Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Funnel Love

I'm not much of an email guy, but the one newsletter that I really like comes from Jetsetter. The travel site's special focus is big, beautiful images: they can make a hotel room look so delicious, you want to lick the screen. I've been a fan of Jetsetter for years now, but I've never booked a trip through their site. Their content succeeded with me—it engaged and informed, and it built my appreciation of their brand—but it also failed to convert me into a paying customer.

Why is that? The answer is in the sales funnel.

Whether you're talking about the process of buying a car or the logic behind an infomercial pitch, there is a "sales funnel" that describes the stages customers go through on the way to making a purchase. Different people assign different names to different stages in that process, but by and large it all boils down to the following:

Awareness --> Desire --> Evaluation --> Commitment

First you need to know the product exists. Then you need to want it. Then you need to ask yourself whether you're making the right decision. Finally, you're all in: you make the purchase.

Jetsetter, like many other online marketers, loses the sale because they skip steps in the process. Jetsetter wants me to jump from liking the photo (awareness and the beginning of desire) straight into booking the trip (commitment). That leaves out evaluation, though, and I'm not going to spend thousands of dollars on a trip without first evaluating my options. On some level, Jetsetter is aware of this, and they try to compensate by offering limited-time offers ("sale expires in 5 hours") to force me to commitment. I'm sure that works with some customers, but not me.

What you need to understand is your customers will go through every stage in the sales funnel, whether or not you assist them in that process. If your site doesn't help with one of the stages, they'll go somewhere else to perform that stage; when they're done, maybe they'll come back to your site, and maybe they won't.

Respect the funnel, and give your customers the time they need to make a decision. If you try to hurry the process, you might just be driving them to a competitor.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Cognitive Biases and You: Confirmation Bias

This is one in a series of posts on cognitive biases and how they apply to digital content and strategy. If you'd like to learn more about the thinking and experimental work behind these theories, I highly recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. 

Confirmation bias is one of the most common and pervasive cognitive biases you're likely to see. It is the human tendency to preferentially accept information that appears to confirm already-held beliefs, and question evidence that calls those beliefs into question. Confirmation bias is particularly evident in the context of controversy. If you believe that something is true, and I appear with evidence that you're wrong, you're much more likely to question my evidence (or my motives in presenting it) than you are to change your mind.

For an extended (and passionate) presentation on confirmation bias and its effect on American history and politics, see The Political Brain, by Drew Westen. As Westen documents, confirmation bias played a significant role in presidential politics over the past 30 years. Westen also draws on behavioral research to provide the solution: confirmation bias is evoked when you confront a difference of opinion with evidence. The way past it is first to establish an emotional connection with your audience.

For example: let's say that you're developing content for an environmental activist organization. You have a set of content on global warming, and you're not interested in preaching to the choir. You want to convince global warming skeptics, but how do you go about that? If you present facts and figures, Westen argues, you will get nowhere. Your skeptical readers will believe that you're cherry-picking your data, or even that you're quoting from studies that were drawn up in service of a conspiracy.

Instead, you need to begin by connecting with your readers. Think emotional themes: the welfare of our children, our shared hope for the future, the beauty of growing things. Open with this content to establish a set of values you share with your readers, the skeptics included. Then, from there, you move on to aspects of your argument. Westen argues that you can make an evidence-based argument, but not right away. Opening with inspiration and closing with evidence gives you the best chance of success.

One last thing about confirmation bias: it applies to everyone, you and me included, but it's far easier to spot in others than it is in ourselves. It might be worth asking where your own confirmation biases lie—those are the places where your own thinking breaks down.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Cognitive Biases and You: The Bandwagon Effect

This is one in a series of posts on cognitive biases and how they apply to digital content and strategy. If you'd like to learn more about the thinking and experimental work behind these theories, I highly recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. 

