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The Psychology of Free: Why this One Magic Word is Your Most Powerful Secret Weapon

Free stuff is the way into people’s heart – and brains
by Caitlin Schiller | Apr 6 2015
If you aren’t harnessing the power of free by now, you should be. Here’s the science behind why.


One of the ultimate MVPs of marketing strategies isn’t an elaborate growth hack or a carefully-crafted tagline. It’s a four-letter word: free. The word free, at first sight, makes people go out of their way to lug home useless keychains and pens from conferences; it makes them buy pants that are too tight, just so they can get a second pair at no cost. It makes them choose to eat bland food instead of a tastier alternative.

According to Dan Ariely in his book Predictably Irrational, people change their behavioral patterns when something free comes along. Free isn’t just an indicator of price. It’s a powerful emotional trigger that’s often irresistible.

Just look at this study done with chocolates. In the first scenario, people were offered a choice in buying deliciously decadent Lindt truffles at 15 cents per piece or less-tasty Hershey’s Kisses at 1 cent per piece. A 73% majority chose the yummy Lindt truffles.

But in a second scenario, things went off the rails of logic. When the price of the Lindt truffles was reduced to 14 cents and the Hershey kisses were offered up free of charge, 69% of people chose the Hershey’s Kisses. The price difference between the two chocolates didn’t change! When “free” entered the equation, people just couldn’t escape its emotional pull—even if it meant foregoing the moment of bliss that is biting into a Lindt truffle.

The zero price effect and what it means for you

Why do people act so irrationally at the sight of a single word? “Free” acts like a four-letter guarantee to short-circuit a customer’s rational thinking. Let’s take a moment to break down that science—something known as the zero price effect.

When you pay your hard-earned cash for something, you’re taking a risk. You might not like what you get, in which case you’d actually lose money. And who likes losing money? When an item is free, it’s perceived as having a higher value because it doesn’t come with that risk.

There’s a valuable marketing lesson or two to pull from this. Free goods and services can lead to big sales for a brand when used wisely. For example, Amazon entices customers to order just one more DVD, or 5 more pairs of socks, or twice as much exercise equipment by offering free shipping if the order total meets a certain amount. That’s one hell of a “free” strategy, and it permeates the company’s entire business model.

The power of free doesn’t stop at business. Policymakers can take advantage of the word to enact change and inspire large numbers of people to act favorably. If the government wants everyone to go out and have their cholesterol checked, they should make the process entirely free to do so.

If you haven’t already thought about the ways you can implement free into your company strategy, you’d be wise to get to it!

You can also find out more about how to harness the power of peoples’ behavior by checking out the Predictably Irrational summary in blinks, or by grabbing a copy of the book by Dan Ariely.

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