There is little doubt we're in what has been dubbed the "participation economy." Most marketing-savvy firms have embraced that marketing has become a two-way conversation, although few are always getting what that means exactly.
Consumers are involved at an unprecedented level in product development, brand-building and even the very advertising campaigns designed to lure them in. Hence the "contests" run by corporations like Chevy that put the burden of creating catchy advertising into the hands of students and amateurs. "In the Motherhood," a creative little web series "conceived by" Sprint and Suave (who would have predicted that combo of brands?), builds its shows featuring Jenny McCarthy, Leah Remini and Chelsea Handler based on ideas submitted by real moms from their daily experiences (the mini-shows are actually pretty hilarious, seen through my non-mom eyes).
Consumers have demanded - and received - a higher degree of participation in the products they consume. Starbucks has developed strong brand allegiance in large part by heavily involving the consumer in the creation of the product - "I'll have a Grande, no fat, no whip, white chocolate mocha with 1/2 the pumps." Jones Soda has involved consumers by using their photo submissions on their bottles.
But at what point does involving the consumer become anxiety-producing, and when does it actually drive away customers? It's been documented by some researchers that our plethora have choices actually make us less happy, less content. The anxiety over making the wrong choice has sky-rocketed in proportion to the number of choices at our disposal.
"The presumption is, self-determination is a good thing and choice is essential to self-determination," says Barry Schwartz, PhD, a Swarthmore College psychologist and author of "The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less" (Ecco, 2004). "But there's a point where all of this choice starts to be not only unproductive, but counterproductive--a source of pain, regret, worry about missed opportunities and unrealistically high expectations."
Choices initially attract consumers, but when it comes time to take an action and make a choice, it can actually detract. A 2000 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP, Vol. 79, No. 6), showed that "when shoppers are given the option of choosing among smaller and larger assortments of jam, they show more interest in the larger assortment. But when it comes time to pick just one, they're 10 times more likely to make a purchase if they choose among six rather than among 24 flavors of jam."
In a study of 401K plans, it was found that when given two choices, 75 percent of employees participated, but when given 59 choices, only 60 percent did.
How can organizations be effective in the "participation economy" while not overwhelming their customers with too many opportunities to interact and too many product/service choices? Here are a few simple ideas:
- Map choices to most likely customer profiles - Customers will often appreciate and respond to your recommendations on which of many choices may be best for their situation.
- Begin with simple choices, then expose more options if the consumer requests them. This is easy to do with tiered web content that allows a consumer to enter into a simpler product/service layout and drill down as needed.
- Limit the "conversation" entry points and make it easy to jump in. Most consumers appreciate viewing customer feedback and ratings on products, and will participate with a simple click to share their own ratings. But few will want to get sucked into a time-consuming dialogue over a low-consideration product.
- Remember to reward participation at the right levels - You can't just throw up a message board or social network and expect consumers to beging talking to you. What's in it for them? Are there emotional or ego rewards? Monetary rewards? Does it make their life easier in any way?
What are other ways your firm is balancing choice and participation vs. simplicity?