Too much choice can harm your business

The psychology of choice is an important factor in website success

Choice is important to your website visitorsSingle people have never had so much choice. They can join dozens of dating sites and check out millions of potential partners. Finding the perfect partner has never been so easy. Except on thing. The number of single people is growing. One in three people in the USA, for instance, is single. In spite of being able to make their perfect match, it seems that people are finding it harder to get just the right person.

In the past, of course, it was all so easy. The number of potential partners was limited by geography; unless you moved town, you usually married someone local. Now, literally, the world is your oyster. But the chances of finding a pearl in an oyster is less than 0.001% and it seems that the chances of finding your true soul-mate among the online hopefuls is similarly low.

The reason is simple – there is too much choice. Daters know that there is always someone else waiting in the wings. Hence they keep looking for “perfection”,  just never finding it. So they go on and on and on hunting.

The psychological research on choice also shows us that when we are faced with more choices we are more disappointed with the selection. When we have lots to choose from we start looking for minor flaws and we stop focusing on the positive attributes. That’s what happens in online dating. Instead of concentrating on what is good about a potential date, people end up seeing the minor imperfections in the daters, thus moving on until they find someone who is completely perfect.

When it comes to your website this is an important psychological factor. Too much choice increases disappointment. Visitors will look for all the potential problems with what you offer, rather than the positives they contain for them. On top of this, studies show that when we are faced with multiple choices we actually delay making a selection. Providing people with fewer options makes three things happen:

  1. People make a selection more easily
  2. People make a choice more quickly
  3. People are happier with their choice

Far from providing lots of choice, you should start limiting your choice.

Reducing choice for buyers

One way of presenting lots of choices but in a limited way is to categorise. Human beings are programmed to love categories. Imagine you sell coffee mugs. The first thing to do is to sort them into categories. You might have “large, medium and small”, for instance. People then click on one of those choices. They are then faced with more choices such as “round, straight or tapered”. Again, they click on their choice to be presented with another selection, perhaps “white, bright, pastel” – and so on. In other words you let people make increasingly narrow choices.

The alternative is to have a web page which shows the 250 kinds of mugs you sell. The result is confusion and a focus on the negatives, together with associated delay in decision-making. For all its brilliance, Amazon would sell a lot more if it limited our choices.

Real world shops do this all the time, without us realising. Imagine you are going into a furniture store to buy a new dining room table. The store does not present you with everything it has on offer, waiting for you to search around all the items. Instead the store is divided into clear regions – lounge furniture, kitchen furniture, bedroom furniture and so on. You ignore all of those and head straight to the dining room area. But even within that area the store will have “zoned” things into simple choices. They may have divided it up into regions according to type of wood, or size of tables, for example. Either way your mind focuses on your choice. Then once you are in the tiny corner of the store that applies to you, you select a purchase from the small number of items. Real world stores funnel you into what you want using simple choices down an imaginary mental pathway. Online stores say “here’s everything, you sort it for yourself”.

Figures out today suggest that ecommerce growth is not as substantial as we think. Perhaps it is because online stores are offering us too much. We simply cannot make a decision when faced with multiple choices. Worse still for online businesses, even if people do buy from your massive choice, they are more likely to be disappointed than if you offered them fewer things. And that brings up a whole new area to worry about – the negative word of mouth it will lead to on social media. If you don’t want that to happen, do not offer your customers so much. And if you do have a lot to offer, categorise it and push people down pathways to reach what they want, rather than letting them search your site.

Categories: Internet Psychology


Weekend work no longer an option

Online social media usage at its highest when business activity is at its lowest

The typical business working week is from Monday morning to Friday afternoon. Even in these days of 24/7 living, most businesses work a standard 40-hour week. In fact, many work less with a “dress down Friday” leading to a more relaxed day, often with people leaving early to “get home for the weekend”. It seems that many businesses only work four days a week…!

Meanwhile, of course, the Internet is alive and well 24 hours a day 365 days a year. Even if you are not in the office or working from your mobile, people are still visiting your website, buying things from you or sending you emails. While you sleep, your business is active on the Internet.

New research, however, suggests there is a mismatch between what businesses do and what their customers or potential clients do. Most Retweets happen on a Sunday, when most businesses do not take part in social media. Indeed, as the working week progresses businesses do more and more social media activity as their customers do less. Then once the weekend begins, customers do more and more social media while businesses do dramatically less.

Graph showing daily Twitter activity

The research shows that the wider public are more active on social media during the weekends, when businesses are at their least active. Much of this could be due to people “catching up” – they were busy themselves working during the week and can only do their social media activity when they have time on a Saturday or Sunday. However, this somewhat misses the point about “social” media.

How can a business be “social” with its customers when it is not present?

Customers expect you to be able to respond to Tweets, to thank them for Retweets, for instance. Or they expect you to be able to answer questions raised on your Facebook page. Waiting until Monday to deal with these issues might seem OK to a business, but the problem is that by Monday, those customers have largely disappeared from your social activity, only to resurface the next weekend.

