The Art Of Marketing and eCommerce Series

Logical Fallacies In Online Business Part 6: Indebtedness


The Consequence of Being Indebted

Debt is something most people would normally try to avoid, save for the use of leveraging by those with enough acumen. But worse than any dollar amount owed is the actual idea of being in debt to another person. In our daily activities we do a great number of things, and often go out of our way, to ensure we don’t find ourselves having to take anything from anyone because we need to. People enjoy being self-sufficient and most will say they are self-reliant as well… “I can take care of myself thank you very much!”

People will even tally up long lists of IOU’s over weeks, months, and years in honest anticipation that they will one day settle the score and pay them back. Maybe they’ll never actually be able to, but they’ll certainly remember the debt owed. Often times, those who didn’t receive the money they were owed will forget the ordeal in time, but being the one who is indebted is a difficult feeling to live with. How often have you yourself been paid back for something you had long forgotten about? Even when a person doesn’t have any options or ability to pay back debt, and know that, it’s still extremely hard to accept the fact you’re in debt. In our society, accepting help can at times seem shameful. There is often a lot of social embarrassment from having to rely on others. There is a Homeless Shelter, aptly named “My Friend’s Place” which uses that particular name because the term homeless caries a certain stigma. The organization chose this name so that those in need don’t have to go through the embarrassment of telling others that they’re homeless.

Accepting help, in all forms, is oddly counter intuitive even though our very own survival largely depends upon it. Think about it. There is no way humans could have survived as long, and as well, as we have  if it wasn’t for our want for helping others and allowing ourselves to be helped as well. The idea of indebtedness is an extremely powerful evolutionary trait. In times long before, when you killed an animal you couldn’t eat the whole thing before it spoiled, so you invited your friends and family to join in on the feast. The same goes for foraging and gathering. Typically if you were able to find food, it was more than you yourself could consume entirely… so you shared it. Those you shared with were then indebted to you for providing a meal, and next time perhaps when you weren’t so lucky to make a kill or find some food, the favor was returned from those you helped before. The sense of “community” is in part dependent upon indebtedness, among many other things, and this isn’t as bad as it may sound. Without it, you wouldn’t have the idea of reciprocity, leaving it to be every man for himself.

Let’s take what may appear to be a rather odd look at the Maori Tribes people of New Zealand for an example here. In Maori tradition, they have a word for the power or influence a person wields, and it’s called “Mana“. Mana gives a person the authority to lead people, and in other words would be simply considered influence or prestige. Now every Maori has varying levels of Mana, and Mana  is acquired through various means. You receive Mana from your ancestors and living relatives who are influential, from the specific tribe you are associated with or belong to, and other accomplishments attributed to the individual. But there is one rather strange way where Mana is increased, and that is through throwing celebrations or parties. The more elaborate and expensive the party, the greater the Mana generated. But this causes a shift in balance where if you’ve been given a gift, or were invited to a party, you were then in a sense indebted and must offer a better gift or throw an even more elaborate party to balance the Mana. This has occurred for generations and the idea continues to this day in Maori culture.

Even the idea (for the Maori) of being given a gift or being invited to a celebration comes with the connotation that it must, or should, be repaid, and in essence with interest. Better gifts, better parties, the greater the Mana generated. This caused a lot of problems as you can imagine, as resources were often used simply for “showing off” and having a good time. Over time, Maori would often expend great energy and resources simply attempting to make even the balance of Mana, while simultaneously attempting to be just a little bit better. Always increasing their Mana just a bit more, so as to have greater influence. But this contest is expensive and never ending. I give a gift, you give a better gift, I must then give an even better gift, and so on. For the Maori, this was an extremely expensive tradition, and one that was systematically used against them by Europeans during colonization.

