Stuff To Ponder: Expanded Approaches To Pay What You Want Pricing

A few weeks ago economist Alex Tabarrok wrote about a strange “pay what you want” promotion a shoe company was running. It struck him and many commenters of the Marginal Revolution blog as a psychological experiment with a goal of getting most people to select the set middle range price.

In that same post he linked back to 2012 post where he provided an analysis for why “pay what you want” can make sense for charities and performing arts organizations. The analysis may be difficult to understand, but the bottom line is:

Probably more importantly, pay-what-you-want pricing is going to be advantageous when the seller also sells a complementary good, such as concerts, which benefit from consumption spillovers from the pay-what-you-want good.

Basically, when you offer an option to pay what you want, there should be accompanying options like food, merchandise, other participatory activities that you can earn revenue from. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the movie theatre model where a bag of popcorn is $10. Offering pay what you want simply because you think it is a good idea without any sense of how you can offset the loss of revenue isn’t prudent. If end up with a higher per ticket price than you had before, that is great, but don’t plan on it.

One of the commenters on the 2012 post noted that the site HumbleBundle allows you to pay what you want, but also posts the average price paid in real time.

Currently, if you pay more than the average of $4.14, you can unlock additional content and if you pay more than $14 there is another level of content you can receive.

Having some sort of bonus content or access people will receive for exceeding the average is a smart idea. It rewards those who act early before the average increases as a result of people paying to receive that content (or just being generous). This content or access could be better seating, merchandise, concessions, meet and greet opportunities, invites to other organizational activities, etc.

I got to thinking about how my ticketing system can tell me what the average selling price of my tickets are on demand. I could theoretically manually update that information on the lobby screens simply as a point of information at various intervals just as a bit of psychological social pressure on people to pay close to that or a little more. While I might also choose to update that information on our website, I am not sure the sense of social pressure would be as significant for online sales.

However, if ticketing software providers created a way to export that information to update in real time like HumbleBundle does, it might be possible to create a sense of tension and excitement in lobbies just prior to performances. (Or if handled correctly, even online). Granted, it could be done manually but I know I have better things for my staff to do than constantly run reports and post data to a public screen.

Watching it tick steadily up with every purchase is much more interesting. Especially if you are experience the dual satisfaction of seeing how much money was being raised for the organization while knowing you got access cheaper than a lot of other people – “Whoo hoo!! We collectively moved the price to $15.63 (but I got mine for $4.85!)”

Thoughts? What experiences, if any, have you had? I know a number of places are doing pay what you want/can, but I am not clear if they are supplementing their income with related goods and services or if they have found a way to energize audiences around the practice in a productive manner.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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