On a recent tour of a new residence hall, the tour guide pointed out that laundry was “free” to the students. Others quickly amended his statement to acknowledge that laundry wasn’t really without cost, rather it was part of the overall residence hall charge.

Then when we were in the hotel, some members of our party were commenting on how they loved the “free” happy hour amenity with hot hors d’oeuvres and adult beverages. This, in addition to the “free” hot breakfast, popcorn and snacks. In reality, these services do not come without having the user pay, it’s just that funds are not provided on a transactional basis.

The same is true at Southwest, where “bags fly free.” Yes they do, provided that they are accompanied by a fare-paying passenger. And free wi-fi, parking or notepads and pens at a meeting are also only free in the moment. Free shipping is certainly accounted for in the price of the item (or Prime membership).

When we stop to think about it, we rationally know that “free” really means “included” in the cost, instead of a separate charge. But we don’t often stop to ponder. People like the notion of “free.” They like it a lot. 

Think of how you can take advantage of this mental sleight of hand. What you can bundle together and offer under one blanket charge so you can offer something for free to your customers? Can you promote a service as “free” that you are offering anyway? Is there a way to eliminate a series of smaller charges in favor of one comprehensive one?

Try to directly charge nothing for something and delight your customers as they herald you for giving them something for nothing.

beth triplett

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