Free Radical

[tweetmeme source=”pricingright”] As a follow-up to Mr. Chris Anderson’s talk at Haas Alumni Luncheon and his description of continuously decreasing marginal cost I talked about opportunity costs and when it replaced the cost to produce/store/serve one additional unit.

Let us set aside the cost discussion and focus on price. Mr. Anderson’s new book’s sub-title is “The Future of a Radical Price”. Free service with Ad supported business model is not new and Mr. Anderson says that as well. What he says about free model is the emergence of a “freemium” model. What is “freemium”? Mr. Anderson explains this in a letter he wrote to The Economist,

The big shift since the crisis has been the rise of “freemium” (free+premium) models, where products and services are offered in free basic and paid premium versions. Think Flickr and Flicker Pro (more storage), virtually all online games and even your own site (some free and some paid content).

So many users pay nothing and get limited service and some pay to get a different class of service. I am not certain why this is radical or new. Let us consider following scenarios

  1. Taxation on Paying Customers: The free users are irrelevant to provide service to the paid customers. In this case the business is simply throwing away money by serving the free customers. There is nothing new here. Paying customers subsidize the free customers – so paying a higher price to support the marketer’s higher cost structure. What is in it for these customers to support the freeloaders? If the business one day decides to jettison all free users, it is simply eliminating a cost function that has no associated revenue and giving value back to paying customers.
  2. Up-sell: The business depends on converting a part of the free users to paid users over a period but otherwise it does not need the presence of free users to serve paid users. In this case it is no different from a business spending on marketing to bring in paid customers. Any one free user  by herself is not important but as a collection she is. This is similar to a mail campaign that has 1% conversion rate. Each mail you send out by itself is not important, but it is as part of the whole bunch you send out. So suddenly eliminating free customers is the equivalent of completely cutting off marketing spend. As long as the business can hold on to current paid customers and  has other ways to acquire new customers it can cut-off free users. In this case too the model is no different from what exists  in non digital businesses. Incidentally, whether or not there is a  cost to serve one single free user is irrelevant because the relevant cost to consider is the total cost to serve all free customers.
  3. Value Distribution: The business needs the presence of free users to serve its paid users, in other words presence of the free customers adds value that is shared between the marketer, paying customers and the free customers. This is the classic two sided market, like eBay, in which one side creates value and hence is not charged and the other side consumed value and is charged for that. One again this is not radical. The presence of free customers is essential for the service and the paying customers who are not subsidizing free customers but compensating them for the value add.

Price is about capturing value created for customers, if the business chooses not to charge for that value-add then they do not have a working business model. Free is not a price, definitely not radical,  it is either failure to capture value, customer acquisition activity or  simply matching price with value added.

Should Publishers Allow Kindle Text-To-Speech

With Amazon Kindle there is a feature that has not been available before, Text-To-Speech. Publishers are not happy about this feature.One of the Kindle eBook publisher, Random House, has turned off Text-To-Speech for all its eBooks. Opinions on this are divided. Kindle readers are most likely to think that they had already paid for the book and hence they should get the Text-To-Speech feature. Amazon would like this as well as a value added feature for its $300 device. Should Kindle Text-To-Speech be allowed? Are publishers just being unreasonable? For these we should look at what we pay for a book.

Suppose you bought a hardcover book from a local bookstore. You pay just the price of the book and  read it when and where you want and as many times as you want. You can annotate, bookmark, refer back or even tear off pages you like and archive it.

It just happened you were not able to read it yourself, so you hire someone to read it to you. (Hold on to your question “why did this person not buy audio book?”).Everyday for an hour this person comes to your place and reads the book until it is done.When something was not clear or you wanted to listen again you ask them to go back and re-read the those sections. Anytime you like a section you ask them to bookmark it and also add a Post-It note with your comments on it. You also ask them to flip back to previous chapters and selectively re-read. When this person is done they leave the book with you, which you can thumb through to refer bookmarked sections. You pay about  $X/hour for this service.

One day this person says she cannot come in person to read for next few sessions but can read it over phone to you. You get all the benefits of the previous case except that you do not have the book with you, have to take your own notes and it is done over phone. You would expect to pay less than $X/hour for telephone reading.

Sometime later the same person says that they cannot make the appointed time but will record their reading and send it to you. You can tell this person beforehand your specific needs, reading speed, annotations etc. You lose many of the benefits of previous cases but gain the convenience of hearing it anytime and anywhere you want.

On the other hand you simply can buy the audio book, that is mass produced and lose personalization and customizations you had with your own reader. But you do not pay a separate fee for someone else to read the book, you pay one price for the audio format.

This brings us to what I call the three C’s of  what you pay for the book:

Price of a book  = Content   + Consumption  + Convenience

Content: Is the information content of the book, be it ideas or the story. These days even the most popular books are discounted heavily. Unless you are buying an esoteric topic or a college text book, the price paid for content is almost the same and negligible for most books.

Consumption: This is how you consume the book and what you pay for the method of consumption. This is determined by the formats the book is sold, for example, printed book, eBook, audio book. The price component for consumption varies by the format.

