More choice equals freedom, right?
Well, yes, but there’s a good body of evidence that the more choices we are presented, the less happy we are with the one we make.
What does that mean for conversions, though? Retention? Revenue?
The Psychology of Choice
The most famous, and I believe the first, study that pointed to the adverse effects of choice was in 2000 and the subject was jam. Researchers found that more people purchased jam when there were less options available.
Since then, other studies have supported this phenomenon, with subjects ranging from chocolates to 401(k) plans. Most of them have supported the notion that more options debilitates consumers from making decisions.
Of course, Barry Schwartz gave the famous Ted Talk on choice (and wrote the book about it). Watch it if you haven’t already:
Schwartz summarized the negative sides of choice by two features:
- Analysis paralysis
- Buyer’s remorse
There’s also a third negative effect of excess choice, decision fatigue, that I’ll explain.
More choices can often lead to a worse user experience.
Especially for CTAs, more is not better. It’s become a cliche by now in marketing to judge pieces of content and landing pages by their “one call to action,” and for good reason. The more options you give, the more you distract them from the desired goal.
Here’s a good example from MarketingSherpa. To begin developing a testing culture, WhirlPool started small: they tested some simple changes in an email campaign. Here was their original:
Here was their treatment:
So they basically just went minimal and eliminated all of the secondary CTAs and photographs. The result? The treatment with the single, focused CTA achieved a 42% increase in clicks for Whirlpool.
Generally, the more choices you have, the worse you feel after you buy. Why? Because your standards have been raised, and now all you can think about is how much better the other options may have been. This New Yorker cartoon illustrates the phenomenon well:
“What’s more, psychologists and business academics alike have largely ignored another outcome of choice: More of it requires increased time and effort and can lead to anxiety, regret, excessively high expectations, and self-blame if the choices don’t work out. When the number of available options is small, these costs are negligible, but the costs grow with the number of options. Eventually, each new option makes us feel worse off than we did before.”
Have you noticed that figures like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg wear the same clothes day after day? Do you know why they do this?
It’s because they know they have important decisions to make, and they don’t want to sap their energy with that which is trivial.
Ego-depletion is a real thing. Willpower is a finite resource. The more decisions we must make in a day, the faster it drains.
That’s one reason why, when making diet changes, you should keep the cheetos out of your cupboard. Every time you see that glorious orange bag, you have to make the conscious and difficult decision not to tear into it and satiate your hunger. At the end of a long day filled with tough decisions, you might not have the willpower necessary to make that healthy decision.
This is also known as decision fatigue, and it’s often the cause for our crappy decision making.
While this doesn’t necessarily apply directly conversion optimization, know that the more trivial choices you, as a human, make, the worse you are for it. Limit trivial decisions, and you’ll save energy for important ones.
When Reducing Options Increases Sales
One compelling example he gave was of a large retailer of office supplies that reduced the number of options offered in its print catalog in many product categories.
They did this, not to increase sales based on psychological research, but to save money on overhead (production and postage). They actually assumed the changes would reduce sales, but that’s not what happened at all. Instead, the company found that in every category in which the options were reduced, sales increased pretty drastically.
“The single biggest driver of stickiness, by far, was “decision simplicity”—the ease with which consumers can gather trustworthy information about a product and confidently and efficiently weigh their purchase options. What consumers want from marketers is, simply, simplicity.”
There are also compelling studies suggesting that having too many choices can stand in the way of achieving goals.
But what about online sales? Does having too many options really reduce conversions? Here are a few specific examples in which that is the case.
Here’s the big question: do social share buttons help (via social proof) or hurt (via distraction)?
The answer is yes. In different contexts, sometimes having social share buttons hurts, but sometimes it helps. Here’s one from VWO that shows support for eliminating social share buttons:
Keep in mind this is one case study. We don’t know the full numbers. Could’ve been a poorly run test, we don’t know. Also, there’s no real way to tell why this happened. Could’ve been distraction, but it also could have been negative social proof due to low share counts.
