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I was just responding to a question and I was wondering if there was there was any research into whether the usage of the word "Free" in a call to action button (CTA) or even a offer enhances the conversion. Some examples :

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This article on Smashing Magazine has this to say

This approach weakens two primary users’ concerns when it comes to taking action online: paying (which also requires them to take additional actions such as getting their credit card)

Emphasizing that the action will be "FREE" conveys to users what to expect.

Adding the text "Free to search" anticipates the question the user may have about the cost of the action.

All of this does point to potential scope for increase in conversion but I was curious to know if there was any research available about it.

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+1 Good question. Can't believe it hasn't been asked before. –  you786 Sep 27 '12 at 22:45
    
Good question, but someone else's research might not work for your specific case. This is just the kind of thing A/B testing is useful for (see optimizely.com/ab-testing). –  Sam Pierce Lolla Feb 10 '13 at 0:57
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4 Answers

Free is one of the most over used and there fore often abused single word in online marketing. It's easy and simple to add to content, but it's benefits have been diminished by many abusers.

To weigh your conversion numbers on just one word on a page is very bias, and useless when there are so many other variables interfering with conversion rates.

Free works best when delivery is made immediately upon the visitor taking the action. This could include downloading a PDF or other files.

Where Free struggles is trying to get users to sign up for paid subscription services. Such as in your example "30-day free trail". That is a contradiction since it's free for 30 days and then it's not free. Visitors have been frustrated by websites that claim to be free, but then with hold service until a credit card is provided. Things like this has tarnished the free word.

So free has to be used carefully, and simply using free will not improve your conversion rates.

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I think "Free" could improve conversion in some cases but there might be some cultural issues you should take into account.

In a project I was involved we added the word Free to our signup button, that was the only change we did. After analyzing the impact we discovered quite positive results in our American and British sites but negative consequences in our German one (our main market).

I have the feeling that in American websites the use of the word Free in call to actions is quite common and accepted by users. Talking to German users of the website I did the project for, I discovered that Free was mostly perceived as something negative, German consumers in this target group think that if they don't have to pay for the service it must be because there is something hidden they don't know. Also the "first month for free" offer is not common practice in Germany, neither online nor offline. We also discovered that in this particular case, a business-to-bussiness tool, our users value clear conditions and price structure (over getting something for free).

To sum up, there might be cultural and group-specific issues to keep in mind.

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+.5 if I could. Great points, but the question asks for scientific research. –  you786 Sep 27 '12 at 22:45
    
Very interesting –  Mervin Johnsingh Oct 5 '12 at 8:52
    
@you786 the question only actually asks for research. –  icc97 Feb 10 '13 at 14:41
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There's an interesting chapter on behaviours associated with 'Free' in this book:

"Dan Ariely: Predictably Irrational"

Which does cite actual research.

There's a wikipedia synopsis:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Predictably_Irrational#The_Cost_of_Free

In chapter 3, Ariely explains how humans react to the words "free" and "zero". Humans make decisions without rationalizing the outcomes of their choices. To illustrate this point, Ariely conducted multiple experiments. The outcome was consistent: when faced with multiple choices, the free option was commonly chosen. With the opportunity to receive something for free, the actual value of the product or service is no longer considered. Ariely claims, “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.”

Ariely's concept of "FREE!" applies not only to monetary and quantitative costs, but also to time. We forgo some of our time when we wait in line for free popcorn or to enter a museum on a free-entrance day. We could have been doing something else at that time. Ultimately, he demonstrates how such a simple concept can be used to drive business and social policy. For example, to reduce health cost, companies could offer free regular checks. Employees would be more willing to get them at zero cost rather than paying some amount of money. Ariely recommends the consideration of the net benefits of the choices we make regarding both preference and money. Perhaps we would get the better deal and even save money if we did not react to free the way we do.

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There are some studies related to the power of marketing things as "FREE" in this article:

http://blissmedia.com.au/insights/ecommerce/neuroscience-in-ecommerce/ and http://www.neurosciencemarketing.com/blog/articles/the-power-of-free.htm

It's basically stating that our brain is hard wired to be attracted to things which are free, so whether something is sold for free, or for 1 cent actually makes a huge difference.

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