A study of the Fortune 500 firms a few years ago found that those which engaged “real-time” had an increase in company value over a year, but companies that failed to engage in real-time actually lost value. Firms that were engaging “real-time” had an average 3% increase in stock value over the 12 months of the study; companies that did not engage with the market in “real-time” had an average share price loss of 2%.

Yet in spite of this data, most businesses still stick to the traditional Monday to Friday, 9 to 5.

Customers are not doing this. They want to engage with your business on a Sunday, for instance. The decision for businesses is not how to get more Twitter followers, but how to change working practices so they truly become a 24/7 company enabling real engagement with their customers.

Categories: Online Business


No wonder the retail sector is in a mess

Offline and online retail is in a muddle

Shopping is socialThe retail industry is fond of statistics. They love telling us that “like for like” sales are up. Or they love quoting the “fact” that growth has risen year on year. They even love telling us that this month we spent more than last month. The problem with statistics is that they can say one thing, whilst meaning another. Furthermore, retailers appear to be fond of quoting statistics rather selectively. And it is not only them, the media tells us that retail is booming, when actually it might not be.

For instance, earlier this month we were told that UK retails sales had hit an eight month low at the same time as being told that they had accelerated. Technically, of course, these two articles are correct; one month of “acceleration” can still happen even if over the previous eight months sales were down. In other words, we have to be very careful about what we read on retail – the complete picture is not always correct.

People watching helps analyse things

Watching people as they shop is part of consumer psychology. And when you watch people shopping in the real world bricks and mortar stores, it doesn’t always tally with what the retail statistics tell you. The other day, for instance, I stood in the middle of Oxford at 2.30pm on a weekday afternoon. I counted 100 people walking in one street. Only two of them carried any shopping bags. I then went to another street and counted a further 100 people, of which only three had any shopping bags. I then went into a shopping centre and counted 100 people and only one of them had a shopping bag. Out of 300 people in a busy retail area only six had any shopping -and three of them were supermarket bags.

Retailers might have relatively high footfall – another figure they like quoting – but if people walk into your shop, look around and do not buy anything, that’s a “#fail”. Most of the people I saw were not buying anything. Most of their activity was social. Indeed, the only places with queues were coffee shops.

Where is the growth?

This year in the UK the amount of what we buy from retailers has fallen. But the value of what we buy has risen. Retailers can point to increased money in their tills – but that has only happened because of rising prices. We are buying fewer items from retailers but paying them more.

Some big retailers, though, can point to volume growth. They can legitimately say that the amount of stuff bought from them has risen. But what they do not then like saying is that almost all of that increase has come from their website. Almost all the growth in the UK retail market is happening online. And that is causing a problem for offline retailers in bricks and mortar stores.

The real issue for bricks and mortar retailers

Online stores are convenient, true. But so are real world stores. You can nip out of the office, stroll down the street, buy what you need and take it back to the office with you, for example. You might be able to order online from your desk, but you then have to wait 24 hours to get the item. That is often more inconvenient. Saying that online is convenient misses the point that real world shopping is also frequently highly convenient.

The problem for real world retailers is that online retailing has changed behaviour and expectations. You can “walk in” to most online retailers and within moments find exactly what you want. The ease with which you can find things is speedy, the range available is wide and checking out is easy and quick. That means nowadays when we walk in to a real world store we expect to find things easily, to have a wide range and to pay quickly.

A little test

So, I put this to the test and pretended I was going clothes shopping in three different retailers – Debenhams, Marks and Spencer and Primark. Would these stores make it easy to find things, have a good range and make checkout quick and easy? I went to these company’s stores in three different towns.

My cursory findings did not impress me. Each of the six stores showed differences from one town to the next. There was no consistency between the way things were displayed, the range available or the way you could pay. Indeed in Primark in Reading they have completely hidden the checkouts behind a massive set of pillars at the back of the store; it is as though they do not want you to pay. Meanwhile, in Marks and Spencer they appear to think that the world is made up of people who are not the average size. The UK average waist size for men is 38 inches. So you would expect clothing in these stores to reflect that with half of their items available below that average and half above. Not true, something like 80% of the sizes available are below the average waist size. Not to be sexist, I checked some women’s clothes racks too, only to find that the majority on sale were below average dress size. In other words, the range of items stocked in retail clothing stores doesn’t, at first glance, to represent what people actually want to buy.

Is it any wonder that bricks and mortar retailers are struggling against the competition even of their own websites? Their real world shops make it hard to find things, awkward to pay and do not have the range people want.

Until the bricks and mortar stores respond to the growing change in behaviour and expectation triggered by online shopping they will continue to lose out. That convenience of being able to nip down the road to a shop and get something now is being eroded all the time bricks and mortar retailers restrict ranges and make it hard to pay.

What it looks like is that bricks and mortar retailers have given up – they appear to be saying “we have lost to the Internet”. That’s why you find towns packed with people going to coffee shops but not carrying much shopping any more. They did that at home before they went out.