The bandwagon effect is a mental heuristic with an unusually self-explanatory name: it refers to the common human tendency to go along with the judgment of the people around us.
The general rule is that conduct or beliefs spread among people, as fads and trends clearly do, with the probability of any individual adopting it increasing with the proportion who have already done so. As more people come to believe in something, others also "hop on the bandwagon" regardless of the underlying evidence.
An excellent example of the bandwagon effect is the iPhone app store, where the vast majority of the money is earned by a very small fraction of available apps. We like the songs that other people like, we go to the restaurants that are already popular, and we buy products that we've seen other people using.

Heuristics exist for a reason: they're convenient rules of thumb that allow us to make quick decisions when it will take too much time or effort to reach a more well-considered decision. The modern world presents us with a bewildering array of choices, and in most circumstances there's not enough information ready at hand to decide which of our choices are best. When you go to the store and are confronted with 15 varieties of peanut butter, you're probably not going to set time aside to research your options. You'll buy a brand that you recognize because the fact that it's already popular insulates you against the possibility that it's a really terrible brand of peanut butter. It might not be excellent, but it will probably be OK, and sometimes that's all we need.

The implications of the bandwagon effect on digital strategy are profound. First, be aware that, in the presence of multiple options, your customers or readers will look for social indicators about which choice to make. If you have a "most popular" list on your site, that will strongly affect user behavior.

When you're selling a product online, the bandwagon effect shows up in user ratings. Whether or not you list ratings of the product you sell, you can expect customers to find ratings somewhere and rely on them in making the choice of which product to buy. If there are no ratings, your customer will feel vulnerable in making the choice to purchase your product and you must make some effort to reassure them.

In short, there's safety in numbers, and danger in their lack. Create confidence by letting your customers know that there's a large and happy community around the product that you're selling.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Cognitive Biases and You: The Availability Heuristic

This is one in a series of posts on cognitive biases and how they apply to digital content and strategy. If you'd like to learn more about the thinking and experimental work behind these theories, I highly recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. 
The availability heuristic is "a mental shortcut that occurs when people make judgments about the probability of events by how easy it is to think of examples." When the news media report night after night on incidents of violent crime, the public comes to believe that crime is on the rise even when actual crime rates are falling. Similarly, the likelihood that you will refuse to go scuba diving in Hawaii is a function of how easy it is to remember stories about shark attacks.

The availability heuristic also has a social dimension: the easier it is to think of someone within your circle who believes in something, the more likely you are to believe it as well. When you market to a tribe, building a strong relationship with one member of that tribe has an indirect impact on every other member.

This heuristic has a very strong "what have you done for me lately" aspect. If your brand has been in the market for a number of years, your customers have a series of mental associations with that brand, but the most recent associations are the ones that will most easily be recalled. If you lie to them tomorrow, it won't matter that you spent twenty years telling the truth; they'll more easily remember the lie and be disproportionately affected by that one incident. Conversely, it's never too late to do the right thing. You can resuscitate a brand by giving your customers a new set of positive experiences.

When it comes to content strategy, the availability heuristic means that you're not just dealing with your content and the claims it makes, you're also dealing with whatever happens to be resident in your customers' memory. You can be a passive victim of that, or you can engage with it. Are you asking them to overcome a challenge, such as get into better shape? If so, prime their short-term memory by asking them to recall incidents in which they faced challenges and succeeded in the past. Then, when you later hit them with the call to action, you've helped them feel optimistic about their prospects.

In short, the availability heuristic suggests a small revision to Nike's famous tagline:

"Remember how you did it? Just do it again."

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Cognitive Biases and You: The Anchoring Effect

This is one in a series of posts on cognitive biases and how they apply to digital content and strategy. If you'd like to learn more about the thinking and experimental work behind these theories, I highly recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. 

