How Offering Too Many Choices Can Hurt Direct Mail Response

Research on jam can teach us how to improve our direct mail’s profitability. That’s right. Jam. The stuff we spread over our toast.

In a gourmet market, Professor Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and her research assistants set up a booth offering samples of Wilkin & Sons jams.

Every few hours, the researchers switched from offering shoppers a selection of 24 jams to offering a group of only six jams.

Regardless of the number of jams offered, participating customers received a $1 discount coupon and tasted, on average, two jams.

The results may surprise you.

Of those customers who were offered the full selection of 24 jams, 60 percent stopped to taste the jams. Yet when researchers switched the display to offer only six jams, only 40 percent of prospects stopped for a sample.

But of those shoppers who sampled the smaller display, 30 percent bought the jam while only 3 percent of those offered a wider choice made a purchase.

The display with more choices drew the largest crowd but customers presented with fewer choices purchased more.

Researchers repeated the test using a wide variety of products-everything from speed dating to chocolate. And each time, regardless of the product tested, offering shoppers fewer options resulted in more sales.

Professor Iyengar concluded, “In reality, people might find more and more choices to actually be debilitating.” And while it may be too simple to conclude that offering a large number of choices is bad, we shouldn’t assume that providing more choice is always better.

What does this have to do with our direct mail?

Review the mailings you receive-especially the letter’s offer and the response device. You’ll see nonprofits offering a choice of five, six or seven asking amounts. And the combination of offers found in a cable company’s promotion for its bundle of Internet, television and telephone services can be overwhelming.

Forcing the reader to select from too many choices can freeze their decision-making and cost us the sale.

For nonprofits, three suggested contribution amounts plus an “Other” option is plenty.

Littering surveys with too many questions is no different. Surveys are a great way to involve the reader with our mailing but we need to keep it simple.

You’ve probably have received a telephone call asking for your participation in an “important survey.” You’re interested in the subject so you say, “Yes” and 20 minutes later, you’re wondering why you even answered the phone.

We can’t afford to make the same mistake when designing our direct mail.

When the objective of your direct mail package is to make a sale or generate a contribution, the survey’s purpose is to help generate response, not to gather information.

Limit yourself to five or seven questions and allow the reader to move quickly to the order form. If you need to collect information, reserve the survey for a special mailing that isn’t expected to make a sale.

If you feel you have to give your reader plenty of options to express the full value of your offer, re-think your list segmentation. Better segmentation of your mailing lists will allow you to offer fewer, better targeted choices.

Be careful not to overwhelm the reader with too many options. Whether you’re asking for a contribution, a lead or a sale, make it easy for the reader to make a choice and you’ll increase response.

There’s a lot we can learn from Professor Iyengar’s research on how to sell jam. Make it easy, quick and simple for the prospect to respond and you’ll enjoy the results better than jam on your breakfast toast.

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