Cognitive Fluency and Customer Decision-Making in Sales
When designing a good website or a good shopping experience, simple is almost always better. Intuitively, an uncluttered layout with easy-to-follow instructions removes a lot of the friction that customers might otherwise encounter when interacting with an online store (or any kind of website or mobile app). This makes it easier and thus more likely to be used, perhaps helping to explain the current popularity of minimalist website design.
The power of simplicity has been further explored by consumer psychologists and behavioral economists. The more simple a tool, whether analog or online, the more easily people feel that they understand it. This feeling of “ease of understanding,” sometimes called Processing Fluency, can make a big difference in your customers’ behavior.
If someone speaks to you in a language you know very well (namely, one in which you are a fluent speaker), you will understand them better than if they spoke in a language you did not speak so well. This analogy holds for the idea of Processing Fluency: if you feel that you learned a piece of information more easily than another piece of information, then the first piece is more Fluent than the second. Because simple presentations are easier to understand, presenting the same information in a simple way versus a complex way will make it more Fluent.
This simple versus complex idea extends beyond the relative simplicity of a website. Text that is easier to read or easier to remember is usually more Fluent. For example, using italics is a good strategy for drawing attention to a specific word, but italicized words are also harder to read. Thus, writing a whole blog post in italics would make the entire piece less Fluent. Similarly, rhetorical devices such as rhyming makes information more memorable, and thus more Fluent.
Fluency Effect in sales
Why should you care about the Fluency of information? To start, it has several important consequences for customers’ choices and confidence, and can make the difference between whether they believe you or not. A great deal of research has looked systematically at these effects of Fluency.
The most robust finding is that people tend to believe Fluent information more than they believe Disfluent information (e.g. information that is harder to understand). For example, Rolf Reber and Norbert Schwarz published a 1999 study that showed people are more likely to believe a false statement (such as “Lima is in Chile”) when it is easier to read (such as using dark blue text on a white background) than when it was harder to read (such as light blue text on a white background).
The fact that consumers think Fluent information is more true is extremely important and suggests that they are more likely to believe and acknowledge advertisements and product descriptions when they can understand them more easily. But while Fluency increases consumers’ certainty that information is true, it also increases their confidence that they have understood and learned the information. For example, a 2003 study found that people were more likely to think they could remember words when they were presented Fluently.
More interestingly, a 2007 paper by Adam Alter, Daniel Oppenheimer, Nicholas Epley, and Rebecca Eyre found that people were generally more confident that they had understood product information about an mp3 player when it was Fluent versus Disfluent, resulting in a few interesting observations:
First, participants exposed to a source of Fluent information often did not understand the information as well as those who saw the Disfluent information: they only thought that they understood it better. In other words, although simplicity helps understanding, it also can lead customers to overestimate how much they understand.
This lead to a second important observation: participants who saw the Fluent information were more susceptible to nudges in their environment (such as the Foot-in-the-Door or the Decoy Effects) because they were not thinking as carefully about the products. In other words, they were overconfident, and it hurt their ability to override their immediate decision-making intuitions.
Finally, when participants were more confident that they understood the product information, not only did they think it was more true, but they rated the products more highly.
This last observation suggests an even more important effect of Fluency, namely that Fluent information is also more attractive to consumers. A 2005 study by Petia Petrova and Robert Cialdini found that consumers overvalued products (specifically vacation packages) that they had an easier time imagining. In other words, when their beliefs about a vacation were more Fluent, they liked that vacation more. The authors also found that they could make consumers value the vacations more both by describing them in more vivid detail, and by simply telling consumers to imagine the experiences.
More starkly (and more surprisingly), a 2006 paper by Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer found that stocks with more easily pronounceable ticker symbols tended to perform better in the short run because investors preferred them over less Fluently named stocks. In one of their studies, they looked at the stock performance of companies 1 day, 1 week, 6 months, and 12 months after they had been posted to the NYSE:
To emphasize just how successful investing in fluently named stocks would be, we calculated how much a $1,000 investment would yield when invested in a basket of the 10 most fluently named shares and the 10 most disfluently named shares. The fluent basket would have yielded a significantly greater profit at all four time periods: $112 after 1 day, $118 after 1 week, $277 after 6 months (all Ps < 0.05), and $333 after 1 year (P < 0.10).
In other words, new companies’ stock prices benefit from having a more Fluent ticker symbol, although the effect does go away in the long run.
Make your marketing fluent
Based on the research I’ve described here, making information more Fluent for your customers will make them believe it more, make them value it more, and make them use it more. So how do you make something more Fluent?
As I alluded to at the beginning of this post, one of the most important (and obvious) things you can do is to make sure customers’ environment (e.g. the website) has a simple design, is easy to use, and provides as little friction as possible at all stages of a purchase. On a more detailed level, make sure that the information to which you want customers to pay attention is printed cleanly and clearly, and you could even downplay the Fluency of information that you don’t want customers to see (such as by making it harder to read by putting it in italics or a faded color). Don’t forget that while less fluent information may just be downplayed in the presence of more Fluent information, sometimes it can also make customers feel like they don’t understand something, which reduces their confidence.
On a semantic level, you can also play with how easy it is to understand advertisements or product descriptions. Poetic and rhetorical devices make things more fluent, as does more simple vocabulary. For example, many electronic products will have specs that the average consumer doesn’t understand, meaning that this information is Disfluent. Finding a way to rewrite these specs in a way that looks and feels more accessible will make customers more confident that they understand the information, and this can lead to greater interested in the product.
Fluency is very important because it affects how we form our first impressions of the information we learn, and first impressions are extremely important. However, there are actually many more ways Fluency can affect consumers’ decision making, for example, it also affects how familiar, famous, typical, and reliable products are perceived to be. Lastly, if someone’s writing is easier to process, readers tend to think the writer is smarter, so I hope you thought this post was Fluent!
The Fluency of information is important. It makes the information seem more true, makes customers more confident, and makes them value products more.
You can influence Fluency by making information easier to process, read, understand, or memorize.
Bottom line: make things simple and memorable, especially the information you want customers to act on.
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