The anchoring effect should be familiar to anyone who's been on the wrong side of a low-ball offer. This cognitive bias refers to the terrible, irresistible effects of the opening bid (or offer, or estimate) on subsequent attempts to find the correct value of something.
Anchoring or focalism is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the "anchor") when making decisions. During decision making, anchoring occurs when individuals use an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgments. Once an anchor is set, other judgments are made by adjusting away from that anchor, and there is a bias toward interpreting other information around the anchor. For example, the initial price offered for a used car sets the standard for the rest of the negotiations, so that prices lower than the initial price seem more reasonable even if they are still higher than what the car is really worth.
You may have run into this when negotiating the salary for your current job. If you allowed your employer to make the opening offer, and if that offer was quite a bit too low, there's an excellent chance that you settled for too little money even if you were happy with the ultimate offer. In one famous study, participants were asked to estimate a number they had no reason to know off-hand: the percentage of countries in the U.N. that are African. Before they submitted their guess, they watched a roulette wheel stop at a number; the wheel was set to stop on either 10 or 65. Participants who saw the wheel stop on 10 submitted estimates that were, on average, 25% lower than participants who saw the wheel stop on 65.

The anchoring effect is powerful and unavoidable. Even if the participants are experts in the field they're quizzed on, they are affected by anchoring. Even if you tell participants about the anchoring effect, instruct them to correct for it, and offer a monetary reward if they succeed in doing so, they are still influenced by it.

In brief: numbers have a context. When we see a number, our first reaction is to compare it to another number, and the number we use for the comparison is whatever we already have in mind.

This has tremendous implications for your communications. If you are trying to communicate that a number is small (for instance, the price of your product), you need to be very careful not to introduce that number immediately after another number that is smaller. If you are trying to communicate that a number is large (for instance, the number of deaths from something that your non-profit is targeting), you cannot introduce that number after another that is larger.

It's easy to look at the anchoring effect and think that using it to your advantage is unethical. It smacks of the used car salesman or the hard-nosed negotiator who refuses to pay a fair price. That would be a mistake, though, because the anchoring effect is unavoidable. The anchoring effect is not a technique, it's a description of what will happen whether or not you choose to engage with it. If you're not consciously thinking about this effect, you're leaving things to chance, and your business/campaign/cause deserves better than that.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Cognitive Biases and You: The Ambiguity Effect

This is the first of a series of posts on cognitive biases and how they apply to digital content and strategy. If you'd like to learn more about the thinking and experimental work behind these theories, I highly recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. 

Whenever you build a site, write an article, film a video, or plan a campaign, the first thing you should be thinking about is your audience. Who are you trying to reach/persuade/convert/entertain? What do they want, and what is motivating them?

For a long time, economics was dominated by the rational actor theory, by which everyone is motivated to produce the best possible outcome for themselves. For just as long, economists and policy makers have been perplexed by peoples' stubborn insistence on not acting rationally. They smoke cigarettes in the full knowledge that it will hurt their health, they drink and drive, they eat unhealthy foods, and they have a bad habit of hanging with the wrong crowd rather than doing the things that will keep them healthy and happy throughout their lives.

The problem is that the rational actor is a mirage. None of us are calculating machines. We come into situations and make judgments as best we're able, but at the same time we're dealing with whatever emotional baggage our day has heaped upon us, we don't have all the evidence we might need, we're subject to social pressures, and so on.

We are not rational actors, and neither are the visitors to your website. The decisions they make on your site—the links they click, the videos they watch, the options they select—are not always rational, but they do follow certain rules or heuristics. One of these is the Ambiguity Effect.
The ambiguity effect is a cognitive bias where decision making is affected by a lack of information, or "ambiguity." The effect implies that people tend to select options for which the probability of a favorable outcome is known, over an option for which the probability of a favorable outcome is unknown.
Examples of the ambiguity effect include the Wall Street investor who favors low-risk investments that bring a more certain return over high risk/high reward alternatives (even if, over the long term, the safer investment is unlikely to bring a higher return), or the customer at an ice cream shop who always goes with chocolate because she knows she likes that flavor and is a little uncertain about the others. When we are presented with ambiguity, there's a cognitive cost in figuring out whether it's worth our while to jump off into the unknown. In many circumstances, we won't bother thinking it through. We'll simply opt for the more certain outcome, even if the other might have been better.

Consider the newspaper paywall. Just now I visited the online version of the Financial Times. I found an interesting article and clicked on the headline. I then immediately ran into the subscription screen. I certainly wasn't in the mood to sign up for one of the paying options. I hadn't even read a single article yet, the value was not clear to me. But I also felt reluctant to sign up for the free option. I have to hand over my email address; will they spam me? I'm allowed eight free articles per month; is this more than enough or will I run out? At the point of making my decision I don't have the answers to these questions—I am operating in the context of ambiguity—and this fills me with a somewhat irrational reluctance to sign up for any of the options. I close the window and return to my usual browsing habits.

