The Decision Paradox


Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about the effects of the abundance of choice on consumers. With the internet offering limitless choice – from different blogs to any product you imagine to any type of niche community you could want to be a part of or create – we’ve all got a lot more choices to make.

Technology (ie. the internet) was supposed to make things easier. Email is faster (and cheaper) than a phone call, some would argue. Smartphones allow you to answer your Email even when you’re on the go. Digital PVR’s allow you to watch TV when you want. RSS readers let you aggregate all your favorite stuff in one place.

We think that more choice equals more opportunity.

The problem? There is to much of it. And our ‘free time’ is fixed. We can try to squeeze more into it, but there will always be only 24 hours in a day.

The truth is, studies have shown that more choice leads to paralisis – or what some call ‘The Decision Paradox’ (popularized by Barry Schwartz in his book ‘The Paradox of Choice”). The famous example often cited in marketing books occured in a grocery store.

Here is the example from Schwartz book: Researches set up a small table with 24 different jars of jam on it. They offered consumers the ability to try any jam they wanted. Consumers then had the option to purchase any of the jams if they liked what they had (and they could try as many options as they wanted) and get one dollar off on the purchase. Weeks later, the researchers returned and set up the same table in the same place. The difference? They only provided 6 different types of jams. Consumers could then try, and buy, if they liked one of them.

The results were telling: “Thirty per cent of the people exposed to the smaller amount of jams actually bought a jar; only three per cent of those exposed to the large array of jams did so.”

The examples go on. From mutual funds to different types of iced tea, Schwartz references a variety of examples that you can’t ignore. I’d recommend watching his 2006 TED talk to check out more on this topic.

In digital, and in all communications, we each have a ton of choice. The number of sites that ‘aggregate’ content are in the millions. I can connect with friends on dozens of platforms and technologies. I can read, write, comment or share anything I want. I have a ton of choices to make on how I use my time.

Deciding how to make these choices doesn’t necessarily mean sitting down and truly evaluating every one I have. I don’t have time and you don’t either. So I fall into patterns, I make choices that are easy and I make ones that are enjoyable and (hopefully) beneficial in the long term.

As a brand communicating, I don’t want you to try to do everything. I don’t want you to create a site that aggregates every type of content imaginable and let’s me find something that’s relevant to me. I want you to guess and focus on something that is relevant to you and hopefully a segment of your consumers.

True, you will get people who don’t care. But if you give them a simple choice to make, they might actually stick with your communication experience. If you tell them that you do everything and all you have to do is find it, I’m gone.

To end on a quote from Schwartz:

“The more options there are, the easier it is to regret the one you’ve made”.

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