll probably never feel like a Donut and always want orange.

  9. says

    Great points here Chris…

    And a couple of really good examples of ‘everyday incident’ story-telling in there that really illuminate your message.

    Thanks for the post,


  10. says

    Nice article, and it makes a lot of sense. But even when we understand what you’re saying, what do we DO about it? Intentionally take longer than necessary to provide a service in order to increase its perceived value? Add more detail to our invoices in an effort to help the customer understand what he’s really paying for? (I.e., “Unlocking your car: $5; arriving within 3 minutes, $20; giving you access to your vehicle without smashing a window, $25″). Some real-world examples to overcoming objections would be helpful.

    • says

      Lynn, how would you do it?

      I would probably advise the locksmith to set expectations — “There’s a $50 minimum for rush service, does that work for you?”

  11. says

    Great Post Guys,

    I have found that Mark Hoverson’s Info Marketing Blueprint was very helpful indeed for me to get products up and running. So I agree with you guys it is key to longterm sustained success online to become a creator and build that list.

    Keep Rockin!

  12. Erica Friedman says

    Hi Sonia – Sure, but that’s not the same thing at all as creating an irresistible offer. That’s simply developing a brand and a relationship. I was presuming that work had been done and was asking specifically about terms that make the offer irresistible.

    • says

      Without knowing specifics, it’s hard to answer in the abstract. But in general, I’ve found that who is making the offer is very much a part of how “irresistible” it is.

      If, as you say, the objection is “I could just steal it,” then the answer to that objection is to improve the relationship you have with the audience.

    • says

      To reiterate my suggestion from the first comment, we include non-copyable elements (access to the course creators) as part of our offer for products like Third Tribe and Teaching Sells.

  13. says

    Great information! I like that you added the “Offer Construction Project” section as well.

  14. says

    This was a REALLY good post. Just ordered Chris’ book over at Barnes and Nobles. That’s the way it works, right: a little exposure, some great content and a book sale to wrap things up. Well, maybe it’s not always that fast, but that’s how good the post was for me. :)

  15. says

    The offer formula is brilliant, but what I found especially helpful was the question, “What else can I offer?” How do you best frame this without using the cheesey “But wait! There’s more …” line?

  16. says

    This article was excellent! I really appreciate the list of items we need to consider when crafting our offer. This is the kind of quality information I think of when I tell my readers to provide value. Thanks!

  17. Jill says

    I don’t understand the point about perceived value. Or rather, I don’t get the point about the point about perceived value. Chris got that subjective value isn’t the same as actual value. So you must understand what customers value (subjectively).

    So what do you tell people who think $25 is too much for 25 pages? Or do you rewrite the book so that it’s 300 pages? I’m not getting what the final outcome is supposed to be once you understand that your customers’ perceived value isn’t matching up with your intended value for your product. You’re saying then it’s all about selling the actual value? Or about creating more value? Or about switching who you’re selling to?

    And while your examples are great compelling offers for the customers, I don’t see how they benefit the sellers — in fact, they don’t. Those are both charitable offers with no expectations of reward for the “sellers.” That’s easy to do. Giving people stuff they don’t have to pay for is easy. It’s very difficult to get it wrong (like donuts in the middle of a race). But getting people to buy something they may or may not think they need is, imho, quite another problem.

    So while I see the individual points of your essay, I don’t see how they connect here. Show me real world examples of failures and how they can be turned around. That’s useful.

  18. says

    I really enjoyed this article – thanks for going out of your way to write it for us :-)

    It reminds me of the saying “we buy on emotion and then justify the decision with logic” …

    I also enjoyed your storytelling – now *that* reminds me that I must include more of it in my own work!

    Smiles and best wishes from Julie in New Zealand

  19. says

    What if you do not make an offer at all? You simply embed a product in a bigger action plan. Let’s say you write an article to climb Mt. Everest in the shortest possible time and within that article you provide links for people to buy mountain climbing ropes, shoes, etc.

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