A Bird In The Hand Is Worth More Than Two In Computer Memory

Roger Tomilson tweeted about Harvard Business Review article that provides some food for thought about how people might experience arts and culture.

I’ll jump right to a quote since the article title, “Customers Won’t Pay as Much for Digital Goods — and Research Explains Why,” pretty much provides the all the introduction you need.

The greater value ascribed to physical than digital goods persisted when we accounted for people’s estimates of production costs and retail prices. It even held for goods with no resale value. Plausible alternative explanations, such as physical goods lasting longer or being more enjoyable to use than digital goods, also failed to explain this difference.

Only a difference in the extent to which people feel a sense of ownership for digital and physical objects explained their preference for the physical format. Indeed, the value gap disappeared for goods participants rented and expected to give back.


Because ownership entails a link between a person and an object, we found the gap in their value increased when that link was easy to form and disappeared when that link was hard to establish. Participants valued a physical copy of The Empire Strikes Back more than a digital copy, for instance, only if they considered the Star Wars series to be films with which they strongly identified. Participants who weren’t Star Wars fans valued physical and digital copies similarly.

To summarize: People value physical objects more than digital ones when the object represents something with which they closely identify, even if it has no monetary value, if they don’t have to give it back.

As much as I would like it to, this doesn’t really address whether people value physical encounters with transitory experiences like attending a performance or visiting a museum versus seeing a recording or a digital copy of a piece of visual art.

Even if I did try to wedge a rationalization in there, we’d still be left with the finding that, regardless of format, people place an equal value on things they don’t feel are relevant to them. Which means, people won’t automatically start to value art if they experience the physical manifestation. (You probably didn’t need research to tell you that.)

What I wondered is whether having something physical to take away from the experience facilitates in creating more value for people. Do well designed, informative playbills/programs/information sheets/gallery maps, etc help to solidify value for people even if they ultimately decide to toss it? Versus nothing or an digital media tour that is only available at the venue.

If so, does the effect increase if a hand-on activity is provided which produces something people can take with them? Is a link forged when someone executes an expression of personal creativity? It may have no value to anyone else but it is simultaneously allowing people to participate in the creative process and generating a physical manifestation connected to the experience.

Does this provide a greater  sense of ownership and investment in the experience?

And if you are nodding affirmatively and thinking “yes” to yourself, here is the next question – Where do selfie pictures fit in?

They are creative expressions but in digital form.  Research has shown people feel selfies and digital recording  enhance the experience…they just can’t accurately remember the content of the experience.  One potential way to mitigate this is to offer background and props for people to use in selfies as a way of saying, “we would prefer you not use your devices during the show, but we want you to remember this experience.”

Thoughts? Opinions? Ideas?

I would be interested to see if the presence of a gift shop/souvenirs increases value for people over places that don’t offer them. How many of you would stock cheesy snowglobes if there was a correlation with increased return visits in a 5 year period?

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 (artshacker.com) 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. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

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.


2 thoughts on “A Bird In The Hand Is Worth More Than Two In Computer Memory”

  1. You ask, “Is a link forged when someone executes an expression of personal creativity? It may have no value to anyone else but it is simultaneously allowing people to participate in the creative process and generating a physical manifestation connected to the experience. Does this provide a greater sense of ownership and investment in the experience?” What you are describing has been studied extensively and is known as the ‘Ikea effect’. Partly what you are describing is attributable to our sunk cost in the things we ourselves have a hand in. The more we invest the more we value. The point being that we don’t always invest *because* we value, but we value because we invest. The takeaway from the Ikea effect is that we don’t just do what we love, we love what we do.

    The follow-up question you ask about selfies is worth thinking about, because it is a sort of investment on our (the people taking them’s) part. That is, there ought to be ways of turning that investment into an investment with our product/performance attached.

    One thought I had was maybe having the actors mingle with the audience either beforehand (might be impossible) or afterwards, specifically for selfie opportunities and chit chat. If you have ever watched tennis tournaments, the players often stop by the stands as viewers hand them their phones to grab a selfie with the star. For that matter, the winner hits a few of the match balls into the stands and then signs audience match programs, souvenir tennis balls (larger than the official ones) etc. Some players give the sweaty towels they used, head bands etc to folks in the crowd. Soccer players throw their shirts into the stands.

    Some of these things may be possible in the context you are describing, but I agree that selfies seem an easy gateway to establishing that ownership identification. What if as they enter the building there were cardboard cutouts of the stars of a performance that folks could stand beside and grab selfies? Or the stock fairground option of a scene that has holes for the faces where people could take pictures pretending they were involved in the production? Me as a conductor. Me as a cello player. Me as Romeo. Me as Juliet. Me as Hamilton.

    The investment in some cardboard cutouts seems minimal, but an easy way to take advantage of the habit folks already have to be seen places and seen with stars. Maybe it would get old after a while, but it is interesting to note that fairs still have those insert-your-face-here opportunities. And making it specifically oriented to the event they just plunked some money down to watch (already a sunk cost opportunity) ought to make it appealing at least to some.

    Connecting to an audience is the hardest part of what we do. There needs to be as many lines between us as possible. Not every connection will work equally for all comers. We need to give people the chance to find the connections that work for them. Creating opportunities for an audience to express itself in ways that it already cares about is fundamentally easier than training it to figure out new connections (toilets in rural India). If selfies are important to people, we need to create as many opportunities for selfies as can be justified in service to our own interests. The question is, how many ways can we cultivate that?

  2. The virtual vs. physical goods value is an interesting topic, especially when drilling down into culture niches. One example is sheet music. Most composers I know and work with charge the same price for physical and digital versions of their product with the former having shipping costs.

    Granted, the HBR article doesn’t dive that deep into specific fields but it would be interesting to see if those had any corresponding impact on their findings.

    What was interesting and relatable to the composer element were the results on digital products having lower perceived piracy/theft issues for customers. I know composers who won’t even sell sheet music in pdf format for that very reason but it ultimately seems like a self defeating approach where the artists slowly bleeds away new generations of musicians interested in performing his/her works.


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