The Cost of Choice

Choices bombard us every day of our lives, and you could even say every minute and every second. Soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, 2%, whole milk, nonfat? That’s just the milk in your coffee. Do you prefer hot or iced? Grande or venti? Cappuccino? Macchiato? Whip or no whip? You can choose your daily news source, the next show you want to binge and how you’re going to stream it, the grocery store you frequent – not to mention the overwhelming amount of options once inside the store – down to the podcast you’re going to listen to on the commute home.

Overwhelmed yet? In the coffee example, we most likely have a go-to order, or mental shortcut, to avoid the hassle of sorting through so many options every day. However, we don’t have these shortcuts when we’re experiencing something new.

When is having choices good?

All of this choice has an effect on people. “One effect, paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis, rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all,” psychologist Barry Schwartz explains in the Ted Talk: The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz takes aim at a central tenet of western societies: freedom of choice. In Schwartz’s estimation, choice makes us not freer, but rather more paralyzed; not happier, but more dissatisfied. Some choice is better than none. But more choice is not better than some choice. Most of the time we find ourselves past the point where options improve our welfare.

“Perhaps this is part of the joy of a tasting or set menu – the removal of responsibility. And maybe the recent trend for tapas-style sharing plates has been so popular because it relieves the decision-making pressure if all your eggs are not in one basket,” says Amy Fleming in a Guardian article on the psychology of menus.

Choice and conversion optimization

Let’s take a look at a study conducted in 1995 by Sheena Iyengar that is often used to support this point. Iyengar is a professor of business at Columbia University and the author of “The Art of Choosing.”

In a California gourmet market, Professor Iyengar and her research assistants set up a booth featuring samples of Wilkin & Sons jams. Some customers were offered a selection of 24 jams to sample and some were only offered six jams.

The results were surprising and enlightening. 60 percent of customers stopped by when the booth featured a large assortment, while only 40 percent stopped by the small one. However, 30 percent of people who sampled the small assortment decided to buy jam, while only 3 percent of those confronted with 24 jams purchased a jar. In short, 87% of all jam buyers were offered less choice.

So what does this study mean for conversion optimization? The jam study directly parallels the experience people have on your website. Website visitors who are confronted by more options are less likely to convert or engage with a CTA. Look at the average B2B website today. You’ll see a busy hero image with a CTA, a fly-in with a CTA, a button CTA, a navigation bar with a plethora of options, what’s a customer to do? They enter a state of paralysis, and likely bounce. The last thing you want them to do is leave your site. So why not simplify the experience?

Take a look at Apple’s homepage.

website personalization reduces choice, good for conversion optimization

Wow, isn’t that refreshing?

The goal: Not more choice the right choice

Now some marketers might object and say, “but what about all the content I’ve created? I want to share it all! I showcase great whitepapers, case studies, blogs, and price sheets.” But what if you could know what your audience is interested in and serve them just that?

For example, enterprise content management company M-Files can know with intent data from Bombora that a visitor has researched articles on the benefits of workflow automation and can know with LinkedIn data that this visitor has an IT role in the healthcare industry. Upon first visit, M-files can ensure that the homepage highlights their automated workflows feature. Instead of driving to a generic PR piece, the main CTA can link to a technical document or video relevant to the healthcare industry.

Similarly in the travel industry, San Francisco Travel Association personalizes the homepage experience for website visitors. They know when a visitor on their site is from Texas so their homepage features a “Top 10 Things Texans Love About San Francisco” article. They also serve different content based on whether someone is a first time visitor or a repeat visitor, highlighting editorial content like blogs or transactional content driving to festival tickets, respectively.

Marketers who combine the power of data and personalization give website visitors just the right amount of choice. By streamlining the website experience, customers aren’t bombarded by a sea of content and multiple CTAs competing for their attention. The takeaway is clear: serve less options – and ones that are actually relevant to potential buyers – to earn higher engagement rates and optimize for conversion. When it comes to conversion optimization, less is more.