Why Free is the Enemy of Change

Everyone loves free stuff. We’re culturally wired toward getting something for nothing. And marketers know it. Order now and receive two free months! Free shipping! Buy one, get one FREE! The lure of free is a powerful and universal motivation to buy.

At SGA, our marketing isn’t focused on selling air conditioners or getting people to drink more soda. We set out to change the way people behave in a lasting way that will benefit the planet. Our method is called community-based social marketing, and while its end is lofty, we’re not above using a few freebies to get people there.

That’s because one of the main principles of behavior change is reciprocity. Basically, people feel indebted to someone who does or gives something to them. Hand out t-shirts at an environmental expo, and people will be more likely to listen to your recycling message and even recycle more at home.

Freebies do work—to a point.They’re more of an icebreaker than a closer. To bring about lasting change, you need people to invest in an action. Studies show that while we love free, we value what we’ve purchased. Let’s give an example. Say I save up to buy a vintage cake stand (that’s a hint, Santa Claus). To me and most people, the cost of the cake stand gives it worth. Choosing and purchasing that cake increases its value in my eyes and ups my commitment to using it and treating it well.

The same logic goes for environmental tools. It would be great to give away low-flow toilets to every resident of a city. But the better way to get people engaged in water conservation would be to sell the toilets at a highly discounted price. Homeowners would feel that they’re getting a deal—which satisfies the love of free—while still requiring them to invest a little cash and show commitment.