Categories: Retail

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What Windows 10 means for your website

Microsoft announcement has implications for your website

Windows 8 ScreenshotMicrosoft has announced the next version of its operating system, Windows, called “Windows 10″ – yes they are missing out entirely a version numbered “9”.  It is going to be another year before the product is available to consumers because more testing and development is required. But the announcement from Microsoft is revealing.

One of the significant features is the presence of the “Start Button”. When Windows 8 was launched, the “Start Button” was removed in favour of a swiping screen full of “tiles”.

Why did Microsoft do this? Well, they argued that they needed a system that worked on mobile devices as well as PCs. They also appeared to be reasoning that everyone was going to convert to using touch screens and that the days of the keyboard were numbered.  The tiles on Windows 8 were easy to swipe with your finger; the only problem was that most offices do not have touch screens. And even if they did, using them would need a wholesale shift in behaviour that is deeply embedded.

Windows 8 is used on less than one in five PCs. Hardly the success story that Microsoft had hoped for. Even Windows XP which the company no longer supports is used on almost twice as many computers.

It is all reminiscent of Windows Vista. That software has been named as one of the greatest technological flops of all time. Not only did it have severe hardware restrictions, causing people to upgrade PCs and peripherals costing lost of cash, but it also changed the way the PC interface worked. Windows 7 – still the most popular operating system – had to reverse the flaws of Vista, giving people back the kind of operating system they were used to.

You would have thought that Microsoft had learned its lesson. Clearly not. Here we are, eight years on from the Vista fiasco with Windows 10 clearly taking users back to something more familiar and user-friendly than Windows 8. Microsoft appears intent on change for change sake, but users are comfortable with the familiar.

Lesson for your website

This is an important lesson for your website. People prefer stability; they favour the familiar. When you try to change things, when you take away the comfortable, they do not like it. They want the past back.

This doesn’t mean you cannot introduce new things. But it does mean they have to run in familiar ways. The most successful apps on smartphones, for instance, all work in the same way. They have menus and settings in the same place. They use finger swipes in the same way. They don’t try to do things differently. Some do – we have probably never heard of them. People reject them.

Microsoft ought to have learned that the familiar is important to usability.

That is an important lesson for web design. If you try to change the familiar design of menus across the top, contact information at the bottom, and other standard design features you make your website less usable because it lacks familiarity. Designers will, like Microsoft, want you to be different. But different means unusable. Imagine if every car manufacturer in the world had different ways of steering the car. There is no need for a steering wheel – there are dozens of alternative ways of making the wheels turn. But it is the familiarity of the steering wheel that makes cars usable. We can get into any car in the world and use it.

You can’t get on to any PC in the world and use it because there is a one-in-five chance it will be running the tiled version of Windows 8 and you won’t know where to go or what to do. Windows 8 tried to change behaviour, which was its fundamental flaw.

If you use odd design on your website, you too are trying to change behaviour. It might mean that you have to put up with what you consider to be a boring website because it is “the same” as every other site. But it is this familiarity and “sameness” that makes it so usable. Far from trying to be different, the more you stay the same the better.

Categories: Online Business


Is email marketing successful or just plain easy?

Email marketing continues to be the “number one” – but why?

Email marketing is constantly being rated as the “number one” method of marketing by online marketers. There are dozens of surveys and studies which show that marketers rate email marketing as their most successful method of gaining business. There is plenty of research which shows that email marketing generates more sales and more leads than other forms of internet marketing.

However, a new study shows an interesting twist to this long-held belief. It turns out that marketers rate email marketing as the easiest form of marketing.

Graph showing that email marketing is considered to be easy

This suggests that there is a vast amount of email marketing going on simply because marketers find it easy to do. And with large volumes of email marketing happening you are likely to find it is more successful than other forms of digital marketing, simply because of the impact of the volume.

Marketers rate social media as the most difficult form of online marketing that they do. They rate this as their fourth most effective kind of marketing.

When you consider other elements of marketing which they also find difficult, such as SMS marketing or marketing through ecommerce channels, you can see that things rated as more difficult tend to be rated as less effective.

This suggests that people may be finding data that confirms their beliefs. They believe email marketing to be easy and so the data they find backs up it is successful. In other words, people tend to find what they are looking for,

Independent analysis, by firms such as HubSpot, shows that content marketing is by far the single most successful online method of generating sales. Yet, marketers believe this is one of the least successful elements, behind email marketing, a website, SEO and social media. But they also rate it as one of the most difficult kinds of marketing they do. They don’t rate it as that successful because they find it hard to do.

What this data suggests is that email marketing might not be the “holy grail” it seems. It might just be that people find it easy and therefore reckon it is valuable.

Sometimes, a business benefits when you concentrate on the more difficult tasks, rather than the easy ones. Just because it is easy and it produces results, does not mean that email marketing is better than something else, such as content marketing which is more difficult to work with. Don’t let a marketing task’s difficulty fool you into believing it will not be successful. We might be being fooled into believing that email marketing is the most successful form of online marketing, when in reality what we are actually measuring is its ease of use.

Categories: Email

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