Are You Losing Sales By Giving Customers Too Many Choices?

Did you know that giving customers too many choices can overwhelm and lead to fewer sales?

It’s true.

I experienced this firsthand at an eye-catching gelato shop located in Santa Monica, California.

It caught my eye because of the insane number of flavors visible through the outside window. There were over 100 in all. The assorted flavor colors were so mesmerizing, I had to go in to get some gelato.

But then it happened.

As I viewed the 100 plus favors, I couldn’t decide which ones to try. I walked along the glass display, attempting to pick out which flavors I wanted to sample, but there were so many! I didn’t even know where to start looking.

I was overwhelmed, so I decided to leave.

What happened? Shouldn’t lots of options be good for customers? Isn’t that what people want–more options?

Actually, no, and here’s a university study that shows why.

The Famous Marketing Study About Too Many Choices

Here’s how the study worked:

Sheena Iyengar from Columbia University set up a table laden with jams outside of an upscale grocery store in Menlo Park, CA. Over a period of two consecutive Saturdays, research assistants dressed up as store employees and offered samples of either 6 or 24 flavors of Wilkin and Sons Jams, a British jelly purveyor known for exotic flavors.

Prior to this study, the common marketing theory was that more choices are better for customers. People like more options, so providing more flavors should lead to more sales.

The results from this study proved otherwise.

During the time periods when 24 flavors were offered, 60% of people stopped to sample the jams, compared to 40% when only 6 flavors were offered. These numbers seem in favor of more choices, but the important question is this: which group purchased more?

Of the customers who sampled 24 flavors, only 3% purchased, but of the customers who sampled 6, 30% did the same.

If you run those numbers based on 100 people, 60 would stop when 24 flavors were offered, but less than 2 purchase (1.8 to be exact). When 6 flavors were sampled, 40 stopped at the table, and 12 purchased.

Which table would you want your products to be on?

As you can see, there’s a paradox: contrary to popular belief, too many choices can be bad for sales. Just like in my experience at the gelato shop, customers can be attracted to a large number of choices, but when it comes time to make a purchase, too many options can make decision making difficult and lead to fewer sales.

So how does this apply to internet marketing?

Lessons for internet marketing

To bring this back to the world of internet marketing, below are some good and bad examples of sharing icons, e-mail marketing, and home pages that demonstrate how the lesson of too many choices plays out in the online world.

The Benefit Of Limited Sharing Options

If you want people to share your content, it’s best to give them a limited number of ways to do so. The optimum number can be found through testing, but the idea is that you’ll likely get more shares from fewer options than from making choosing difficult by offering every possible sharing link.

Essentially, you want to pick the most important icons and not clutter your site with the rest. Here are some examples to illustrate:

A bad example of social sharing

bad example of share buttons

This site isn’t the worst offender, but it still has too many options. It offers Google+, Facebook (twice), Twitter, LinkedIn, Digg, e-mail, and “more.”

Here are some questions to ask in this example: Are any sharing buttons more important than the others? Does it make sense to emphasize two or three instead of including this many options? Would listing two links combined with the “more sharing options” lead to more total shares?

The answer to all of these questions is probably yes. It’s impossible to know for sure without experimenting, but it’s worth testing to see if fewer options will lead to more sharing.

If you have a hard time deciding which social sharing buttons to list, you should generally only list the networks you or your company most frequently monitor.

A good example of social sharing

good example of share buttons

This example is from Forbes, and they’ve picked Facebook and Twitter as the two most important sharing icons for their site. Just in case readers would like other options, an additional “+Share” link is included.

Since Facebook and Twitter are the most commonly used, Forbes does a good job of drawing attention to those options. By limiting choice, they highlight the most important links and limit the number of choices that readers need to make. As you can tell by the numbers, this seems to work out well for them.

The Benefit Of One Offer In E-mail Campaigns

When it comes to e-mail marketing, you don’t need to make the entire sell in one e-mail. Instead, you’re trying to convince readers to take one action. You want them to click through to the site to learn more or make a purchase.

To accomplish this, one offer is better than many. A single offer asks customers to make one decision: “Do you want to learn more about this product?” That’s an easy yes or no.

With multiple offers, readers have to decide which product they want to focus on; then, they have to decide whether or not they want to act on that offer. This divides attention between choices and requires more decisions, which, according to the jam study, leads to fewer sales. Additionally, more choices makes it more difficult to conduct email marketing tests.

