A research paper published in Journal of Consumer Research, Jan 2012, found that how we present pricing affects perception

Presenting item quantity information before price (70 songs for $29) may  make the deal appear much more appealing than if the price were presented first ($29 for  70 songs).

There are many similar peer reviewed research reports that found behaviors like,

Customers are more likely to prefer prices ending with digit 9

Customers are immune to higher prices when you don’t show the $ sign

Customers pay higher prices when you write the price in words instead of numbers

Customers succumb to decoy pricing (present three options but one is asymmetrically dominated by other and hence a decoy)

Through books and TED talks these  academic reports seep into popular media and are presented as pricing lessons for businesses small and large, especially for startups. After all, these are peer reviewed research reports based on controlled experiments that found statistically significant difference, published in reputable journals and hence worthy of our trust?

May be these are true, but what do they tell us about the customers and their needs? What job is your customer hiring your product for when they pay this cleverly presented price?

The problem is these behavioral pricing tactics may just be statistical anomalies. Let me point you to a xkcd  comic that so nicely makes the point I am about to make . After what xkcd has to say, anything I say below is redundant.

Let us take the first research I quoted, “70 songs for $29 vs. $29 for 70 songs”. What could be wrong here?  Well, why specifically 70 and 29?  What other combinations did the researchers test and what are the outcomes? What about 60 for 25, 50 for 20 etc etc.

Is it possible that they had tested 20 different combinations and found that just this one produced statistically significant difference? (Like the green jelly beans in xkcd comic?). Did the researchers stash away all the experiments that produced no results and published  the one that produced this interesting result?

An opinion piece in Business Strategy Review, published by London School of Economics, pretty much says this is the case with most research we read.

The problem is that if you have collected a whole bunch of data and you don’t find anything or at least nothing really interesting and new, no journal is going to publish it.

Because journals will only publish novel, interesting findings – and therefore researchers only bother to write up seemingly intriguing counterintuitive findings – the chance that what they eventually are publishing is BS unwittingly is vast.

Pretty much we cannot trust any of the research we read.

What are likely statistical flukes get published as interesting findings on pricing and find their way into books, TED talks and blogs. The rest don’t even leave researcher’s desk. Let alone academic journal, try writing a blog post that reports, “found no statistically significant difference”. Who will read that?

What we are seeing is publication bias that is worse than any sampling bias or analysis bias and a prevalence of pricing parlor tricks presented as authoritative lessons in pricing for businesses.

When it comes to pricing your product, be it pricing cupcakes or a webapp, you would do well to look past these parlor tricks and start with the basics.

Pricing strategy starts with customer segments and their needs. You cannot serve all segments, you need to make choices. Choose the segments you can target and deliver them a product at a price they are willing to pay.

As boring and dull as it may sound, that is pricing strategy. Your business will do well to start with the most boring and dull than chasing the latest parlor trick based on selective reporting.

Everything else is distraction. May be these fine tunings have some effect but not before strategy. After you get your foundation right, then you can worry about what font to use in the sign board.

How do you set your pricing?

Other Readings:

  1. Segment-Version Fit
  2. Five Ways Startups Get Pricing Wrong
  3. Small Business Pricing
  4. Three Components of Effective Pricing
  5. Approximate Guide to Pricing Webapps  (buy access for 99 cents, pun intended )