Persuasive Web: Where Psychology Meets Conversion

DAY 7: Show Your Flaws Openly to Convert Users (by Minimizing Ambiguity)

Posted in 30 Days of Persuasion by persuasiveweb on June 9, 2009
Risk vs. Ambiguity: Better the Evil You Know Than the Evil You Don't

Risk vs. Ambiguity: Better the Evil You Know Than the Evil You Don't

Risk and ambiguity impact how and whether people make decisions. Research (e.g., Brand, Labudda, & Markowitsch, 2006; Qi, 2006) has shown that, in risky situations, people make decisions much differently than in ambiguous situations. Very interestingly, Qi has shown that when consumers are given the choice between making a decision based on risk or based on ambiguity of information, consumers will choose risk over ambiguity.

So here’s what we know and will look at today:

1. When faced with a risky decision or an ambiguous decision, consumers choose risk.
2. When coping with making a risky decision, consumers require more proof about a product/service to help make a decision than in non-risky situations.

Ambiguity vs Risk: The “Ugly Mug” Principle on Dating Sites

So you’re on a dating site, and you’re sorting through a big ol’ result list of potential matches. That’s a lot of info to process when making a decision. And, of course, you want to make the right decision.

When in the presence of multiple stimuli and when you’ve got your romantic future on the line, which options do you immediately eliminate? …Did I hear “the ones without photos”? 

Why do you eliminate the photo-less results? Because they’re ambiguous options. Because no photo means that the match is so unfortunate-looking (read: risky!) that they can’t even compare to the worst of the worst on a dating site. It is in the interest of avoiding ambiguity that most result lists on dating sites are chock full o’ photos today… even though it seems that a lot of online daters aren’t that photogenic. 😉  

Match Dot Com Risky But Not Ambiguous

What you’re witnessing is The Ugly Mug Principle. Even if you’re not the hottest guy, you’ll still have a better chance of a woman checking you out if you show a photo of your ‘ugly mug’ than no photo at all. Why? Because when faced with a risky decision or an ambiguous decision, consumers choose risk.

Show your product’s flaws instead of glossing over the issue or pretending it’s not there.  

So you’ve reduced ambiguity by showing your mug… but you’ve also increased risk by showing that you ain’t that pretty. Now what? How do you minimize risk to persuade users to click to learn more about you? How do you persuade a potential match that, okay, sure, you kinda look like Elvis Costello without the talent, but you really are a pediatric surgeon who spends the weekends taking his nieces to ballet class? The fact is that if you’ve heightened risk (i.e., risk in partnering with you), so you need to minimize or neutralize it in one of 2 ways:

1. Simple solution: You prove that, in spite of your shortcomings, you’re not a risk. With photos of you in the O.R. With photos of you watching your nieces dance in The Nutcracker.

2. Better solution: You get others to prove it for you. This is where sites like eHarmony, and PlentyOfFish have room to grow by adding in reputation management tools or links to recommendations on LinkedIn, Naymz, etc.

Why? Because when dealing with risk, consumers require more proof of the worth of a product than in non-risky situations.

The Less Obvious Ambiguity-vs-Risk Example: Shipping Costs

Okay, so we have yet to encounter an online shopper who isn’t interested in knowing shipping costs early on… yet only the big-time e-commerce sites seem to do this well. (Probably because the eStores most companies run have ridunculously high shipping costs.) 

When you’re telling users about shipping costs, you need to place those messages strategically. The point in the conversion funnel at which you reduce ambiguity around shipping costs will impact how much further a user goes down the funnel. 

So you can show on your home page that you charge $25 to ship. Or you can show it on a product detail page. Or you can show it in the cart. Or the catalog. It’s definitely worth a test on your site to see the impact of shipping messaging in various places in the conversion funnel.

Let’s look to some random examples quickly to see who’s doing what where. 

Sites that remove ambiguity in shipping costs on the home page:

OfficeDepot.comVictoria's Secret Shipping Campaign

Sites that remove ambiguity in shipping costs on the product detail page:

Amazon Free Shipping


Sites that remove ambiguity in shipping costs in the cart: Shipping

Sites that HIDE shipping costs (e.g., in lightboxes on product details or in carts):

QuickBooks Shipping Costs

Williams Sonoma

We’ve seen that even the highest-converting sites position their shipping costs in differing places, and that those etailers with a better shipping story to tell (e.g., low-cost, flat-rate, free) tend to place those shipping messages earlier in the conversion funnel. 

If you want to avoid putting your users in a situation where they have to choose between ordering on your ambiguous eStore or on the very unambiguous, it might not hurt to start by reconsidering where your shipping cost messaging is positioned. Even if it appears to present a risk for users. Just mitigate that risk with high-quality value prop messaging…

…and, as we always advocate, test it. 



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