What’s for Free Lunch Today?

By Jackie Berg, Onboard Informatics

It’s been a long time since the original “free lunch” prompted economists to remind us there’s no such thing as one. Saloon patrons in the late 19th century were often treated to a free meal in exchange for a drink. In turn, the saloon raked in the cash as lunching patrons munched on heavily-salted foods like crackers and ham and cheese and ordered more and more rounds of beer.

Not quite as long ago, but a solid five years ago, Onboard Informatics CEO Marc Siden reminded us of the price of putting “free” information on your site:


“Let’s play a game of what ifs shall we? What if Mercedes started putting used parts in their cars because it saved money? What if they replaced the wood panels with plastic and the leather seats with vinyl? What if they cut out their exceptional service? What if they did this for a year, and when the economy turned around, they went back to being the best at what they did? Would we look at them the same?”

Much has changed in the scope of local data and the real estate market since Marc’s discussion from five years ago, but the principles remain the same. Free and low cost data, APIs and site widgets flow freely, but who is actually winning here?

‘Free’ has a way of seducing us to behave irrationally, as my favorite behavioral economist Dan Ariely points out time and time again in his research. In many cases, free or inexpensive services may serve you just fine; just don’t forget the opportunity cost. For what is your brand the best in its market?

Answering that question will help you figure out which small details – which are often first on the business chopping block and the first things noticed by a consumer – you should focus on.

We’ve heard too many stories of clients who’ve come to us from a pile of data they didn’t know how to turn into information. The promise of displaying millions of free data points on your site sounds promising – until you’re in the weeds with businesses that have closed years ago. We’ve also heard stories of those who see their web traffic sink into a black hole after implementing a widget that pushes visitors back to the source’s site.

My sole suggestion today, no matter what stage you are in that project: don’t rule out the costs that will inevitably come from investing less in your website up front.

For more information, visit http://www.onboardinformatics.com/.

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