Here are examples of good and bad e-mail marketing campaigns:

A bad example of e-mail marketing

an example of bad email marketing

What is the reader supposed to look at in this example? The books “we’re reading”? The Kobo offer? Or the $10 eBook credit? It’s difficult to figure out where to look. A single offer isn’t emphasized, and the colors draw attention to the background instead of to the products.

E-mails like this make choosing way too difficult for customers. Even if they want to buy a Kobo, the offer text is pushed over to the right to make room for the books on the left. Which is more important? The books or the eReader? Whichever it is, that product needs to be prominently displayed.

A good example of e-mail marketing

An example of good email marketing

Barnes & Noble does it right in this e-mail. They make a single offer to the reader: Would you like to purchase the Nook Color for $249? There’s a simple graphic to display the product, and one offer asking readers to make a single decision.

E-mail offers like this properly emphasize one product or offer, which helps readers make a decision. Instead of needing to decide which part of the e-mail they want to read, they can simply decide whether the offer is meaningful to them. If it is, then they only need to decide whether or not they want to act on the offer. They don’t need to decide between three offers and choose which one they want to act on. There’s one offer, and one decision to be made.

That’s great e-mail marketing.

The Benefit Of Keeping Home Pages Simple

When it comes to home pages, there’s a lot to cram onto one page. It seems that everything the customer may ever want needs to be available on the first page they’ll see.

That’s not the way to design a home page.

Instead, the question needs to be asked about what can be left out. Good design is not when every possible feature is included; it’s when every possible feature is removed that can be.

Below are two examples that illustrate this point:

A bad home page example

Yahoo Home Page

Where is the emphasis on this page? Is there anything in particular readers are supposed to look at? Is there any element that is more important and appropriately emphasized more?

Unfortunately for Yahoo, the answer is no. Search isn’t emphasized, Yahoo sites aren’t emphasized, and news isn’t emphasized. Everything is tacked on to one page with the result being too many options.

Instead of helping customers make one decision and complete the most important action, viewers are asked to view everything at once and then decide what to do. It’s overwhelming.

A good home page example

Google Home Page

Google is the number one visited site on the internet, yet they’re still able to limit their home page to a single action: Would you like to search the internet?

How do they do it? How do they keep the home page of the number one site in the world limited to a text box and a search button?

Somehow they do, but the more important question is this: How much is this a factor in their success? Yes, they have the best search engine in the world, but they also make it stupid-easy to use. They don’t distract visitors with other options. Once you land on the site, you just have to decide one thing: What am I going to search for today?

How’s that for not giving customers too many choices?

The Google example is used as an extreme case. You should have a few text links to your most important internal content on your home page for better SEO architecture.

Takeaway

Making changes such as these to limit customer choices doesn’t mean you’ll instantly garner thousands of shares or millions of customers. That takes a lot more hard work than deciding which links are the most important.

But it does mean that by making some of these changes, you can increase conversions by at least a few percentage points. And when it comes to internet marketing, every improvement counts. Most importantly, it will require you to start testing your website and marketing campaigns to achieve your goals. That’s exactly what KISSmetrics allows you to do.

Are you ready to test and see what the optimum number of choices for your site will be?

And since KISSmetrics has made it easy by limiting your choices to Twitter, Facebook, and StumbleUpon, remember to share this post if you benefited from reading it. You can even click on all three if you’d like!

Sources:

About the author: Joseph Putnam has a marketing degree from UT Austin, loves to fish, and helps professionals establish a reputable internet presence through blogging. Go to his site Blog Tweaks to learn how you can get a beautiful blog to enhance your online reputation. You can also follow Joseph on Twitter @JosephPutnam.

  1. Great post, thanks for writing. This reinforces some of my previous thinking. A follow up to this would be useful showing a bunch of Good vs Bad examples. Something like a top 10 best uses of Social Media icons versus the top 10 worst. Same goes for homepages and email campaigns.

    • Hi Scott, the difficulty with a top 10 good and bad examples is that every site is different. For some sites, five sharing links are optimum and for others it’s three. It really comes down to testing and figuring out what is best for your site and your goals.

      With that said, I’ve come across sites with so many sharing links where I couldn’t even find the one for Twitter. That’s a problem and a great example of when too many choices are bad for results.