Convenience: This is the trade-offs between benefits and deficiencies of the different methods of consumption. With each format you gain some and lose some.

You can see that Consumption and Convenience are interrelated and we can simply call these two as Convenience.

Since content is all normalized  we can say that what you pay for a book is  for convenience.That is each format has a different value proposition and it is different for each customer segment. If all  a reader pays for is convenience then the publisher should be able to charge you separately for each method of consumption. This is the reason you see hardcovers, soft covers, eBooks and audio books all sold separately.

Coming back to Kindle’s Text-To-Speech, this offers the ability to add a new method of consumption that offers some of the benefits of the new method but without paying  it.  This is the root of the conflict between Amazon and publishers. To me it makes perfect business sense that the publishers do not like what they see as value destruction (by giving it away for free). Actually the additional value is all captured by Amazon in the price of the device.

A better reslolution for this argument is that this Text-To-Speech feature must be unbundled and  priced separately so that the publishers can capture some of the value they add. Amazon can either pass on this additional charge to its customers or decide to eat the cost since they capture considerable value by selling the device.

It is sunk – Now keep moving

Imagine you are walking along a path, dropping $100 bills every step of your way. If there is no way for you to turn back and pick up those $100 bills, then it is sunk. Whether you dropped 1 or 1000 of them does not matter. You only need to decide should I continue to drop them or not as I move forward. Decision making is about picking the best option among many, the best that delivers you maximum value. In business scenarios the value is hard number and is probably based on some Excel model. But in consumer scenarios the value is more likely perceived value, that is not objective or common to all.
Here is a nice blog post by Seth Godin on Sunk costs. There is one different explanation I would like to give to his example of selling Bruce Springsteen tickets for $500.

Seth says:

You have tickets to the Springsteen concert. They were really hard to get. You spent four hours surfing StubHub until you found the perfect seats for $55 each.

On your way into the event, a guy offers you $500 cash for each ticket. Should you sell?

It turns out the amount of time you spent getting the tickets is irrelevant. If you wouldn’t be willing to PAY $500 for these tickets (and you weren’t, or you would have) then you should be willing to sell them for $500.

It is true that the time you spent is irrelevant. But as the Duke football ticket experiment by Dan Ariely shows, ownership increases how much we value our possessions. This is called endowment effect. People tend to value more what they own. It is not the sunk cost that is driving them to not sell the$55 tickets for $500 it is probably they value it more. So they are making a rational decision, not considering sunk costs, picking the option that delivers them maximum value.

The Value Gap Between Buyers and Sellers

Multi Price Point Strategy From Nestle’s Playbook


Update: I learned today from a boom about Cadbury’s that Nestlé sells 1 billion products worldwide. That is at least one billion prices. That is mind boggling. But the number sounds suspect to me considering their total revenue. Can someone fact check?

In the Nestle 2009 roadshow presentation (PDF) there are three slides that read like a lesson on multi-version pricing. One of the slides is shown in this post (advance thanks to Nestle). The numbers are not exact currency numbers but rather a price index showing relative price position. Nestle says in the transcript of the presentation,

You see here an example of PetCare which has shown and proven also to be a very strong resilient and defensive sector in bad times. And you see how we through the brands are allowing the consumer to have different price points. These are all Purina products. You see it in dog food; you see it in cat food how we have spread over different price points the product portfolio and yet using the Purina brands there rightfully.

Nestle is one of the few companies to report profits this quarter. As I wrote in my previous post, one reason is their price increase. Nestle’s multi-price point strategy seems almost so simple and easy that it will not be a surprise if anyone reading this raised the following questions:

  1. If it is this simple why not everyone do just this?
  2. If this works for Nestle why would it disclose this secret to the rest of the world?
  3. If this is so effective why not have more products at different price points, in fact take it to the extreme and have one price per person?

The answer to the first two question is the the same,

  • This works for Nestle only because of the brand equity and the strong brand loyalty of its customers. Neither of these can be build overnight.
  • Pricing and multi version products are aligned perfectly with the core strategy. In the case of Nestle its competitive advantage comes from a tight integration of its R&D, product innovations, comprehensive geographic presence and from its people, culture and values.

Multi-price point may seem easy to copy but without getting every strategic component right simply copying it is not going to help a competitor.

So why not take multi-price point to the extreme? This requires much longer discussion and I will write on it in a later post. But if you have your thoughts on this please share.

Market Share At Any Cost

Going after market share with a low price strategy may look attractive in a competitive environment with no clear differentiation between the products. But when price is the only appealing factor, companies stand to  lose value in a spiraling price war.  The lure of market share is more prevalent in consumer products where companies are destroying value and commoditizing their premium brands with price cuts.

The newly appointed CEO, Paul Polman, of embattled Consumer Products maker, Unilever, has this to say about his strategy:

We are not going to have a mentality to grow at the expense of others

He was quoted as saying that he would avoid fighting for market share at any cost, a trap that lead companies to cut prices too steep or chase low-margins products.

Mr.Polman nailed it.