Pricing Digital Goods – (Hint: Not Free)

The problem with digital goods is it is easy to get confused by its economics, the marginal cost is $0, selling a unit to customer does not make it unavailable to another and there are challenges in restricting use. This has led to supposedly new branch of economics, “economics of free and abundance”, led by Mr. Chris Anderson and has built a large following.

I have written several articles on the need to sell the value and not focus on the marginal cost. In the digital world matching price to value is more difficult than it is in physical world.  Economist Brad DeLong from UC Berkeley (my alma mater) writes in his 1999 paper titled, Speculative Microeconomics for Tomorrow’s economy,

In many information-based sectors of the next economy, the purchase of a good will no longer be transparent. The invisible hand theory assumes that purchasers know what they want and what they are buying so that they can effectively take advantage of competition and comparison-shop. If purchasers need first to figure out what they want and what they are buying, there is no good reason to assume that their willingness to pay corresponds to its true value to them.

When customers do not exactly know what they want and the value they get, the marketer will find it hard to make a value proposition and charge a price that captures that value. Difficult does not make it a good reason to give up on charging for digital goods and give it away for free.

In a Nov 1998 article in Harvard Business Review, economists Hal Varian  (also from Berkeley now at Google) and Carl Shapiro wrote (Harvard Business Review, 00178012, Nov/Dec98, Vol. 76, Issue 6)

But there is a practical way to set different prices for basically the same information without incurring high costs or offending customers. You do it by offering the information in different versions designed to appeal to different types of customers. With this strategy, which we call versioning, customers in effect segment themselves. The version they choose reveals the value they place on the information and the price they’re willing to pay for it.

It takes us back to what Ted Levitt said about customers buying holes and later what Clayton Christensen said about, “what job is your customer hiring your product for?”. The difficulty in value calculation comes from focusing on the “drill” and not on the “hole”. If marketers focus on what the customers really want and what job they are hiring the digital information for it becomes easier to tease out the value to customers and how it differs across segments. Then the marketer can target the segments with specific versions and position it appropriately to capture a share of the the value through effective pricing.

Proposals to give away your offering (Mr. Chris Anderson in Free/Freemium) or let the customer decide what they want to pay may capture your imagination but as Hal Varian (who was described by Mr. Chris Anderson as someone who taught him more about economics than any of his professors) said in 1998 (full ten years before these new models):

Success in selling digital goods does not require a whole new way of thinking about business. Rather, it requires the same kind of smart managing and smart marketing that have always set apart the best companies. The real power of versioning is that it enables you to apply tried-and-true product-management techniques-segmentation, differentiation, positioning-in a way that takes into account both the unusual economics of information production and the endless malleability of digital data.

The road to profitability in any market goes through STP! That’s Segmentation – Targeting – Positioning. The rule does not change whether you are selling physical or digital goods.