      • I wonder how this would play out for huge sharing sites like Mashable. They have every link under the sun to share…

        So I’m wondering if they would see more sharing on the important sites (Twitter, Facebook, G+) if they took away some of the options.

        I mean honestly, who shares that many articles on Tumblr?

  2. I especially like the part about having multiple calls to action in the newsletter. Apple is the very best when it comes to this. “Buy your MacBook Air before college starts.”

    That’s powerful.

  3. You’r a liar, you bought some gelato:)

    Having said that, great article.

    • Hmm…actually I didn’t, and it’s not because I’m not a fan of great flavor.

      An interesting part about the story is that I was so overwhelmed I wasn’t willing to look over the display for more than 30 seconds. Just too much to take in.

      That can be compared to my waiting in line for a different kind of ice cream the other night (italian ice on top of premium custard). I didn’t mind waiting in line for 30 minutes to get some of the goodness. Ok, maybe I minded a little, but I was willing to wait in line for 30 minutes but not look at too many choices for more than 30 seconds.

      How’s that for a paradox?

  4. This is a great straight forward article. It can be used as a starter for beginners and experienced folks alike!

    My latest blog post is just about this, but in the more business/revenue stream sense.

  5. Is that the reason, why you dont have a Facebook-Like button? So that the visitors don’t have to decide between the share and like button? Or that it would distract from the “See plans and pricing” button if you would place it below the article? =)

  6. completely agree with this article. person get confused only when they have different options available otherwise they have to decide with limited choice.
    Eg: if u see hotel sites they give too many options in hotel range. At the end of day visitors get confused which hotel one should choose.

  7. I agree with much of what you say but it misses one important point. If you provide a means of quickly and easily filtering the choices you can get to the long-tail of choices that many customer products are very suited too (Read Chris Anderson famous The Long Tail).

    For example a real-time/instant home page filter of options may quickly narrow the choices and prevent that ‘overwhelmed’ feeling you spoke of. After all, it’s not that people don’t want or need lots of choices, its they want to be able to narrow it down to 2 or 3 good choices within the time window before anxiety and indecision creeps in. Google’s next screen beyond the home doesn’t exactly present 1 simple choice (20 menu items and millions of search results) but it gives an awesome filter capability which is their foundation of their success!
    Charles

    • Hi Charles,

      You make a great point. An effective filter system can help with limiting consumer choices from being overwhelming. Amazon would be a great example of this. They have every imaginable product on one website, but they effectively limit the number of options that people see on one page.

      I would also say this: Companies shouldn’t overlook the option of recommending products to people. Even if a customer has two or three choices, decision making can still be difficult.

      I see this all the time with my customers. After giving them two options for hosting, they have trouble deciding which one is better even though they’re basically the same. It always helps when I tell them, “why don’t you just go with A, for this reason.”

      Purchasing a computer is another example. There are so many models available, how do you know which one to choose? If a salesman at Best Buy keeps showing more options that fit in your price range, that will only overwhelm. What’s more effective is saying, “these are the three computers I recommend for you, and if you want my opinion, I’d go with this one.” Do customers really want to know that there are 15 possible computers they can buy from Best Buy? Does that help with making a decision or make it harder?

      Apple does this well by offering a small number of products. You can buy an iPod with X, Y, or Z amount of space, or you can buy a Macbook Pro. HP on the other hand has myriad of product numbers and choices when it comes to computers, and I couldn’t name a single one of them. Wouldn’t it make sense to have less models that stand out to customers more? Not to mention, which company has more cash than the Federal Reserve and which one is getting out of the hardware business?

      So Charles, I think you make a great point. Effectively filtering on a home page is one of the best ways to limit choices and not overwhelm customers. The less options, the better, but there has to be options and information on a home page. Again you’re totally right.

      Last point: It’s super easy when designing a website to think, “ooh, this would be nice, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this.” The end result is a site that’s bloated with features that don’t add value or contribute toward the company’s goals. It’s much harder to be disciplined and cut out every possible piece of fat and create a lean, effective website, but that’s what it takes to limit clutter and make a website as effective as possible. There are extremes on both ends, but in my experience, it’s harder to leave things off that shouldn’t be included than it is not have information. That’s my take anyway.

