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‘The power of free’, done properly

I have a complicated relationship with ‘free’. 

Before I started at Schwa, I’d swerve the word as much as I could. To me, ‘free’ felt like word confetti: cheap, flimsy and absolutely everywhere. In my mind, it was a salesperson’s word: free gift, free quote, free trial – no, FREE! trial. 

But then I started to get into the behavioural science books. And I learned that ‘free’ isn’t just a marketing gimmick; it’s a properly powerful behavioural tool. Some scientists call it ‘the power of free’, others call it, less catchily, the ‘zero price effect’. It says that if we’ll choose a £10 gift card for free over a £20 gift card for £7, even though that’s a technically irrational decision. Such is the vice-like hold ‘free’ has on us. 

So was I wrong for avoiding it? Not entirely. With great power comes great responsibility, and ‘free’ only works with a few ground rules. 

The free thing has to have value to you

Famously, Dan Ariely ran an experiment: one group of people were presented with a 1p bowl of sweets. Another group were offered free sweets. The people taking the 1p sweets took three times more than the students taking the freebies. Why? The free ones didn’t feel like they had a value.

So this is why all the insurance companies offering a free quote make us go ‘meh’. Of course it’s free; it’s a necessary part of your service. The value to me is relatively minor. 

It’s better if the free thing is something fun

Or ‘a hedonistic option’, as the scientists put it. Have you ever been given a free coffee at Pret? Each member of staff get a certain quota they’re allowed to give out every day: it’s called their ‘random act of kindness policy’. And when you do get given a coffee, it’s almost impossible not to tell anyone else about it when you have. It’s coffee – it’s nice to drink!

Technically their napkins are free too, but fewer people rave about that. 

You don’t necessarily need to say ‘free’

At least, it’s my hypothesis – behavioural scientists, let me know if I’m wrong – that it’s the content we care about, the ‘zero price’ bit. Not the word ‘free’ itself. So you could say something much more interesting, like ‘on us’ or ‘not a penny to pay’, and you’d still reap the sweet benefits of free. 

So there you have it. Powerful, but only when used wisely. (And if you’d like to borrow some behavioural wisdom, you know where we are.)