Most real-world markets are a long way from the perfect information setting assumed in perfectly competitive markets. Many industries therefore rely heavily on word of mouth to increase demand. This is especially true in the digital age where information can spread extremely rapidly and many websites encourage consumer ratings and reviews. Here, information becomes more and more valuable as it is shared with other people.
However, the economist Joshua Gans has suggested that traditional business models are not well suited to fully exploiting the benefits of the sharing of information. This is because, whilst enthusiastic consumers spread the word, the seller has traditionally acted as a gate-keeper, maintaining complete control over who obtains the product. The problem is that this creates a friction which can dampen momentum for the product from building.
In contrast, Gans describes a novel alternative strategy that was used by the band the XX when they released their second album earlier this year. As is becoming more and more common, the band premiered the album as an online stream. However, what was unique about the XX’s approach was that they gave the stream to a single superfan. They hoped that this chosen fan would initiate the spreading of the stream amongst other fans. After a worrying delay in which he enjoyed his monopoly ownership, this is what he eventually did. Just 24 hours later the stream had been player millions of times and the site crashed under the burden.
Of course, one reason why suppliers may need close control is to be able to charge for the product. If the sharing information must involve giving something away for free, it typically makes no commercial sense. However, Gans also points out that recommendations are more credible if the information has been costly to obtain. Otherwise, it may simply be cheap talk and therefore carry little value.
The balancing act for suppliers is therefore to introduce a hurdle cost in obtaining the information whilst trying to ensure that, once it has been passed on, the recipient encounters as little friction as possible in making use of it. Gans suggests that alternative business models can be developed which achieve this balance. If these can profitably encourage the sharing of information a win-win situation for sellers and buyers is created.
Furthermore, Gans is experimenting with selling his new book about sharing information under an example of one such model. Having bought the e-book for $4.99 you will find a coupon at the back which you can pass on to a friend or family member which allows them to buy their own copy of the book for a mere $0.99. However, as he points out, there is a potential danger to this strategy:
“All my readers could form a collective and potentially buy one copy for $4.99 and then a million for $0.99.”
He has said that he plans to be report back on how the book has sold on his blog at a later date, so it will be interesting to see whether or not the experiment was successful.
The folly of replicating the physical world HBR Blog Network, Joshua Gans (17/11/10)
A shared pricing experiment for my book Digitopoly, Joshua Gans (05/10/12)
Information wants to be…..shared O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing, Joe Wikert (16/10/12)