So what are the positives that emerge from this situation?

  1. Clarity is possibly the most important element of your content strategy. If you want readers to click a link, make it extremely clear what's on the other side of that click. If you want them to sign up for a service, be extremely clear and succinct about what they get (and don't get). When the ambiguity effect comes into play, the more understandable of two options will win.
  2. Anything that produces even a hint of distrust is death. Use your digital platforms to present yourself and what you stand for with honesty, transparency, and authenticity. Give your customers a reason to trust you, and much of the ambiguity guiding their decisions will be dispelled.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The problem with post-mortems

If you've worked in a large-ish operation for any amount of time, you've almost certainly found yourself in a project post-mortem: a meeting in which the highs and lows of the project are dissected and examined, toward the goal of extracting lessons learned and doing things better the next time around.

If you've worked long enough to get a little cynical about the process, you've probably noticed that the lessons learned in post-mortem meetings almost never result in better process going forward. Generally speaking, no one in the meeting is responsible for taking the lessons and enacting them, and in most cases no one will have the authority to change organizational procedure even if they want to. As a result, the post-mortem meeting is almost always a well-intentioned failure. You may talk about good things, but you won't change much if at all.

The problem, ultimately, is one of memory. If you've ever studied a foreign language, you know that there are two types of memory: short-term and long-term. You can study vocabulary or verb conjugation and have pretty good recall 10 or 20 minutes later. Remembering the same material the next day is quite a bit harder, though, and remembering it a week, month, or year later is harder still. Knowing something now doesn't mean you'll know it later, when you need it.

Language students spend a lot of time struggling with this problem and slowly, methodically moving items from their short-term to their long-term memory. In grad school I had a flash card system that was my evolved solution to this problem: I would test, and re-test, and re-test myself again on vocabulary words at specific and carefully-chosen intervals until I could be confident that I had memorized them. It was sometimes time-consuming, but that was a lot better than not learning the material.

The post-mortem meeting is akin to taking the vocabulary card out of the box and looking at it once. That's a  start, but no one learns from that. Learning comes through repetition and review. Has any business collected and reviewed project insights in this way?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Hear the noise

Wired has a short article on how a software bug might have helped Deep Blue defeat Gary Kasparov in their famous match in 1997. The bug caused the computer program to choose a play at random; the play wasn't devastating in itself, but Kasparov was so flustered by how counter-intuitive it was that he was thrown off his game. Kasparov assumed that the move had an intellect behind it, and since the move didn't appear to make sense he assumed that the machine was looking very deeply into the game and seeing something sublime. He assigned a meaning to randomness and was dismayed at what that implied.

This is something we humans do all the time, and we're only occasionally aware of it. We see something in the world and construct a story that makes sense of that thing. We weave a narrative that includes character and motivation; only sometimes are we in the position of knowing whether our story actually makes sense.

Consider web analytics. You have pages and articles, clicks and time spent on page. From numbers your goal is to derive meaning: customer intent that is either frustrated or fulfilled by your site design. You isolate a feature -- your home page bounce rate, for instance -- and tell a story: we're disappointing our customers. You're never going to meet more than a handful of those site visitors, though, so the story you tell exists entirely in the realm of the hypothetical.

You do what you can to make things less hypothetical, of course. You aggregate numbers, for instance, and resist the urge to find too much meaning in smaller collections of clicks. But another feature of human intellect is we notice irregularity. The familiar, day-to-day rhythms of your life and your website soon cease to capture your intention. Instead, your eye is drawn to what's new and different, the things that you didn't expect. Like Kasparov, you obsess about what you can't understand. And, like Kasparov, you probably don't take the time to think that something that's inexplicable might simply lack a rational explanation.

There is noise in your signal. Practice the art of hearing the noise and not mistaking it for a hidden, more meaningful signal.