      The main point is that company’s should consider when it makes sense to offer less than to offer more and realize that more choices is not always in the customers best interest.

      I hope this extended answer helps, and thanks for the comment. :)

      • I totally agree with that. (thanks for this great article). I think, though, that the type of user should be considered. Most users in most contexts do need guidance and a small number of choices. Expert users in specialized websites would usually want to make their own decision and would probably know how to narrow down to 2-5 best options to choose from (they will of course need the best tools to do that).

  8. There is a sandwich franchise that did well here in St. Louis for a while and then disappeared. One of the uncomfortable parts of eating at this sandwhich shop for me was the ridiculous size of the menu.

    It was absolutely overwhelming.

  9. I agree. Though this theory is true for all kind of products. For example – I love shopping clothes, I’m simply mad about it.
    When I fall in love with a dress. and sales man offer 5 more colors of the same dress, it’s true that I become confused what to buy. But I excite me much more to buy all those colors 1 by 1. So you can see, more options are not always too bad.

  10. IMHO, the number of choices and calls to action are depend on the type of your site. If it is eshop – it is sales or contest actions, if company newsletter in b2b – can be several options.

  11. It’s true that catalogs and e-commerce sites sell multiple products and do just fine. However:

    - Catalogs and e-commerce sites know (or should know) that you still want to vary the size of photos on a page to draw the eye.
    - There’s nothing more boring, or bad for sales, than a row of same-sized product photos.
    - Catalogers and e-shops also know they want to give more space to more profitable and best-selling products.

    The bottom line: focus the customer — either by limiting your email or direct mail package to one offer. Focus the eye — by making most prominent the key item on each web page or catalog page. Focus your social media — by including share buttons for those sites where you are an active and regular participant in the community.

  12. Joseph, I agree with you, people tend to run away each time we offer too many options to choose from and it’s important to keep things really simple for them.

    However, reading your article made me realize that I have quite a few sharing options on my blog, so I am off to do some changes that I have putt off for a while.

    Great article!

    Eugen

  13. Great article – thanks for posting. It’s really got me thinking about whether I offer too many options to customers on a couple of my websites. I can certainly see how people could potentially get overwhelmed and simply not purchase.

    The questions is, how do we know if we are offering too many choices? I guess the only way to know for sure is to split-test like crazy…

    • Split testing like crazy is the best way to do it.

      Another way is to recommend products for people. Amazon does this with “recommended products,” and some sites do this with a “recommended package.” For example, if you land on a site that has a multiple tiered plan, they recommend a package that fits most consumers. This helps customers from needing to consider every option from small business to enterprise.

      These are some ideas that may help. Good luck!

  14. Great points on this article. But it’s a challenge when you work with a big company to convince people to limited the # of choices, features, and options on a website. Seems like everybody (sales, IT, marketing, etc) want to have their stuffs on the website and they all say their stuffs are important. In the end, you have a mashed up site that’s so cluttered.

  15. Good read, and so true. The only thing I would add is that every audience is different, so be careful not to generalize. For example, very sophisticated buyers spending thousands, and uneducated folks spending $5 will be seeking a different quantity and quality of information. In some markets, people get frustrated by lack of info up front.

    The solution, as mentioned in other comments, is to always test everything, that’s where the big failure is.

  16. Great insights. Time to rethink about our website whether we should give too many tour packages :)

  17. Friendly perspective from an outsider: You wrote a great article here, and as a result I followed you on Twitter, but I just unfollowed you because there’s 11+ posts to full articles in my feed from you since last night. You’re bombarding my feed with links to so many articles, and I a) don’t have time to read them all, and b) won’t read any of them because there are too many options and it’s overwhelming. Kinda flies in the face of this post, which is a shame because you seem to have some good content. :\

  18. Tim Willoughby Mar 08, 2012 at 4:56 am

    I’ve always thought that In ‘N’ Out burger has a nice model for dealing with the paralysis of choice. They’ll advertise a short menu, and then be very flexible about additional options. Realistically they present a large amount of options, but do so in a way that doesn’t feel that way.

    Throw in the fact that the off-menu options are much much easier for them to creep up on price with, and they even get to appear to be great value. Talk about a 1-2 punch!

  19. “Thanks for sharing, this is a wonderful post.Really thank you! Really Great.”

  20. Nice post, always a good thing to follow the “don’t make me think” tactic :)

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