Using the Psychology of Free

A recent piece in the New York Times notes that Google and Yahoo have mined the combined power of “free” and “good enough” to challenge high-priced financial information services from Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg:

Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg face common enemies in sites like Yahoo Finance and Google Finance, which offer a much lower level of sophistication and depth but are improving and are, after all, free. [Emphasis added.]

This passage touches on the psychology of free, which is one of the most interesting but under-examined aspects of the free meme. Getting something for nothing activates a human response that’s different from a normal business transaction — it just feels better. Perhaps it’s the novelty of acquiring without a concession (financial or otherwise), or maybe we’re just hardwired to love free stuff.

Understanding this psychology even in a basic way (which is all I claim to know) gives free models more lift. In simple terms: A free product comes with low expectations (“hey, it’s free!”) and neutral perceptions (“what’s the worst that can happen?”). If that product proves useful, expectations are exceeded and perception elevates from neutral to positive (“it’s free and it’s cool/useful/interesting, etc.”).

On the development side, a free product doesn’t need to be deep, robust or even fully formed. For example: A high-priced pay-to-access version of Google Docs would have invited negative comparisons to established word processing programs, but free access allowed Google Docs to be accepted as a useful Web tool with a surprising number of features, particularly for a free application.

If you extend free psychology into the publishing realm … a publisher can use free, no-frills content to build buzz around a particular author, title or topic. This could take the form of HTML-based books hosted on a publisher’s site, or basic ebooks with minimal production. And if this free material offers readers even a modicum of enjoyment, neutrality turns to positivity and the overall impression of that author, title or topic grows stronger.

These rudimentary musings on free psychology might seem obvious, but the equation of free + good enough = improved chance of success is often obscured by concerns over reliable revenue streams and clear business models (which is understandable since both are in short supply in the free universe). But this equation — and the opportunities that come with it — is built on the deeper psychological aspects at play in free models, and it’s these aspects that need to be examined before any free-related decisions are made. A project’s real upside may lie in its ability to create emotional responses, and a free mechanism could be the catalyst for those reactions.

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