Product Management Dictionary

The Product Management Dictionary: Pay-what-you-want pricing

Discover the ins and outs of pay-what-you-want pricing in product management with our comprehensive dictionary.

As a product manager, you are constantly on the lookout for new pricing models that can help you optimize profits, attract more customers, and stimulate growth. One pricing model that has been gaining popularity in recent years is Pay-what-you-want (PWYW) pricing. In this article, we will explore the concept of PWYW pricing, its benefits and drawbacks, and how to implement it effectively.

Understanding Pay-what-you-want pricing

Definition and concept

At its core, PWYW pricing means that customers can pay whatever amount they want for a product or service. This pricing model is typically used for digital goods, such as music, software, ebooks, or games, but it can also apply to physical products or services.

The idea behind PWYW pricing is to offer customers a high degree of flexibility and autonomy, while also leveraging their intrinsic motivation to contribute to the common good, support creators, or feel good about themselves.

For example, imagine you are a musician who just released a new album. You decide to use PWYW pricing as a way of reaching a wider audience and engaging with your fans. You set a suggested price of $10, but you also allow customers to pay more or less than that amount. Some fans might decide to pay $20 or $30 because they appreciate your music and want to support you. Others might pay only $5 or $1 because they cannot afford more or they do not value your music as much. However, even those who pay less can still enjoy your music and become your fans, which can lead to more sales and exposure in the long run.

Origins and history

Believe it or not, PWYW pricing has been around for a long time, although it became more visible in the early 2000s, thanks to innovative experiments by the music industry, the gaming industry, and the restaurant industry.

For instance, in 2007, Radiohead, an English rock band, released their album In Rainbows online, and allowed fans to pay whatever price they deemed fair. Surprisingly, the majority of fans paid more than the suggested price, and the album became a commercial and critical success. This experiment paved the way for other musicians, such as Amanda Palmer, who offered her album for free but encouraged fans to pay for it as a way of showing their support.

In the game industry, Humble Bundle, an online marketplace for indie games, pioneered the PWYW pricing model by offering bundles of games and letting customers decide how much they wanted to pay for them. This model not only increased sales but also raised millions of dollars for charity, which further incentivized customers to participate.

In the restaurant industry, some establishments tried PWYW pricing as a way of attracting new customers, reducing food waste, and fostering community engagement. For example, One World Everybody Eats, a nonprofit organization, runs several pay-what-you-can cafes across the US, where customers can pay any amount they wish or volunteer their time in exchange for a meal.

Key principles

While PWYW pricing can be a powerful tool for creating value and building a loyal customer base, it also requires a nuanced approach that takes into account several key principles:

  • Transparency: Customers need to know what they are paying for, how much it costs to produce, and what the suggested price is.
  • Trust: Customers need to trust that the seller is not exploiting their generosity or underselling their product.
  • Perception: Customers' perception of the product's value, quality, and uniqueness can influence their willingness to pay more or less.
  • Social motivation: Customers' desire to do good, feel good, or belong to a community can influence their willingness to pay more or less.

Transparency is crucial in PWYW pricing because customers need to understand what they are paying for and why. For example, if you are a software developer who uses PWYW pricing for your app, you need to explain to customers what features they will get for each price tier, how much time and effort you invested in developing the app, and what your profit margins are. By being transparent, you can build trust with your customers and show them that you value their feedback and input.

Trust is also important in PWYW pricing because customers need to feel confident that they are not being taken advantage of or manipulated. For example, if you are a restaurant owner who uses PWYW pricing for your menu, you need to make sure that your prices are fair and reasonable, and that your customers are not being pressured or shamed into paying more than they can afford. By building trust, you can create a positive reputation and attract more customers who appreciate your honesty and integrity.

Perception is a key factor in PWYW pricing because customers' subjective evaluation of the product can influence their willingness to pay more or less. For example, if you are an author who uses PWYW pricing for your ebook, you need to make sure that your book is well-written, well-edited, and well-designed, so that customers perceive it as valuable and worth paying for. By improving the perception of your product, you can increase your sales and your customer satisfaction.

Social motivation is a powerful driver in PWYW pricing because customers' desire to do good, feel good, or belong to a community can influence their willingness to pay more or less. For example, if you are a charity that uses PWYW pricing for your fundraising campaign, you need to tap into your donors' altruistic and social impulses, and show them how their contribution can make a difference in the world. By creating a sense of purpose and belonging, you can inspire your donors to give more and to spread the word about your cause.

Benefits of Pay-what-you-want pricing

Customer empowerment

The main benefit of PWYW pricing is that it gives customers a high degree of empowerment and control over the transaction. Customers can decide how much they value the product, how much they can afford, and how much they want to support the seller.

This level of empowerment can create a positive emotional connection between the customer and the product, as well as between the customer and the seller. Customers feel more invested in the product's success and more loyal to the seller's brand. This, in turn, can lead to better reviews, referrals, and repeat purchases.

