So today I was at the grocery store, and I was picking up some fruits and veggies to munch on while I write.
And as I was meandering through the produce section, I happened to stumble across the baked goods.
There were scones, muffins, pastries, fresh bread, and much more, and each one came in a dozen different varieties. I could have had a maple walnut muffin or an oat apricot muffin; a savoury roasted pepper & cheese scone or a sweet gingerbread scone.
Then I walked into the meat department, where I saw pork tenderloin, pork ribs, pork sausage, spare ribs, bacon, and ham. All are different kinds of meat, but they all come from the same animal. And I had a choice of what kind of pig meat I wanted to feast on.
That’s a powerful word there: Choice.
It’s a word that’s been used to brand pro-abortion movements, supermarket chains, hotel conglomerates, music awards, and much more.
See, in an individualistic society like ours, having the freedom to choose is a fundamental belief upon which we base….pretty much everything.
You can choose to send your kids to public school or private school, or you can choose to homeschool them.
You can choose which god you want to worship, if any.
You can choose whether you want to watch American Idol live, like a civilized person, or PVR it and tell all your friends to SHUSH about the results.
And at the heart of all of this is something deeper, an unspoken assumption – that having the freedom to choose is how you measure your independence.
People like to have choices. Having choices makes us feel powerful. There are so many things in this life that we can’t control – you can’t control if you’re going to fall and break your wrist, you can’t control if your friends are going to get sick, you can’t control what the weather’s going to be like – so when it comes to things we can control, we like being able to exercise our free will and make a choice.
But there’s one problem: Sometimes, choice is a curse disguised as a blessing.
It’s like the time when this one woman in my office building went around offering chocolates to everyone, and I bit into one and it was filled with rum. What I thought was going to be a delicious piece of milky chocolate was actually a bitter brew.
(Sorry, guys, alcohol just doesn’t agree with me. I tried to like it, I really did. But I guess it’s just not for me.)
See, here’s the problem: We tend to think we want choice, but then when we have choice, we absolutely suck at using it.
This is the paradox of choice.
Way back in the year 2000 (which for Millennials like me seems like just yesterday but then you realize it was FOREVER AGO), two psychologists named Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper wanted to study how people make choices. So they designed an experiment that should now be required reading for EVERY marketer.
This two-day experiment took place in an upscale food market, where shoppers were presented with an elegant display of gourmet jams. Shoppers were given an opportunity to sample the jams, and were provided with a coupon for $1 off the jar of their choice. (There’s that word again – choice.)
But what shoppers didn’t know is that the displays changed from one day to the next. On the first day, shoppers were shown a large, ornate display with 24 different varieties of jam. On the second day, there was a small display of only 6 jams.
The researchers recorded both the number of people who visited each display and the number of people who bought jam, and what they found is this:
The 24-jam display attracted significantly more interest, but the 6-jam display saw about 10 times more purchases.
So what does this study tell us?
We think we want MORE choices, but actually, we want SATISFYING choices.
Here’s what psychology tells us about choice: The more choices you give someone, the more effort they have to invest into making sure they’re making the best possible choice. It’s like taking a child to Baskin Robbins, letting that child look at the big colourful display of ice cream varieties, and then telling that child to choose just ONE kind.
And then there’s the question of whether you want a bowl, a cone, or a waffle cone. (Although that’s not as tough a decision – waffle cones are the best.)
And even if you know that you want a bowl, you need to decide what size of bowl you want.
And do you want to top the ice cream with caramel, hot fudge, fresh fruit, butterscotch sauce, walnuts, or nothing?
The trouble starts because as people, we generally try to maximize our own happiness whenever possible. So that means instead of thinking, ‘yeah, I’m getting ice cream and it’s gonna be tasty,’ you’re thinking, ‘I have to choose one or maybe two flavours, in one size, with only two toppings – what’s my BEST option? How can I combine all of these different elements into the one configuration that will make me MOST happy?’
And you see, having to make a choice with such high stakes just tears people apart inside. Because you’ll always wonder if you would’ve been happier choosing the OTHER thing – even if it’s something as simple as ice cream, or something like soup or salad at a restaurant.
Speaking of which…
Restaurants are the WORST when it comes to the choice paradox.
I once went to a restaurant and ordered a steak dinner, and the waitress would NOT stop asking me questions.
“How do you want that done?”
“Do you want soup or salad with it?”
“Would you like the coleslaw or the garden veggies?”
“This meal also comes with a dessert – you have your choice of cheesecake, apple pie, black forest cake, or fresh fruit.”
