The Secret to Selling More Online Is Simple...Become a Choice Architect

The Secret to Selling More Online Is Simple…Become a Choice Architect

I don’t like having more options to choose from. There, I said it. The internet has multiplied the choice available to us and it is making life hard. I’m expected to pick the TV schedule (thanks to Netflix), program a radio show (Spotify) and do my own research on what I’m going to buy (Google). I want to highlight the problem with choice and how with a little knowledge we, as marketers, can make our customer’s lives better!

Author Chris Anderson covered the concept in an article, and subsequent book and called it ‘the long tail'. Anderson’s point was this; before the days of the Internet, if an author wrote a book on an obscure topic, it would only be stocked in a book shop for a limited amount of time (if at all).

Most of the time, books that were obscure enough would only be stocked in specialist bookstores and not hit mainstream shelves. Choice was essentially defined by distribution.

Jeff Bezos founded Amazon in 1994 and he recognized the problem with selling books, so he chose this as the focus of his ecommerce store.

Where book shops ran out of shelf space for obscure books, Amazon had as much space as it needed to display all books (literally, any book you can think of). Suddenly, books that had been consigned to memory were available.

Publishers could shift diverse books and customers could find books on topics their local bookshop just didn’t see a profit in.

Happy reading

This sounds like a win-win, and when it comes to books, it probably is. The problem is, it didn’t stop with books. Soon it was music, film, shoes, jumpers, jeans, food, flowers, washing machines, hammers, nails…

I’m going to put it out there — choice is a burden. Choice has been sold to us as a sparkling privilege of 21st century living, but I don’t buy it.

The burden has shifted

Decision fatigue is real. I won’t bore you with the details here, just take my word for it. The more choices you have to make in a day, the less able you are to make other choices later on.

Don’t believe it? How about if I told you that Barack Obama claims that his success is partly due to wearing only grey or blue suits? Or that Mark Zuckerberg has been able to reinvent social communication because his wardrobe is full of one color of t-shirt?

These decisions have nothing to do with fashion (obviously), they are all about reducing the requirement to make choices.

This sounds silly, I know. But let me highlight that the burden of choice has shifted from them (the experts) to you (the not-so-experts).

Once upon a time when you wanted to purchase an oven for your kitchen, you’d visit a small shop where the owner would tell you her opinion on which one to purchase. Generally, you trusted her opinion because she hangs around in an oven shop every day and you were mostly happy when you did. Even if the oven was rubbish, you could blame the shop owner.

Now you can buy ovens from big shops and online shops as well. Further, you no longer get to speak to the organ grinder, you have to make do with the monkey.

In short, you’re on your own. Want that oven? It’s up to you to make sure it’s the best one.

But here’s the rub — how can you ever be sure? There are only so many hours in a day to read Which? magazine. So the result; no matter what oven you choose to purchase, you’ll always have a nagging doubt in your mind that you missed out on a better one.

Now every time you put that chicken Kiev into an oven that’s a bit too noisy, wearing jeans that are a bit too baggy and watching a show on Netflix that isn’t quite funny enough you feel fully responsible for your predicament.

You can’t blame the shop and you can’t blame Netflix because it was your choice. Nag, nag, nag.

That nagging doubt is so pervasive that I believe it is one of the biggest contributors to depression in society, but that’s another conversation.

Let’s fix choice

The good news is that for once, marketers have it within their powers to fix this problem.

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler coined the term ‘choice architect' in their book Nudge. They define choice architecture as such: «If anything you do influences the way people choose, then you are a choice architect».

Choice architecture packages six useful principles that can be used to help you move the burden of choice away from your customers and put it back onto you; the experts.

The six principles of choice architecture are:

  1. Provide a good incentive
  2. Map the offer to the experience the customer will have
  3. Provide a default solution to the customer’s problem
  4. Provide feedback so that the customer knows whether they are on the right track
  5. Expect the customer to make errors and fix them in anticipation
  6. Present complex ideas in a structured way

There are loads of examples about how these principles work, and I’ll be speaking about them in my talk at Digital Olympus on 6th December but here are a few of my favourites!

1. Providing an incentive — We Buy Any Car

Many of you in the UK will be familiar with We Buy Any Car; a website that offers to provide a quotation to purchase any car.

The We Buy Any Car website makes clever use of the incentives principle of choice architecture.

Instinctively, when we think of an incentive we assume this means offering some sort of tangible advantage. We Buy Any Car demonstrates that the incentive doesn’t need to be some sort of prize, but instead the fact that using the website requires such minimal effort means that the incentive is this: you don’t need to use any mental energy (remember, energy is important in avoiding decision fatigue).


Enter your car registration number to get a quotation — it’s simple, it requires low effort and that is the incentive.

This is not only a boon to user-experience (UX), but it also increases the chances of a visitor remaining on the website for longer and moving closer to becoming a customer.

2. Providing a default and expecting error — UNICEF

Giving the hard-sell is often unwelcome, but when it comes to raising money for a worthy cause it should be encouraged. UNICEF uses its website and the principles of choice architecture to great effect.

The first principle employed is the defaults principle. Visit the donation page and you are presented with two options: donate a single amount of money, or donate money on a monthly basis.


Note how the default position on the form (i.e. the thing that happens if you take no action to change it) is that your donation will be a monthly occurrence.

Taking things a step further, the UNICEF website also expects its visitors to close the website in error. Once on the donations page should you close the tab by mistake, the website displays a small message asking if you meant to do this. If indeed it was an error, you can return to the website and it will allow you to continue with making your donation.


3. Mapping the experience — Extra Space Storage

How much storage space do you need to buy? At home you have a room filled with clutter that needs to be moved; chairs, furniture and boxes. On the storage unit website, they have dimensions listed; 5×5, 5×10, 10×20.

How does a customer translate their collection of tangible clutter into an intangible dimension?

In the US, Extra Space Storage has employed the use of the mappings principle of choice architecture to show its customers a clear graphical representation of how much stuff will fit into each size of storage unit.


It’s the magic of turning an intangible concept into a tangible expectation of the experience.

The advantages of choice architecture

Whether you are a website designer, a UX consultant, an SEO practitioner or are responsible for marketing strategy, choice architecture holds the key to two things:

  1. Making your customer’s lives easier and happier
  2. Increasing the likelihood of achieving your marketing goals

Like most useful tools in marketing, the principles are simple to grasp, but can be challenging to implement. I encourage everyone to learn about choice architecture and start to practice using the principles in the real world, after all, it’s something we’ll all benefit from.

Paul Wood is the founder and Managing Director of the Oxford-based digital marketing agency, Indulge UK. He has also acted as visiting lecturer on the MA Journalism course at the University of Winchester and is co-founder of Supplement Standards LTD, a company that is on a mission to protect the health and integrity of athletes and supplement users.
Paul has a passion for UX, quality management, creativity and writing in the third-person. Paul is on a mission to uncover how the way products and services are marketed can be a source of great stress and how as marketers, we should do our bit in making people’s lives happier.
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