Price discrimination

Another benefit of PWYW pricing is that it allows sellers to capture a wider range of customer segments, including those who are price-sensitive, risk-averse, or altruistic.

While conventional pricing models often use fixed prices that leave some customers out of the market, PWYW pricing can adjust to each customer's preferences, income, or values. This can result in a more efficient and inclusive market, where customers pay what they can afford and sellers generate more revenue.

Market penetration

Perhaps the most interesting benefit of PWYW pricing is that it can help sellers penetrate new markets, test new products, and gather valuable feedback.

By removing the price barrier, PWYW pricing can attract curious or skeptical customers who might not have tried the product otherwise. These customers can provide valuable insights into the product's appeal, usability, or defects, which can help sellers improve the product and tailor it to their needs.

Building brand loyalty

Finally, PWYW pricing can help sellers build brand loyalty by creating a sense of reciprocity, generosity, or community.

When customers feel that the seller trusts them to pay a fair price, they are more likely to reciprocate by leaving positive reviews, recommending the product to others, or paying more than the suggested price in the future. This can create a virtuous cycle of trust and loyalty that benefits both the customer and the seller.

Challenges and drawbacks

Revenue uncertainty

Despite its benefits, PWYW pricing also comes with several challenges and drawbacks that sellers need to be aware of.

One of the main challenges is revenue uncertainty. Since customers can pay whatever they want for the product, sellers have no guarantees of how much revenue they will generate or how to set their prices.

This uncertainty can make it harder for sellers to plan their budget, invest in new products, or negotiate with suppliers. Moreover, some customers might abuse the PWYW model by paying less than they should or taking advantage of free-riding, which can further reduce revenue.

Potential undervaluation

Another challenge of PWYW pricing is the potential for undervaluation.

Since customers are not obligated to pay the suggested price, they might perceive the product as less valuable than it actually is or expect to pay less for it in the future. This can lead to underpricing or underselling, which can harm the seller's reputation or discourage them from continuing to produce high-quality products.

Free-rider problem

A related challenge is the free-rider problem, which occurs when some customers enjoy the benefits of the product without paying their fair share.

While altruistic customers might voluntarily pay more than the suggested price to compensate for the free-riders, this solution is not always scalable or reliable. Some customers might abuse the system by paying nothing at all, which can hurt the seller's revenue and discourage them from offering PWYW pricing in the future.

Sustainability concerns

Finally, PWYW pricing can raise sustainability concerns, especially when it comes to digital goods.

Since digital goods have negligible marginal costs, they can be offered at very low prices or even for free, which can lead to overconsumption, waste, or depletion of resources. Moreover, some customers might pirate the product or share it with others, which can further reduce the seller's revenue and harm the industry's overall profitability.

Implementing Pay-what-you-want pricing

Choosing the right product or service

Before implementing PWYW pricing, sellers need to carefully consider which products or services are suitable for this model.

PWYW pricing works best for products or services that have low production costs, high perceived value, and a large target market. For instance, digital goods, such as ebooks or music albums, can be produced at low or no cost and offered to a global audience, which makes them ideal for PWYW pricing.

On the other hand, high-end products, such as luxury cars or designer clothes, might not work well with PWYW pricing, as they require high production costs, limited distribution, and exclusivity, which make them less accessible to a broad range of customers.

Setting a suggested price

Once the product or service has been selected, sellers need to determine a suggested price that reflects the product's value, production costs, and competitive landscape.

The suggested price should be transparent, easy to understand, and flexible enough to accommodate different customer segments and their needs. Moreover, the suggested price should not be too high or too low, as this can signal distrust or low quality, respectively.

Communicating the pricing model

After the suggested price has been set, sellers need to communicate the PWYW pricing model to their customers effectively.

This communication can take the form of informative or persuasive messaging, such as blog posts, social media updates, or email newsletters, which explain the benefits of PWYW pricing and how it works. It can also include visual aids, such as charts, graphs, or animations, that show how customers can benefit from PWYW pricing and support the seller.

Monitoring and adjusting

Finally, sellers need to monitor and adjust the PWYW pricing model over time to ensure that it remains effective and sustainable.

This can involve analyzing customer feedback, sales data, and customer behavior to identify patterns, trends, or anomalies. It can also involve experimenting with different pricing strategies, such as using minimum prices or changing the suggested price based on customer segments or product features.


Pay-what-you-want pricing is a powerful tool for product managers who want to create value, build customer loyalty, and stimulate growth. By offering customers the freedom to choose how much they pay for a product, PWYW pricing can create a positive emotional connection between the customer and the product, boost revenue, and open new markets.

However, PWYW pricing also comes with challenges and drawbacks, such as revenue uncertainty, undervaluation, free-riding, and sustainability concerns, that require careful consideration and management.

By following the key principles and best practices outlined in this article, product managers can implement PWYW pricing effectively and reap its benefits while minimizing its risks.