“And to drink? We have coffee, tea, milk, tap water, or fifteen kinds of soda.”
“Okay, so you’d like a coffee? Would you like our medium roast, our dark roast, or the specialty holiday blend we just introduced?”
On and on and on and on and on. Seriously, I think I spent more time ordering my meal than I did eating it. When I go to a restaurant, I’m not looking to do a freaking interview – I’m looking for a great meal.
And what if the food comes, and I see my friend has this epic bowl of pasta, and I want it. And there I am eating my steak thinking, “Dammit, I should’ve ordered the pasta.”
But the choice paradox doesn’t just decrease buyer satisfaction. It also makes your sales cycle WAY longer than it has to be.
If you’ve ever researched a product online before buying it, you’ll know this from personal experience.
Let’s take laptops as an example.
There are hundreds of different laptops on the market, from all kinds of manufacturers, with lots of different features. You want a laptop with an AMD Radeon GPU, 500 GB of HDD hard storage, 3 GB of DDR RAM and a glossy screen? You got it. But wait – what if 500 GB isn’t enough for you? What if you want an SSD drive instead of HDD? What if you need to upgrade to DDR-4 RAM? What if the AMD GPU isn’t working? You could go for something by Nvidia or Intel instead. Or there’s also Qualcomm, Samsung, and Vivante.
If it sounds like I’m talking Greek, that’s because I’m using TechnoSpeak on purpose to illustrate an important point:
The more options you give people, the harder it is for them to understand what each individual option entails and whether any given option will meet their needs.
And that means your salespeople will need to spend WAY more time educating your audience about your products. Your customers want to know that they’re going to be satisfied with their purchase. If they don’t understand what you’re selling, if they don’t understand their different options, then they won’t be ready to buy. And it takes far more time and effort to evaluate 50 options than to evaluate two.
That’s when you start to hear things like, “I need to go home and think this over,” or “I don’t need all the bells and whistles. I just need something that…”
(I’ve used those phrases a number of times myself. The other day I was looking for a bath mat, and I couldn’t believe the vast array of bath mats out there. Micro-cotton. Memory foam. Sponge foam. Reversible bath mats. Not to mention the 1000 different varieties of patterned bath mats out there. I mean, c’mon. It’s a piece of fabric you step on when you get out of the shower so that you don’t slip and die. Does it really need to be that complicated? Hell, I could go to End of the Roll, buy a four-square-foot chunk of carpet, and lay that in front of the shower door and it would work just fine. I don’t want to look through 100 different patterned bath mats and try to evaluate which fabric works the best. Ain’t nobody got time for that.)
This is why Apple is kicking royal ASS in the laptop market right now. Last year Apple’s laptop revenues grew by 10% (while Windows and Chrome revenues each fell by that same amount), and Apple actually surpassed Windows in share of the laptop market. Now, are Apple laptops such superior machines that they’re simply driving Windows out of the market? As a loyal member of the Cult of Mac, I’d like to say yes, but I suspect that it’s actually due to something else entirely.
See, while PC manufacturers have been busy focusing on features like RAM and hard drives in their advertising, Apple has focused on what you can actually DO with all of that. And that’s the way it’s been since the beginning.
Prime example: Watch Steve Ballmer try to hawk the Windows 1.0. He lists off a bunch of features like a calendar, a notepad, a control panel, and games…but doesn’t explain WHY people should want all that. (He even comes right out and calls them features at one point.)
(Side note: If you’re spitting at the camera when selling your product, you need to chill, son. Only Billy Mays could pull off that hard a sell, may he rest in peace.)
In comparison, let’s check out the original 1984 commercial for the Apple Macintosh.
Instead of pointing out all the different things the Macintosh can DO, or pointing out different configurations of the Macintosh and add-ons that are available, Apple decided to creatively express the spirit of the brand.
And in doing so, they made the audience’s choice very simple: Will you continue to be part of the mindless herd of sheep, or will you rise up and become your own person?
Isn’t that an easier choice than figuring out how many gigabytes of hard drive space you need or whether a dual-core processor is a necessity or a luxury?
This is the challenge I issue you: Start building simpler, easier choices for your audience.
Instead of having 30 different services, boil down your services into categories or packages and offer five or six.
Instead of keeping a dozen different models of the same product in stock, pick three of them that represent the major categories available.
When you make your audience’s choice easier, they’ll thank you by buying from you.
How many choices are you giving your audience? What can you do to reduce choice paralysis and encourage your audience to act?