The candy store is designed to be a wonderland.
It’s an experience constructed for the senses — vibrant colors, rainbow flavors, syrupy smells that transcend wrappers, and the indulgent promise of sugar. How could children and sweet tooths not feel glee when encountering wall-to-wall delights?
Creating that “happy place” for customers seems like a golden ticket for businesses, but an unexpected problem can arise. In aiming for that joyful kid-in-a-candy-store feeling of shininess and abundance, you can create an overwhelming experience.
One of the hardest lessons to learn about crafting email is to fight the candy store mentality to avoid shooting yourself in the foot. When you overwhelm readers' attention, you’re actually making it too easy for them to ignore your message and move on without doing anything.
How Choice Overload Creates a Do-Nothing Trap
The path of least resistance is to do nothing. What’s surprising though, as psychologist Sheena Iyengar found, is that this is true even when you’re presented with many tempting paths.
To test how choice affects motivation, Iyengar set up a jam tasting booth near the entrance of a gourmet grocery store, pretending to represent Wilkins & Sons, suppliers of jams to the Queen of England (literally, the Queen’s jam). Shoppers either saw a table with 6 or 24 sample jams. When faced with 24 decision points, people sampled, hemmed, and hawed, but mostly left jam-less.
But when presented with 6 flavors, people were much more likely to buy a jar. In fact, 30% of people who saw the smaller selection actually bought jam — while only 3% of people in the “candy store” condition, who saw 24 flavors, ended up making a purchase.
What the remaining 97% of people experienced is something called choice overload. When your mind has to grapple with too much information, motivation flags, leading it to shut down rather than go through a tiring process of making a proactive decision.
Choose Something First.
How you present choices impacts behavior. Deliberate design goes into crafting experiences, from a supermarket floor plan that gets people to spend more time browsing to posting calorie counts next to menu items to encourage healthy choices.
This calculated framing is also called “choice architecture,” a term that economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein coined and wrote about in their book Nudge. Thaler explains:
Choice architects must choose something. You have to meddle. For example, you can’t design a neutral building. There is no such thing. A building must have doors, elevators, restrooms. All of these details influence choices people make.
In other words, as the marketer, designer, and author, you must choose first.
Marketers are just as susceptible to defaulting to the path of least of resistance as consumers and email readers. Sometimes your biggest challenge is to choose what to include in a marketing email or newsletter. You want to tell or ask people about ALL THE THINGS.
Take this email update from American Airlines, for example. There’s an overwhelming amount of information and nothing to help me choose a concrete action, so I’ll gladly delete it at a glance.
Contrast that with this email from Virgin America. Since the creator already made a clear choice about what to show and why, it’s much easier to process the information and make a decision.
When an email gets everything and the kitchen sink, you’ve pushed the cognitive decisions off to the reader, who cares much less about your goals. Take control of who gets to make the choice up front.
How to Steer People Towards Your Goals with Choice Architecture
Here are 3 things to keep in mind when architecting choice in your emails:
Don’t cram the candy store into a single email.
Some email newsletters are crammed with columns of information. For instance, this email newsletter clocks in at well over 3700 words, which translates into roughly 18 minutes of reading time.
This smorgasbord approach is a remnant of an old-school print model that governed content such as physical newsletters or newspapers — which are easier to scan and exist in isolation, outside of crowded inboxes.
Focus is vital, especially these days, when nearly half of email is opened on mobile devices and 80% of people will hit delete because an email doesn’t look good. For example, the video hosting company Wistia doubled its open rate by moving from a multi-column, multi-item newsletter to single-serving emails.
Email allows you to build relationships — and relationships happen over time. Don’t stuff all your hope and dreams into one email.
Simplifying your emails will focus your message. One exercise I use when I coach writing is to ask people to stop after every paragraph — and sometimes every sentence — and ask themselves “why is this here?” It’s tedious but ensures that your words and structure have a function.
HelpScout’s Greg Ciotti has a great takeaway from Iyengar’s jam study: his “one email, one goal” rule that “each email should only have one desired outcome (view a blog post, see a new feature, hear about an update, etc.)” because:
If you are asking for multiple things, you are really asking for ZERO things, because multiple choices often cause people to take no action.
When he applied this rule to HelpScout’s newsletter, he saw click-through rates increase by double digits.
Old Helpscout email with multiple actions
New Helpscout email with a single action
When you’re putting together an email, first decide on the desired outcome. What do you actually want people to do with the email? Do you want people to click through? Read the content of the email? Interact by sending a reply? Then make it easy for your readers to make that choice.
Note that one goal isn’t the same as one link. As the folks at Campaign Monitor were surprised to find, click rates improve with more links. Focus doesn’t rule out offering more than one opportunity to act.
Strike a balance between relevance and simplicity
Choice architecture isn’t always a matter of minimizing options. As researchers explain, the key is to strike a delicate balance between relevance and simplicity. You have to weigh how:
first that more options increase the chances of offering a preference match to the consumer, and second that more options places a greater cognitive burden on consumers because of the additional need to evaluate options.
Similarly, the lesson of Iyengar’s jam experiment isn’t simply to default to less choice. Choice is still enticing. While fewer people made purchases in the candy-store condition, more people actually stopped by the booth to check out jams — that’s 60% versus the 30% of shoppers that the smaller jam selection attracted.
Savored, a restaurant reservation site, found an imbalance in their tactic of featuring only one restaurant in their weekly email. Adding more restaurant choices resulted in an increase of overall reservations per email. Sure, featuring only one restaurant makes it easier to click through to make a reservation, but it also paves the way for people who don’t identify with the single option, don’t like the restaurant, or don’t enjoy that type of cuisine to say no or even unsubscribe.
After experimenting with the number of choices, Savored discovered that 12 was the sweet spot, offering the optimal amount of relevant options while escaping cognitive overload.
Too much choice can backfire when you want people to carry out a particular action or decision — but not enough choice might fail to attract attention in the first place. Consider the context and kind of decision you want people to make, and balance accordingly.
When it comes to email, delight and joy tends not to come from candy-store-style abundance but personalization and simplicity.
Understanding the cognitive costs and benefits to your audience should be priority when crafting your emails — because they translate into costs and benefits for your results. Nowadays, attention is the new currency.
What have you discovered about balancing relevance and simplicity? Share your thoughts on how best to architect choices in emails!