The psychology of freeThis is an article that explores the perception we have of ‘value’ and ultimately why giving is the smart move to make in business. It also may offer some explanations why there is been SO much giving on Google+ – it is a great opportunity to build a community, and free may well be essential to build trust.


When I was young I remember being told that if something was ‘free’ it probably wasn’t worth much. The idea being that if something is free then why the heck not charge for it? There is going to be some truth to that, but very often it is when either their is an abundance (like air) or a person cannot see the value in something, or cannot do anything this ‘it’ themselves so they give it away without any intent.

I recall a formative business moment with my father when he took me on a Sunday drive and he said “you need to see what other people haven’t.” I may be paraphrasing it but I recall the context very well. He had had someone dump a load of old, empty beer barrels on his land (he was a farmer) and told me the person dumping them simply didn’t know the value (something like £25 (about $35) a barrel at the time – yes, I actually recall it that well!).

So, what is the point? Well, whether something has value is based on the perception you have about a thing, and it is not inherently within it. We see this in the gold market where a metal has become precious as there is a limited amount of it and considering it to be finite we can then attribute value based on what people are willing to pay (i.e. supply is limited and demand will therefore determine price). Obvious? Simple? Sure, but back to the example of the beer barrels, if someone a) doesn’t know or b) doesn’t have access to a network that would enable that sale to happen then the barrels won’t get sold on. At that time it was highly likely that the beer barrels were stolen, and then dumped as the person may well have know their value but was unable to ‘pass them on’ (the legal term for the illegal activity). Why? Because the only people who would buy 20 beer barrels were the people supplying the beer i.e. the brewers themselves, and they would not buy back stolen barrels from the thief or his mates. (I am certain some people will have faked the dumping and cut a deal with a landowner to ‘receive the reward’ etc, but we will leave that on.)

What has this got to do with the value of free?

Do you appreciate it when someone gives you a gift? Probably you would say ‘yes’.
Well, that is ‘free’ isn’t it? i.e. it is free from a direct exchange of money.

If you were given a new car, phone, or shirt you probably will have some unconscious association with a relative worth of that item. And yes, it would be lovely to have the gift of a new car with no strings attached! But there we have it, the strings. The invisible strings of the ‘free economy’ – if you are given a gift in any way it sets up an “temporary imbalance in the relationship”.

These temporary imbalances even manifest as rewards when companies put in place systems e.g. to allow for a person/landowner to receive a sum of £25/$40 a barrel in the event someone dumps them on his land. Even though you got the barrels for free, they are worth something to the owner – free then becomes value.

When you give something for free to members of a community you build relationships. Without ‘free’ they cannot taste the goods you have as they don’t yet trust you enough to try them out at a price, especially if there are alternatives available. Internet Marketers have known this for a long time and will give access to some content for ‘free’ and the you have the option to purchase the full monty.
But I believe the online world is changing and people in Google+ are leading the way in encouraging the emergence of a new culture that is much more about community than ever before (Internet Marketing tends to be much more transactional than relational, in my view).

Chatting with David Amerland about this, and in relation to the free content on the PYB site, he said “free raises the bar for everyone”.

This is quite a profound statement – it means that is there is access to enough good quality food for everyone in one restaurant then why would you choose to eat somewhere where you have to pay? So, what happens, more and more people set up their own restaurants but also start to give the main courses for free. If however a person wants something ‘special’ that requires more time and attention, then of course they will then be happy to pay for that bespoke ‘meal’.

This is a great way to get a virtual restaurant established – if you had try to charge then people would simply look for ‘free’ elsewhere as the trust, the flavour of that ‘free’ had not yet been tasted. But once many people have enjoyed meal after meal, touchpoint after touchpoint, they are part of that community.

So, when does free turn into paid?

Well, all along the way there is the potential for ‘paid’, especially when looking at consultancy, coaching, training etc. It would not be very wise however to pull the old switcheroo and try and ‘turn the tables’ on them…

But there we have it, they are in your restaurant and at a table. And you as a business are serving them. You may we serving them for free, but when the time comes for a desert and coffee many people will look at the menu and because you are there, and they like you and they respect you and they love your restaurant and the people they have around them, they order. Yes, they buy something from you.
Just like why people have cheese and wine at book launches, people are guilted a little into buying a bookfrom you. Yes, I said guilted – it is because the temporary imbalance of them taking all the free food needs to be resolved within them and the way to do this is to buy something.

