Give it away, give it away, give it away now*

I’m not the world’s biggest Nine Inch Nails fan. In fact, until last night, I only owned one NIN album, Pretty Hate Machine. And only because, as a indiscriminate musical gourmand I figured out, through reading reviews and listening to samples of various NIN recordings, that Pretty Hate Machine pretty much epitomized the best and worst NIN had to offer. (But for the absolute best of what this band (or at least front man Trent Reznor) has to offer, watch this video of Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt.”)


But last night I downloaded the new NIN album, The Slip. Not because I’m a big fan, or because I had to have it, but because it was free. As CNet’s news blog reported earlier this week, Nine Inch Nails is offering The Slip exclusively online — for free. On their website, NIN says they’re offering the work “as a thank you to our fans for your continued support.” And presumably those “fans” include curiosity-seekers like me.

So I’m listening to The Slip this morning and thinking about the notion of free.

What is it about this idea of free that draws us in? Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at MIT, writes about this notion of free — or FREE! as he calls it — in a new book titled Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (More info at “What is it about FREE! that’s so enticing?” he wonders. “Why do we have an irrational urge to jump for a FREE! item, even when it’s not really what we want?”

The answer, Ariely believes, is this:

Most transactions have an upside and a downside, but when something is FREE! we forget the downside. FREE! gives us such an emotional charge that we perceive what is being offered as immensely more valuable than it really is. Why? I think it’s because humans are intrinsically afraid of loss. The real allure of FREE! is tied to this fear. There’s no visible possibility of loss when we choose a FREE! item (it’s free). But suppose we choose the item that’s not free. Uh-oh, now there’s a risk of having made a poor decision — the possibility of a loss. And so, given the choice, we go for what is free.

Would I have purchased The Slip as a physical product — say, as a CD? Not on your life. Or even as a digital album at a reduce price? Not at all likely. There’s too great a chance I might not like it, and I might feel cheated.

But when the product is made available for free, then there’s no risk. What have I got to lose? Other than some time listening to some music I may or may not like. (So far, through nine of the 10 tracks, the album’s decent in a techno/industrial/ambient sort of way. I don’t feel cheated of my time, since it also gave me a topic to blog about.)

The fact that Nine Inch Nails offered me something for free, at seemingly no risk, makes me feel pretty good about Nine Inch Nails. In my mind, these musicians are now somehow altruistic. At this moment, I feel better about NIN, even, than I felt about Radiohead after they let me purchase their In Rainbows at a price I chose.

This exchange between me and NIN seems like nothing but a win for me.

But it’s also a win for NIN. As Kneale Mann points out, this exchange isn’t quite as free as it seems. Like me, Mann downloaded free or discounted music from NIN and Radiohead. He also downloaded a new single from Coldplay. (Not me. Some free stuff just isn’t worth it.) “All three now have my email address. I’m now in the database. If you ask most marketing people, they would say that each participant in a study is worth about $10-15 which is about the price of (say it with me) a CD!”

Still, in my mind, a worthwhile exchange.

So what does this have to do with higher ed marketing? A lot.

Selecting a college is a risky proposition. Will I be happy here? Will I fit in? Can I make the grade? Will a degree from this school help me get a good job?

So is giving money back to your alma mater. How can I be sure the money will be used according to my wishes? What is their investment track record? Should I give my money to some other worthy cause?

Are there any free options, incentives or services we can offer prospective students, prospective donors and others that would help to lessen the perceived risk of investing in higher education?

What about waiving the application fee for a limited time as an incentive to get students to apply early in the admissions process? That’s a form of free, isn’t it?

What about giving alumni a special “third year free” in the alumni association for two years’ worth of annual dues?

What are your thoughts about free?

Now playing: Nine Inch Nails – Demon Seed
via FoxyTunes

* Apologies to Red Hot Chili Peppers


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

5 thoughts on “Give it away, give it away, give it away now*”

  1. I had no idea where you were going with this, but you tied it all together very nicely. Free is an awesome selling point.

    Thanks for the FREE advice! :)

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