How Hard is Choice, Really?

(Note: this is a re-post from when I wrote for Beyond Madison Avenue).

If you have been loyal readers of ours for the past few years (first, thank you!), you would know that we thoroughly enjoy the times when marketing and other realms of thought intersect. Marketing and advertising are fields that we wholeheartedly believe generalists excel in, for it is imperative to know a little bit about everything to be successful.

Knowing only what makes a catchy ad or how to write well cannot be the only prerequisites. Knowing about economics, sociology, psychology, and even philosophy can help the marketing professional increase their professional lifespan.

The topic of today’s post comes from a TED talk done by philosopher Ruth Chang, and it deals with choice.

If we boil down advertising into its frame, the goal is to get the consumer to choose our good or service over several options: 1) the consumer creating a solution on their own, 2) going to a competitor, 3) going to a substitute, or 4) doing nothing. Brands and advertisers compete against those choices every time the consumer begins to notice a want or need they have.

Many times in life, the consumer faces easy choices and hard choices. In marketing education, those processes are called extensive decision-making (hard choice) or routine decision-making (easy choice).

Ms. Chang identified choices as easy if one alternative had clearly better options or outcomes than the other and hard if one alternative was better in some ways but the other alternative was better in others. Chang also brought up the point that if a choice is hard, we can sometimes rely on unreasonable tactics like fear to default to the path of least resistance (PLR), so a hard choice can be avoided.

Chang noted that people (or, in our jargon, consumers) have the wonderful power to create reasons for why we make the decisions we do, and we can turn an easy decision into a hard one, or a hard decision into something fairly easy. When behavioral and marketing scientists study actions of consumers and perceived instances of cognitive dissonance, they see that consumers may create reasons justifying why certain things were bought and why they were acting certain ways.

How hard is choice? In truth, it depends on how hard consumers choose to make it. Humans have the uncanny ability to choose to be irrational, meaning going against a scientifically or socially superior decision, and create a reason that trumps it. Absolutely remarkable.

What does this have to do with advertising? A lot, actually. That is why taught and seasoned professionals know the difference between rationally and emotionally driven messaging. That’s why we research to find out what drives consumers to choose the things they do, and document how they came to those conclusions. That is why we should also look at why certain goods and services weren’t chosen over the products we provide. Then we compile the data and choose to reinforce the consumer’s choice if it went our way, or persuade the consumer to consider a different route if we were left in the cold.

The bottom line is this: The mass marketing theory can officially be archived. We need to engage consumers to know how they make choices in order to be a part of the process. If consumers can create reasons to love a brand, we might as well have messaging and content out there to help.


What is the ‘Sleeper Effect’, And How Can Marketers Leverage It?

The Importance of the Message

Simply put, we are in the business of persuasion. If we do not inform and persuade consumers or businesses or buy our goods and services, we are failing at our job as advertisers and marketers.

As communications professionals, we hold ‘the message’ in high regard. Public relations practitioners meticulously put together press releases and media advisories. Investor relations professionals spend hours putting together annual reports that contain the exact word or phrase they are looking for, so as to keep shareholders calm and happy about the performance of the business. Advertisers and marketers spend large amounts of resources to create the right ad or brochure that will catch the consumer’s eye and start the decision-making process.

While all these parties dedicate time and energy to ‘the message’, it is even more important to know the latest research about messaging and credibility.

The ‘Sleeper Effect’

Some professors of psychology out of the University of Illinois decided to look at the “sleeper effect” when it came to communications. The Sleeper Effect, as it was commonly defined, happens when a strong message or argument is delivered by a non credible source, that the persuasiveness of the message grows over time. The audience would discount the message early due to the source. But research shows that over time, the audience remembers the strong message more, and pays less attention to the source.

Very interesting concept! If the professors already knew that, then what else needed to be studied?

They wanted to know if the opposite was true: what if a credible source delivered a weak argument? Is the ‘sleeper effect’ still present?

The researchers ran the study, and the results suggested the affirmative- yes, a weak message can benefit from the sleeper effect if it came from a credible source, a source that the audience would readily believe.

The Implications

Why is this a big deal? We always knew that we needed a strong brand, and that strong brands needed strong messaging to not only keep customers, but to continue to win customers over. This study suggests that we need to pay additional attention to the “carryover” of our messaging to see how our messages affect consumers over time.

Example: Let’s say Brand A is a very strong brand. It decides to try a new message or slogan as it attempts to reposition a product. As the campaign develops, the team sees that the message isn’t as strong as they previously believed.

