Paralyzed by Choice

First published June 28, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In last week’s column, I looked at how Harvard Business Review bloggers Karen Freeman, Patrick Spenner and Anna Bird spelled the end of the purchase funnel. Today, I’d like to look at the topic they tackled in the second of the three-part series, “If Customers Ask for More Choice, Don’t Listen.”

Barry Schwartz, the author of “The Paradox of Choice,” believes we’re overloaded with choices. In fact, we have so many choices to make, often about inconsequential things, that we live with the constant anxiety of making the wrong choice.

This paradox meets today’s consumer head on, over and over, in situation after situation. The other factor, which I’ve seen play a massive role in buying behaviors, is the degree of risk in the purchase. The bigger the purchase, the higher the risk.

The final piece of the buying puzzle is the reward that lies at the end of the potential purchase. Our brains are built to balance risk and reward in fractions of a second. But we don’t do it by a calm, rational weighing of pros and cons, thus engaging the enlightened thinking part of our brains. We do it by unleashing emotions from the dark, primitive core of our brain. The risk/reward balance whips up a potent mix of neural activity that sets our decision-making engine in motion.

The degree of risk or reward sets the emotional framework for a purchase. High reward, low risk generally means a fairly fast purchase, such as an impulse buy. High risk, low reward may mean a very long purchase cycle with an extended consideration process. Whatever the buying path, there will be an undercurrent of emotion running just below the surface.

Now, let’s match up the findings of the HBR team. High-risk purchases automatically ramp up the level of anxiety we feel. We’re afraid we’ll make the wrong decision. And, in a complex purchase, there’s not just one decision to be made – there are several. At each decision point, we’re bombarded by choices. If the hundreds of purchase path evaluations I’ve done are any indication, the seller spends little time worrying about presenting those choices in a user-friendly way. Catalog pages are jammed with useless and irrelevant items. Internal site search results are generally abysmal. And product information typically takes the form of a long shopping list of features. Very little of it speaks to buyers in a language they care about.

This is a dangerous combination. We have the natural anxiety that comes with risk. We have a gauntlet of decisions to make, each raising the level of anxiety. And we have websites that contribute greatly to the frustration by making it difficult to navigate the information that does exist, which is either too little, too much, too irrelevant or too salesy — never does it seem to be just right.

Again, Freeman, Spenner and Bird ask us to make it simpler for the buyer. Provide them with fewer choices, and make them as relevant and compelling as possible. Ease the burden of risk by providing information that reassures. Realize that one of the components of risk is the degree of bias in the information we’re given. It that information reeks of marketing hyperbole, it will be discounted immediately.

In our numerous eye-tracking studies, we’ve found that in most instances, three to four options seems to be the right number to consider on a Web page. These can be easily loaded into working memory and compared without causing undue wear on our mental mechanics. So, on a landing or home page, three or four groups of coherent and relevant information seems to be an optimal level. We call them “intent clusters.” For navigation bar options, we try to keep it between five and seven choices. If we expect mostly transactional traffic, we ensure there is a “fast path” to purchase. If we expect a lot of purchase research, we aim for rich promises of relevant and reliable information.

As Freeman, Spenner and Bird remind us, “The harder consumers find it to make purchase decisions, the more likely they are to overthink the decision and repeatedly change their minds or give up on the purchase altogether. In fact, regression analysis points to decision complexity and resulting cognitive overload as the single biggest barrier to purchase.”

As marketers, our job is to eliminate the barriers, not erect new ones.

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