By David Holland

April 5, 2016


In my first ever marketing role, working for an advertising agency, I was taught about the two most powerful words available to any advertiser – FREE and NEW. Over time though, I’d come to realise the word free had been abused by a lot of industries and advertisers and that me as well as others, as consumers of products and supplier of advertising, had become immune to the word free. Here’s some examples of how we look at the word free in today’s world:

  • Free* (The ‘*’ indicates there’s some sort of catch I really don’t want to get caught up with.)
  • Free Trial (Sometimes this is genuine, but I always check I’m not going to be automatically sucked into a membership scheme after 14 days.)
  • Risk-Free (Why mention the word ‘risk’ if there wasn’t the possibility of a risk in the first place?)
  • Buy one, get one free (I’m most likely paying more than I could be for the first item to cover the cost of giving the second one away for free.)

Free is an incredibly powerful word, but with the vast amount of scepticism that a lot of consumers have built up over the word free, there is all the more reason to understand how to properly use the word free to avoid creating any scepticism in your prospect or visitors minds.

I recently read a book titled Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist, who demonstrates how much more effective “free” is than “almost free”.

In his book, Ariely conducts a number of experiments that offered subjects something of desire – chocolate – at a variety of prices. The first type of chocolate offered was a ‘Hershey’s kiss and the second was a Lindt chocolate truffle. In America, the kiss is a low cost and commonly found confectionary item. The Lindt chocolate truffle is considered a far more desirable, luxury brand chocolate with a far higher price tag to reflect this.

The first experiment offered test subjects the Lindt chocolate truffle at half price – 15 cents – and a Hershey’s kiss for just one cent. Nearly 75% of the test subjects opted to choose the Lindt chocolate truffle which seemed logical based on the value of the offers.

The second experiment offered test subjects one cent off the previous two offers. The Lindt truffle was now 14 cents and the Hershey’s kiss was now free. The price difference remained exactly the same but the reaction of the test subjects changed drastically. More than two thirds of the subjects chose the Hershey’s kiss over the bargain cost Lindt truffle.

A theory was devised that this reaction was caused by the convenience of not having to find cash to hand over in return for the Lindt truffle, therefore making the Hershey’s kiss the more convenient option. To test this, the experiment was run again at the end of a food cafeteria line where the cost of the Lindt truffle could easily be added to the food bill. The findings still showed the Hershey’s kiss to be the overwhelming favourite.

A free item carries no risk. This is why the choice is most often for the free item, no matter how good an offer is on one item, our hunter-gather brain opts for the choice that carries no risk. If I was a hunter-gatherer myself, with a cave stocked full of food for months in advance, it’d be unlikely that I’d go out looking for more food. However, if walking back to my cave one day I notice a fruit hanging low from the tree I’m likely to pick it up and figure out what to do with it later. I’m unlikely to go out of my way hunting, stalking, climbing or travelling for other food when I already have plenty. It’s that lack of effort or risk that attracts us to free even when the alternative provides very little effort or risk.

Amazon’s Experience with FREE!

Another example of the power of “free” in Predictably Irrational comes from Amazon launched a worldwide promotion which offered free shipping on the purchase of a second book in every country except France. The difference in France was that due to economic problems they had to charge a small amount for shipping at first – just a mere one franc. The one franc shipping offer eventually garnered no sales at all, but when the free shipping offer was introduced, sales finally skyrocketed.

So here’s the Neuromarketing conclusion from this: FREE is more powerful than any rational economic analysis would suggest. If you want to sell more of something, use that power. I often see department store offers like, “Buy one pair of socks at regular price, and get a second pair for only one penny!” That may sound clever – “wow, socks for just a penny” – but FREE will outperform the penny offer. Want to spark sales of a product? Try offering something for FREE with it. Want to get the widest possible sampling of a new product? Use a FREE sample.[/fusion_text][/fullwidth][modal name=”7steps” title=”” size=”small” background=”#6bb427″ border_color=”#6bb427″ show_footer=”no” class=”” id=””]

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About the author

Nice bloke with practical ideas. Former Procter & Gamble, Kraft and IBM sales and marketing executive. Became a business owner 20 years ago. Started multiple businesses including EXELA which is the most successful Keap® & Infusionsoft™ reseller in the EMEA region.

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