A clearer fix to make is to simplify your existing share counts. Do you need to display every single social network? Probably not. Chop most of them out, leave the most impactful, and then give a button for further sharing options.
- The fewer CTAs the better, even when it comes to social sharing.
- Instead of giving every social option, list 2-3 of the most important/impactful ones and then give an option for other sharing.
- Experiment with excluding social share buttons on certain pages. Brian Massey has recommended leaving them for the thank you pages/after the conversion.
I’ve already outlined an example above on the power of simplicity in email marketing, where WhirlPool increased conversions by decreasing options. While email marketing is still an effective way to reach customers, we’re busy and have short attention spans. Simplicity allows a core message to break through the clutter, instead of adding to it.
Try to have one goal for each email, or at least one desired action for the customer to take. Segmentation and personalization help with this. Here’s an example from Indochino:
They shoot this email to you right after you buy a suit, so it’s personalized based on the product you choose. The choices are limited to 3 shirts that would look good with your suit. It’s simple and the action is intuitive.
Chubbies does something similar, often sending you a free gift with your next purchase after you buy something. It’s simple, and the code is the call to action for your next purchase:
Bonobos is always good at getting me to click (and spend) too. Simple, with one call to action (and some urgency):
SaaS Pricing Options
It’s common to offer three pricing levels. Some companies offer many more, some less, but 3 is by far the most common. Small, medium, large. But is this always best?
Ash Maurya tested the common assumptions by setting up an experiment with four pricing variations.
The results? Version 3 had the highest conversion rate, but quite a bit of churn as well. The highest revenue increase, the overall winner, went to version 1 (the simplest option).
Similarly, VWO published a study Lyyti.com simplified their pricing page to from four columns to three. They didn’t actually eliminate any pricing tiers – instead, they better categorized the features and allowed you to select a free trial on any of the plans.
The variation ended up increasing visits to their ‘free trial’ page by 93.71%:
Choice Can Be a Good Thing, Too
I’ve read so many blog posts with anecdotes of being overwhelmed by choice. Whether shopping for ice cream, toothpaste or shampoo, for the sake of narrative, everyone hints that they thought about walking out of the store without buying because of the overwhelm (bouncing). But did they buy the shampoo? You bet they did.
Also, I’ll go on record and say that I’ve never once left an ice cream shop because there were too many choices, hard as it may have been to decide.
Then there are infographics, like this one from QuickSprout, that somehow offer prescriptive numbers on exactly how many conversions you’ll lose if you add whatever type of form field, nevermind the context:
While it’s based a little bit in the psychology of choice, it’s still pretty silly to reduce nuanced and complex to this.
Choice doesn’t always kill conversion rates, and there are even some case studies that back this up.
MarketingExperiments wrote about one such incident when they were optimizing a form. As is common, they hypothesized that reducing options on a form would increase conversion rate:
The control had four choices for the subscription option, plus an option to choose your desired subscription length (monthly, six month, or one year).
Treatment, everything was the same except they removed the option to choose the subscription length, making it an auto-renewing monthly subscriptions.
The treatment, the one with less options, tanked conversions by nearly 40%.
That could be for a number of reasons. They chalked it up to the fact that “people find a lot of value in the ability to compare prices and look at options they may never be truly interested in.”
Who knows? Either way, sometimes having choices is a good thing for the customer and for your bottom line.
Sometimes, More Is More
Despite the substantial amount of papers and blog posts proselytizing the dangers of too many options, The Atlantic published an alternative take on the subject. As they aptly put it:
“Sometimes, they concluded, too many options repel us. The researchers called it ‘the paradox of choice.’ You might call it ‘feeling overwhelmed by options.’ But some economists are calling it something else: ‘complete hogwash.’”
Less isn’t always more, they concluded. Sometimes, more is more.
Some of the evidence they cite to back this up includes arguments of Starbucks’ 87,000 drink combinations and grocery stores’ multitudes of toothpaste and shampoo. You’d think, they argue, that these companies aren’t just blindly enacting these strategies.
