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May 11, 2009

Consumers, Marketers & the Problem with Choice

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As a kid, having choices can be a rush. Children make few choices for themselves. What you eat, what you wear, where you go — as a child, the decisions are all made for you. But as one gets older, choice becomes an option. Those early days of choice are exhilarating. In the shelter of parental defense and relative innocence, choice is fun and mostly safe.

Then you get older. Choices that were once novel and emancipatory turn banal and overwhelming. Choice loses its luster in the face of day-to-day wear and tear. Despite the way marketing messages frame choice as some great gift, choice is more akin to obligation than option. I’m not crazy. It’s science.

Exhausting Choices

According to a study released this year, too many choices can be mentally exhausting. One group of volunteers was asked to make a series of decisions before performing unpleasant tasks. Another group performed the same unpleasant tasks but did not have to make any decisions beforehand. The group that didn’t make decisions had a better rate of success when performing their unpleasant tasks. In other experiments, subjects were asked to take tests or go shopping. No matter the activity, the more choices a person had to make, the more they became mentally exhausted and likely to make poor decisions. The researchers concluded that “even if people are having fun making decisions, their cognitive functions are still being depleted with every choice they make.”

Eliminating Choices

funny cat pictures

Alternately, researchers have found that consumers react positively when fewer choices are available. In this study, one group was asked to rate a sample of chocolate after being given a detailed description of ingredients and nutritional value. A second group rated the same sample but was provided with only a vague description of ingredients. The group that had less information and less to think about rated the chocolate higher than the group with lots to consider. The researchers chalked the results up to a Blissful Ignorance Effect, describing the simple satisfaction derived from the simpler situation.

What should you do? Take advantage of this phenomenon through a simple and direct call to action. Ask the consumer to do one thing, present the message in a visual hierarchy so it’s clear what that one thing is, and wrap it all up in an easy and usable design.

Testing Choices

Of course, crafting the right message is easier said than done. The message a marketer creates may not speak to the consumer. No matter how good you are at copy writing, you can never be sure if the message resonates with your audience. The best way to address this issue is to test your messages. There are a number of ways to do this, such as A/B testing, multivariate testing and reviewing analytics data. If you’re strapped for cash, you could also ask Mom for a favor and have her do a test run through your site. You treated her to a lovely Mother’s Day, right?

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5 responses to “Consumers, Marketers & the Problem with Choice”

  1. Abbie writes:

    Really good post. I now know why my head has felt explode-y lately. Too many ideas + not knowing what my audience really wants = Boom…

  2. Michael Angrave writes:

    Very interesting post. I can certainly understand where you are coming from. Although people think they like the option of choice, its maybe not always for the best.
    I will bear in mind what you have said when creating my next marketing ideas, thanks.
    Look forward to more interesting insight.

  3. Virginia Nussey writes:

    @Abbie, Uh oh! Explode-y head syndrome! You may want to have that checked out. ;)

  4. Tualatin Web Design writes:

    I agree completely with the post. Too many choices would lead to confusion…I would bear it in my mind and apply it for my marketing ideas.

  5. atul chatterjee writes:

    Agreed too many choices can be confusing. But on a sales page it may be possible to give two choices one clearly very inferior to the other, that will drive the visitor to the superior choice and he will feel happy about making it.



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