The game theory of discovery and the birth of the free-gap
It all started because of the discovery problem.
Too many things to choose from, more every day. No efficient way to alert the world about your service, your music, your book. How about giving it away to help the idea spread?
The simplest old school examples are radio (songs to hear for free, in in the hope that someone will buy them) and Oprah (give away all the secrets in your book in the hope that many will buy.)
There’s a line out the door of people eager to spread their ideas, because in a crowded marketplace, being ignored is the same as failure.
Most people, most of the time, don’t buy things if there’s a free substitute available. A hundred million people hear a pop song on the radio and less than 1 percent will buy a copy. Millions will walk by a painting in a museum, but very few have prints, posters or even inexpensive original art in their homes. (In the former
case, the purchased music is better – quality and convenience – than the free version, in the latter, the print is merely more accessible, but the math is the same – lots of visits, not a lot of conversion).
We don’t hesitate to ask a consultant or doctor or writer for free advice, but often hesitate when it involves a payment. (“Oh, I’m not asking for consulting, I just wanted you to answer a question…”) And yes, I’m told that some people cut their own hair instead of paying someone a few bucks to do it.
None of this is news. Two things have changed, though:
1. As more commercial activity involves digital goods (websites, ebooks, music, etc.), the temptation to spread the idea for free (to aid discovery) is actually economically possible – if you believe that the free spread will lead to more revenue in the long run. The cost of a single copy is zero, so you can choose to set the digital item loose without bankrupting yourself.
2. A culture of free digital consumption has evolved and is being adopted by a huge segment of the most coveted consumers (teenagers, the educated, the upper middle class).
The bet a creator makes, then, is that when she gives away something for free, it will be discovered, attract attention, spread and then, as we saw in radio in 1969, lead to some portion of the masses actually buying something.
What’s easy to overlook is that a leap is necessary for the last step to occur. As we’ve made it easier for ideas to spread digitally, we’ve actually amplified the gap between free and paid. It turns out that there’s a huge cohort that’s just not going to pay for anything if they can possibly avoid it.
Radio thirty years ago was simple: everyone hears it for free and a few buy it.
For a time, one could use free to promote an idea and have leverage to turn that attention into paid sales of a similar item (either because free went away or because the similar item offered convenience or souvenir value).
I think that might be changing. As the free-only cohort grows, people start to feel foolish when they pay for something when the free substitute is easily available and perhaps more convenient.
Think about that – buying things now makes some people feel foolish. Few felt foolish buying a Creedence album in the 1970s. They felt good about it, not stupid.
This new default to free means that people with something to sell are going to have to push ever harder to invent things that can’t possibly have a free substitute.