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This article is by Kevin Lindsay, Director of Product Marketing at Adobe. He spends his time messaging a wide variety of extremely complex products. If anyone has seen how choice can stymie consumers, it's him. Here's how he's learned to survive the paradox.

People crave relevance — we can all agree on that. But with the rise of personalization capabilities, there’s a new Catch-22 at work: Even though brands can curate and deliver relevant experiences, is that actually what your users want? Or do people really want unlimited access, choice, and opportunity when it comes to decision making?

I’d argue that it’s a little of both. Despite having unparalleled capabilities to deliver well-curated, well-informed, and spot-on digital experiences, there needs to be a balance between choice and hyper-relevance.

Serve up too much, and you’ve paralyzed the consumer. Don’t provide enough, and your users feel cheated or 'Big Brothered.'

It’s a delicate balance, for sure, but one that’s essential to delivering meaningful relevance at scale.

With increasing demands on time and discretionary spending (plus consumers’ sheer intolerance and impatience surrounding anything that's not highly tailored) personalization is not only a powerful tool, but a necessary one — nearly 9 in 10 consumers say customized experiences influence their buying decisions. So shouldn’t brands at least attempt to deliver what it seems they want?

Before you say yes, think about your own experiences as a shopper or app user. The average American faces 70 different choices each day, from the simple — what to wear, where to get coffee, what to make for dinner — to dramatic, thorny decisions like whether to accept a new job or make a high-ticket purchase. It happens so many times a day, we don't even notice most of the choices we make. But there is a compounding effect that adds to our anxiety when we're faced with harder decisions.

The Marketer's Dilemma

Targeting and personalization technology helps alleviate some of this everyday stress. It allows consumers to spend time worrying about more important things, like those bigger, nontrivial decisions. Questions like “What tablecloth should I buy?” and “Which winter jacket do I want?” can be delegated to the experts, i.e. brand marketers with the ability to create relevant consumer experiences based on past actions and preferences.

Sounds great, but as a consumer, I’m still torn. I waver on the notion of fully curated, personalized experiences. After all, I have diverse tastes. If you scanned my bookshelf or iTunes account, you’d never guess it was the same person who picked it all. So how could you, then, try to guess what I might want based on that? Now, think about the fact that marketers are working off of far less than this kind of deep dive into my personal possessions. With anonymous visitors — likely the majority of their site traffic — brands are working with infinitely less.

In The Paradox of Choice, author Barry Schwartz makes his own argument on this topic crystal clear: Lots of options and endless possibilities do not make people feel free and autonomous.

Having too much to choose from actually creates high levels of stress and anxiety.

Let’s say that I’m training for my first marathon. I need sneakers, so I enter “best sneakers for marathons” into Google. Nearly 1.1 million results turn up. I click on the first few, but I don’t love what I see. Or more likely, they're not exactly relevant to me — they’re women’s shoes, they don’t have my size, they’re out of my price range, or maybe, they just don’t go with the rest of the gear I already have. I’m frustrated and continue clicking. Maybe I buy, maybe I don’t, or maybe I resolve to check back later even though the experience will be identical.

What if, instead, that experience was curated just for me for maximum relevance? It seems like I would get a pair of sneakers that are perfect — or almost perfect — for me based on my current running apparel or past purchases and known consideration points, be they demographic, psychographic, or historical. The sneakers I’m shown first would always be the right color, size, aesthetic, and price. It’s as if someone got into my head, and magically, these sneakers appeared. I buy them, and everyone apparently wins.

There’s a ton of research supporting this concept. In a landmark study, grocery store shoppers encountered two similar displays: One with six jams and one with 24. Unsurprisingly, 50% more shoppers stopped at the 24-jam table, but only 3% actually made a purchase. As for that six-jam table? Conversion was 30%.

When P&G cut five Head & Shoulders products from store shelves, they saw a 10% increase in sales for the brand. In these examples, less led to more when and where it mattered most — in conversions — all supporting Schwartz as well as the in-depth work done by pro-personalization digital marketers.

But all of this still doesn't mean that severely limiting choice is the way to go. People always want to know what else they should want or need. While I might buy those spot-on sneakers for my marathon, I’ll still wonder what’s behind door number two, two-hundred thousand, or two million. What’s more, if something isn’t right with the sneakers I did buy, I’ll pine for what could have been with another pair, lamenting my decision not to dig deeper and search harder. And even if the sneakers are great, there’s the powerful pang of “opportunity cost” — can I really value these sneakers to the fullest if I don’t truly know what else is out there to compare them to?

FOMO — Fear Of Missing Out — paired with unlimited access, makes people feel like there are unlimited things to potentially miss.

This is a very real paradox that I see and feel every day as both a marketer and a consumer. If there is a right answer, I’d argue in favor of nurturing and embracing the consumer desire for choice and abundance while delivering some very carefully considered relevance — it’s a delicate balance, and one your brand will need to find through rigorous testing, but it’s doable.

Striking the Balance to Beat the Paradox

Here are a list of tactics that I've personally used and discovered to be helpful for marketers trying to walk the fine line between freedom of choice and over-customization:

Here's one with clear relevance to the mobile reading experience:

This one makes the call to action crystal clear and funnels everyone who sees the email toward one particular choice while also cultivating a sense of limitless selection:

What You Have to Lose

Consumers can always make the choice not to choose, and then everyone loses.

Consumers who become paralyzed by too many decisions often do nothing at all, since they can’t categorize, rationalize, or process what needs to happen to make that decision. In these cases, it's not just a marketing fail, it doesn't serve anyone. There's no sale for you, but the consumer also misses out on the perfect pair of marathon sneakers.

So, which brands are winning at this? A great example is Trunk Club, the personalized clothing service for men that was acquired by Nordstrom last year. Mixing old school service with a slick app and other digital tactics, Trunk Club’s 250 personal stylists get to know members’ tastes and preferences before making wardrobe selections and shipping them off. The result is a curated experience that doesn't feel limited. I don’t need a lot of choices when I feel that there's an expert who sees the full selection and makes these decisions for me.

This is just one example of how a brand can provide the feeling of freedom while very precisely targeting products based on data. The idea of a human expert makes the filtering less unsettling. But most startups can find their groove through constant experimentation and iteration. That's how I've seen it evolve in the right direction for most marketers. The key is to know that you're working with this paradox to begin with, and that over-personalization is just an easy answer, not necessarily the right one.

With seemingly endless choice and opportunity just a click away, paired with the increase in personalization sophistication, there’s a real tug-of-war. As a consumer, do I want choice, or do I just think I want choice? And as the marketer, should I be making those choices for consumers, and if so, how deep should I go?

In the end, without creating the affinity and comfort that comes from relevance, your brand will ultimately alienate consumers. Even those consumers like me who have been conditioned to think more, more, more is always better.

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