The Maori example above was told to help show that it’s a deeply engrained human characteristic to feel as though you “owe” someone something when you’ve been helped by them to some degree, more so if the event was severe. The feeling of indebtedness is not only an evolutionary trait, but also one that can be created both socially and culturally. Here are some other more typical examples you may be familiar with. “Carl grabbed us lunch last week, I’m going to take him out on Monday to pay him back.” “I didn’t have enough cash to tip the waiter properly, I’ll be sure to leave a better tip next time I see him.” “John’s always the designated driver when we all go out, I’ll drive next weekend to be fair” “I appreciate all the danger our soldiers put themselves in for our safety, I’ll purchase that Support Our Troops bumper sticker to show it.” And finally the most compelling reason to feel in debt to someone… “You saved my life, I know I can never repay you enough!”

Now what we are trying to allude to here is that the feeling of indebtedness is something nearly unavoidable, and as such, we need to be on the lookout for when it’s used against us. We also should understand how we as business managers and marketers can use this tactic as well to help further our own businesses success. Now before you start thinking cynical thoughts, this idea is not all that evil, or at least doesn’t have to be. Let’s look at some examples.

Have you ever noticed the staggering number of things online that are “free-to-use”? Facebook, Google (YouTube, Gmail, G+, Search), Twitter, Bing, Pandora, Pinterest, Instagram…  Any untold number of games, movies, widgets, apps, songs, and on and on and on. At times… it would seem there is more available for free online than there are paid-for services. Obviously this is not true, but it should make you think “How free are these actually”? Because often times these services (which they typically are) are actually rather valuable. We enjoy them, and even times fully rely upon them. Google maps is indispensable for many people but not a single user has ever had to outright pay for it. And imagine all the work it took to create Google Maps, the street views, directions, traffic updates, and so on. It was an extremely expensive and enormous  undertaking. But yet, Google didn’t ask a cent from anyone to use it. Mainly because they knew the true value of “gifting” this to the people.

There’s a lot of reasons for businesses to give away free products, services, advice, information,  storage, applications, or whatever else… the reasons are also as vast as they are profitable. Most of the value derived from businesses, as always, revolves around them receiving data and information. It’s a commonly employed tactic to give away a service/product for “free” and in exchange ask for a little information in return. This is primarily Google’s business model, where they then capitalize on that information and other paid for services. Now typically this is where people get in a big to-do about spying, and data/information mongering, the typical hyper-conspiracy babble that if it wasn’t for it being so plausible, would make it completely laughable. “So people are going to watch what I buy, where I buy it, how much and how often it’s bought, and track that? They’re asking who I know, why I know them, and since when I’ve known them? They want to know where I live, where I’ve lived, and why I lived there? On the outside this information may seem pretty worthless, but to marketers it’s pure, un-smelted gold. Literally the largest gold vein the marketing world has ever seen. Data is important. Big data even more so.  The idea is that they’re not giving away anything for free, they ask for that invisible gold in return… data and information.

Furthermore, and the point of this entire piece, is that when you are given something for free, you are not only grateful but have a feeling of indebtedness as well. You owe something since you’ve been given a gift. I can think of countless services or products I’ve purchased only after I’ve used them for free to begin with. Now this can also take the form or be described as a “free-trial”, but the word “trial” takes away the idea of the gift, and erases fully the feeling of indebtedness. This is not to say you should offer free services and products to guilt trip your customers… but without any other real or honest way to say it, that’s exactly what would be happening. Should this tactic be considered wrong? Perhaps, but perhaps not. It all depends on the lengths you go to influence your users and the means by which you accomplish that. The main point to take away is that there are consequences for being in debt, and those consequences can often lead to actions. You are able to create the illusion of indebtedness online, or in real life, by providing and offering free services/products. This is a very powerful idea and one that managers and marketers alike need to be aware of. Employ it’s use wisely and you will surely see it’s benefits. Just don’t drift too far over to the dark side, because this idea need not be all that nefarious, nor have the feeling of subterfuge being inherent within it. It is what you make of it.