Now, what should these marketers do? If they did what every other marketing team does these days, they would immediately scrap the campaign. However, if we examine the results of this study, one should hesitate to immediately change course. If Brand A has a strong brand and established brand loyalty with a core group of customers, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say to wait out the initial results, continue the messaging, and watch the ‘sleeper effect’ run its course.

As fast as the business environment likes to work, this suggestion would be incredibly hard to implement. But, if the results of this study can be replicated, it is definitely something to think about.


Do More Outlets Promote Brand Recall?

As time passes, consumers are given additional ways to gather and analyze information about the world around them. The media landscape continues to change, and it seems that the final version of media ‘as we know it’ has yet to arrive.

AdLand is not the only industry having this conversation and dealing with the difficulty this transformation is bringing. Our industry cousin- the news industry- is facing similar issues.

The overall questions that we both aim to answer is if additional outlets of information actually make consumers more informed. If people are able to get news from newspapers, TV, radio, Twitter, Facebook, FlipBoard, podcasts and online TV, do they become more informed than those in the past? Likewise, if consumers can get product information and advertising some all those same outlets, will they be more apt to brand recall if we assume that we place our ads across the board?

Let’s first address the news dilemma.

There have been multiple studies done across the nation about the rate of news consumption, and how people feel about being informed. The results have been interesting. One study highlighted in the Freakonomics podcast “Why Do We Really Follow the News” suggested that the increased amount of outlets didn’t help create more informed people- it actually helped those news consumers to be able to weed out the outlets they didn’t like in order to focus mainly on the outlets that affirmed their views.

In short, people searched for outlets that supported their views and opinions.

If people search for outlets that support their views, and brands are repeatedly showing their face in those same outlets, shouldn’t the brand recall be positive?

As always, it depends.

As brands determine which outlets to use and how often to use them, we have to really take our consumer’s behaviors into account. If they are extremely active, and see our brand ALL the time, we could trigger brand fatigue and create the opposite effect- they may try to search for different brands.

The outlets should depend on the topics and issues being covered. If they are reading about mudslides in the areas tearing apart homes and communities, advertising your “MudRun 5K” might not be the best idea. But if your client is an insurance provider and offer 24/7 free consultation, that might be worth adding that to the programmatic campaign.

Do multiple outlets promote brand recall? In short, it is highly possible. If done right it can bode well for the brand. If done poorly, it can be a waste of money and could actually damage the brand equity one has already built.


“Desirable Difficulty” And Why We Should Care

First, what does the phrase, “desirable difficulty” even mean?

The phrase comes from the education and psychology world. It suggests that if we make encoding, that is, interpreting information from one form into another, a little harder for the learner, then the learner will force themselves to start processes in their brains that will encourage long-term retention and learning.

It makes sense. We as humans tend to remember concepts that we really worked hard on; items and information we struggled to retain or learn but finally ‘getting it’.

Sure, this is important for teachers and psychologists to know, but why do we as marketing professionals bring this up?

It’s simple- it deals with consumer behavior.

When businesses and brands prepare something new for consumers, the common thought is to make it as simple and easy as possible. The easier the consumer can understand and use the product, the better product adoption is going to be.

And in a sense, that’s true. But we argue, though adoption for a simple and easy product is good, we believe that adding a little bit of difficulty to ‘product mastery’ could possibly increase the brand’s chances of creating loyal customers.

How so?

An easy and simple product doesn’t provide any real reason for the consumer to continue to use the product. Yes, it lowers the switching costs and risks for the consumer, but it doesn’t instill any real ownership or work for the consumer to consider the easy and simple product as valuable.

But, imagine if the product or brand made it just a little difficult for the consumer to use the product, getting the consumer to think about how to get the full use of it. Not too hard for the consumer to opt for the Path of Least Resistance route, but hard enough to create the ‘Ikea Effect’ Dan Ariely and other behavioral economists have discussed in detail.

Some examples for adding Desirable Difficulty-

-Making the consumer put the product together
-Having the consumer go through a series of steps to activate the product
-Forcing the consumer to give the product a name, label or number
-Having the consumer pass a test or tutorial before using (short, 3-5 question quiz)
-Intentionally making the UX a little hard to navigate

Should all brands and products do this? By no means. Commodities cannot survive with this strategy, but some products, especially in the digital and mobile realm, could reap significant results with this strategy.

Just something to think about.