So how does this imbalance become balanced once more?

There are two people who I listen to very carefully, the first being Guy Kawasaki. When I interviewed him in January 2013 he said openly that he gives people great content all year and then when e.g. he brings out a book people kind of feel obligated they should buy it i.e. cheese and wine leading to a book sale.
For a long time I have been missing a word when I say a statement re: activities on Google+ – ‘Make it about them’. But it was Chris Brogan who gave me the elusive word I had been missing all along ‘Make it about the community’.
Chris sees that it is fine to sell to people in the community. And if people love the food you dish up then they will happily pay for it.
I think on Google+ the community ‘gives you Search’ and you don’t even have to consider selling to it directly. See here for more on that. 

Applying this to Google+

There has been a culture of free for a long time on Google+, and this has been essential to (as David Amerland says) raise the bar from the old way of being. Free enables a relationship to begin, a community to engage freely without concerns that they will get a bill. And they never will get a bill but they will ‘feel’ something and want to do something about it.

So, there are two ways here:

1. You create a product and you charge people from within the community. This is very much as Ronnie Bincer has done with his Hangout Mastery community.
If you create a product for your community and you charge for it, Assuming it is the kind of deal people want, the type of tasty course they would enjoy, then people will tend to buy it.

But what happens if someone else then decides to offer the same kind of thing for free for which you are now charging? Well, here is the thing, it is not only about the product, it is about the relationship you have with the person who has created it. That relationship has tens or more likely hundreds of touchpoints – +1s, comments, shares, emails, hangouts, texts, real life meetings etc – and for you not to want to continue to eat at the restaurant would simply feel odd to you. Loyalty manifests in behaviour.

And the other way…

2. Keep ‘giving’ and enable the community to love what you do SO MUCH that they will amplify your message, reaching outwards beyond the confines of the community.
Word of mouth and its modern equivalents, enables message to spread i.e. other people do your marketing for you.
So, people not only want to eat in your restaurant but will encourage others too.
Free works. Free can enable trust, and from trust your reputation can turn you into a authority.

There is a problem, however as one of the issues with everything being ‘free’ all the time is that new people coming into Google+ cannot believe their luck, and in fact, don’t believe it and think it is too good to be true. Instead they will end up paying for a less beneficial alternative as only a madmen or fools would give so much away for free.

What then is my approach?

Give, give so much that people start to wonder if your are mentally unwell!

For those people who are ‘scouts’ (like me) our self appointed role is to access and interpret new information and then communicate it back to the tribe in a way that makes it easy to understand and assimilate. But maybe I don’t ‘tell everything’….(shock! horror!)
Someone recently approached me saying that they believed I had been” holding back” on the lil guy, and the truth is this:
After hundreds of videos, articles, courses, GifTips, and interviews I really have answered every question I’ve been asked about how I think and approach Google+. If you check out the Plus Your Business site, there is a whole area with content for free for business as well. (relaunching later this week).
I do, however, have many other presentations, spreadsheets and information that I use when working with clients.
My philosophy is this: I will give the information on everything that any individual needs to know for free. I will also do my best to reply to any comment or email without any consideration of charging for the information, or my view on this.
I do believe, however, that after that exchange, if the person is either a business or someone who will make money from it e.g. consulting using the information, then it is only fair to charge. The same applies if this information is packaged into a product that will help more people ‘up their game’ too. But even then, ‘free’ may well be the way to go for your nearest and dearest, as doing the right thing by the community is the priority.


We can all see ‘things’ are changing on Google+ – it is growing up. There are new pockets of culture emerging, and the adventurers ways of the earlier pioneering days are not known to the people who are now arriving. There is a great opportunity, however, to take ‘free’ up a level of two and that is what will happen next. Everything has its time and with my own content I will be sharing ‘free’ in a new way very soon – I am hoping it will make life a lot easy for people learning and developing their skills on Google+ too.

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