Another piece of evidence is that a few researchers tried to reenact the jam experiment, but couldn’t. As the Financial Times explained:
“The average of all these studies suggests that offering lots of extra choices seems to make no important difference either way. There seem to be circumstances where choice is counterproductive but, despite looking hard for them, we don’t yet know much about what they are.”
Single Option Aversion
The Atlantic also referred to a study by Daniel Mochon on “Single Option Aversion.”
Basically, when Mochon offered DVD players to participants, 9% said they’d buy a Sony model. However, when he also offered a Philips DVD player, the number that opted to buy a Sony model went up to 32%. The presence of another option drastically increased willingness to buy.
He also replicated his findings with TVs and donations.
Here’s The Atlantic’s summary to this research:
“In a sentence, when shoppers are given a take-it-or-leave it option, it makes them more interested in searching for comparisons. The paradox of choice theory assumes that too many similar options — e.g.: multiple varieties of Belgian dark chocolates, or many kinds of jam with strawberry as a main ingredient — confuse what we’re really looking for. But Mochon suggests that similar options heighten distinctions and make us more certain about our final choice.”
Something to think about with SaaS pricing.
Now here’s a phenomenon that is a bit contrary to the ‘buyer’s remorse’ findings above: Choice-supportive bias.
Our mind has this excellent ability to perform mental gymnastics, tricking us into believing things that aren’t objectively true. After all, we’re not necessarily rational creatures.
Choice-supportive bias is defined as “the tendency to retroactively ascribe positive attributes to an option one has selected.”
It makes us feel good about our choices, no matter the evidence to the contrary. In a blog post on the subject, conversion expert Jeremy Smith gave some great examples of this bias:
“Once you recognize it, you begin to see it in all kinds of places:
- You voted for Bush. You don’t think about the negative things. You think about the positive things.
- You voted for Obama. And you don’t think about the bad things that have happened during his presidency. Only positive
- You choose a faith. And you tend to ignore some of the less-than-favorable aspects of its history.
- You choose to buy a house. And you try not to dwell on the fact that it’s a bad investment.
- You pick a car. And you tend to try not to believe that it’s actually a lemon.
In many cases (not all) the brain tries to support its choice. The brain has a built-in cognitive bias to support strongly any choice that it made.
Thus, we have the choice supportive bias.”
The evidence suggesting that more choices equals more regret and self-blame is pretty strong, but remember that humans are excellent post-decision rationalizers too.
So a study comes out in the year 2000 and flips the idea of choice on its head. Since then, “more choice = worse sales” has been accepted dogmatically by most, and refuted by some.
The too-much-choice thing does happen. It just doesn’t happen all the time. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t solid support for the phenomenon, and it definitely doesn’t mean we should throw the insights away, as some publications have suggested.
The trick here, as usual, is to find a middle ground. The “sweet spot,” as Barry Schwartz called it, that allows people to benefit from a large variety but not be paralyzed by it.
“Does choice overload always occur? Of course not. Does it affect all people, in all domains of decision making? Of course not. Does it matter how options are organized and arrayed? By all means, yes. Does adding options improve decision making by making salient features of alternatives that might otherwise be ignored? Sometimes, yes. But sometimes it has a perverse effect, by making salient features of options that ought to be ignored.”
Some possible takeaways for conversion optimization:
- Try to define one goal per page, one call-to-action, one desired action from visitors. Eliminate things that distract from that goal.
- Limit social sharing buttons to a few impactful networks.
- Make emails simple, personal, relevant, and decluttered.
- Try to reduce items per page on ecommerce category pages. We’ve had clients for whom this has worked well.
- Don’t always assume that less choice is better. Sometimes it works on some people, but then again, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you should offer multiple pricing tiers and options. It’s all contextual.
All in all, the science of choice is still not a finished story. More research will be done in the coming years, so for now, seek to understand your users and the optimal amount of choice for them.
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