Paralysis by Overanalysis: Giving Your Customers
Less Choice Might Be a Good Thing

Today’s guest blog post is written by Christy Warren, Educational Development Manager, Patron Technology. 

Have you ever had a time when you couldn’t seem to make a decision? Maybe you were trying to decide between the practical car or the fun car. Or maybe you were trying to decide which item on the budget would get trimmed for the upcoming fiscal year. Or you were programming your next season and had several compelling options. You made your pros and cons lists. You thought, “If I sleep on it, the answer might come to me tomorrow.” You asked the opinions of others. But nothing seemed to get you closer to committing to an actual decision.

This happens to me all the time, and I’m constantly battling my brain to make a decision already. It’s called paralysis by overanalysis (or sometimes just paralysis by analysis). Basically, you become so overwhelmed with information on a particular topic that you have a hard time making any decision at all.  

This doesn’t just happen with large decisions, which is a common misconception. There’s a great interview here with behavioral neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer, who talks about his personal experience with trying to make a choice in the cereal aisle of the grocery store. Yes, something as mundane as cereal can cause paralysis. He goes on to say the prefrontal cortex can handle only about seven pieces of information at a time, so it’s easy to overwhelm that part of your brain that makes decisions.

So, in essence, the more information you add to the situation, the harder the decision becomes. Because of that, it’s best to rely on the emotional centers of your brain in those instances. In other words, trust your gut. You have to look at the facts, too — but if your gut is pulling you in a certain direction, there’s good reason to listen to it.  

There are many articles and resources on how to reduce paralysis by overanalysis, so I’m not going to overload you with another list here. But I do want you to consider how this phenomenon affects your customers. Does too much information or choice influence whether or not your customers buy from you? The answer is yes.

There is a great study by Sheena Iyengar, which is outlined in this excerpt from her book The Art of Choosing. She and her team set up a display for tasting jams in a local store and allowed people to sample as many as they liked. Customers were then given a coupon for $1 off any jam purchase of that brand. They rotated the display so that at some times there were 24 jams on display and available for tasting and at other times only six. The larger display attracted 60 percent of the total viewers that day, and the smaller display attracted the remaining 40 percent. People were more attracted to the allure of choice. However, only 3 percent of those who saw the large display actually purchased jam that day. Strikingly, 30 percent of those who saw the small display decided to buy a jar. So, even though fewer people were attracted to the smaller display, more of those people actually made a purchase.  

This is a fairly simple premise to embrace in terms of direct marketing: Give people just a few options, presented in an attractive way, and you get sales. That’s not a new concept, and many organizations do that very well with emails, advertisements, etc. But think beyond direct marketing.  

What about your subscription packages? Do you have too many options? Talk with your box office and see if they report people asking several questions about each show in order to make a choice. If this is the case, these potential patrons may feel pressured by too many options and fear making a bad choice. Or what if you have too many package types — a fixed subscription series, a create-your-own series, a voucher-based flex pass, and other creative options? People may not know which package type is right for them — and so they stop considering anything. Try simplifying your options and see if subscriptions go up (keeping in mind that it might take a couple of seasons to see a difference).

When you start selling single tickets, do you put all your shows on sale at once? Sure, that creates great buzz in your community, but do people buy less in the long run because of that? They might buy a show or two because that’s all they could make a decision about at that time. But will they buy more later? Maybe, or maybe not. It’s possible they think they missed their opportunity for good seats and may talk themselves out of it (which is a whole different psychological matter). If you stagger your on-sale dates, this would decrease your customers’ choices and potentially increase their likelihood of buying (just as in the jam scenario).

Also — and this somewhat falls to direct marketing — consider your brochure. I received a brochure in the mail a few days ago with an organization’s full season of roughly 50 shows. This brochure folded out to a single sheet of paper that could have made an impromptu curtain for a window or two in my house. I could barely hold it up to read everything. Once I (somewhat) figured out how to manage it in my hands, I glanced at about 10 shows and threw it away.  Too much.  

The power and paralysis of choice is everywhere. It’s important to keep that in mind when marketing to and working with your patrons. All this said, one thing is for certain: I don’t care how many techniques you try or strategies you put in place, deciding on a flavor of ice cream is TOUGH.  

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