[We’re pleased to welcome authors Björn A. Hüttel of the University of Passau, Jan Hendrik Schuman of the University of Passau, Martin Mende of Florida State University, Maura L. Scott of Florida State University, and Christian J. Wagner of the University of Passau. They recently published an article in the Journal of Service Research entitled “How Consumers Assess Free E-Services: The Role of Benefit-Inflation and Cost-Deflation Effects,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, Dr. Hüttel reflects on the inspiration for conducting this research:]
What motivated us to pursue this research was that free digital services are dominating the Internet, however to date it is not well understood why free online services are so successful. In particular, the business model of successful service firms such as Google or Facebook rest on consumers’ nonmonetary payments, for example users must pay the “free” service by giving their attention to advertising. To illustrate further, consumers may receive a free email account or music subscription, but incur nonmonetary costs through exposure to advertisements or disclosure of personal information. Due to the importance of nonmonetary costs for the design of free digital services, we were interested in how consumers perceive nonmonetary costs and how these cost perceptions influence their decisions for or against the usage of free online services.
Because we identify novel mechanisms that help explain free services’ success we believe that our findings can impact the research field of “free” as a business model as well as the behavior of consumers when deciding to purchase free digital services. Specifically, from a consumer perspective, we find that consumers should be cognizant that their decision for or against the usage of free online services is influenced by two distinct effects: a benefit-inflation effect, such that they tend to overemphasize the benefits of free service offerings, and a cost-deflation effect, such that they judge the corresponding nonmonetary costs as lower. These two effects are separate drivers of the success of free digital offerings and consumers must recognize that the effects can and will be leveraged by marketers such as by bundling free services with relatively more advertisements. Consumers thus must realize that a label “free” means that they often have to contribute more nonmonetary costs, a fact which they should consider when evaluating a free digital service offering.
From an industry point of view, our findings have implications for the success of business models in the online environment. Firms that intend to switch their business model from free to fee and offer e-services for very low prices (i.e., apps for $.99) should note that consumers will likely judge the associated nonmonetary costs as significantly higher in the presence of the monetary fee, with negative downstream effects on demand. Therefore, it may be more effective to offer the service for free and benefit from the cost-deflation effect by selling more advertising
We like to thank Kristina Shampanier, Nina Mazar, as well as Dan Ariely for their inspiring initial work on the zero-price effect, on which we build heavily. To continue, we believe that future research in this field is necessary, especially in light of the growing importance of nonmonetary cost-related topics in the society such as consumer privacy concerns, private data usage and the employment of customers for conducting co-creation tasks in order to receive free offerings.