JeremySaid's Blog for Startups and Lead Generation

Optimize for e-Commerce Sales with Help from the Information Bias

Posted by Jeremy Smith on Mar 10, 2016 1:11:32 PM

I’m always on the web. I love to read about so many topics, from conversion optimization and marketing, to psychology, Mexican culture, football, music and more. I can read multiple articles or even a book or two about a subject and feel like I still want to know more.

Sometimes it occurs to me I might spend too much time gathering information. (And sometimes this thought occurs to my wife, but that’s a story for a different blog.)

I study terabytes of information sometimes just for the sake of knowledge, and sometimes because I need to make a decision.

It makes sense that we want to back up our decisions with information.

But the need to seek more information even though the additional knowledge won’t have an impact on your decision is caused by a cognitive bias, a hitch in the way our brains work. In this case, it is known as the “information bias.”

I hope I don’t fall victim to it too often, because the information bias distorts the way we evaluate information.


multiple screens

(Image source)

Wikipedia quotes Michael Vaughan’s The Thinking Effect: Rethinking Thinking to Create Great Leaders and the New Value Worker, and says an example of information bias is the tendency to think that the more information you have to make a decision the better off you are, even when that extra information is not relevant to the decision.

Information bias works two ways for us as online marketers.

We can:

  • Add loads of information about our products to our websites to keep inquisitive customers interested and more likely to be convinced to buy.
  • Find our customers — or ourselves — engulfed by the information sought and, because of “analysis paralysis,” unable to make any decision.

Like I have in several recent blog posts, I’m going to show you below how to take advantage of the information bias in your e-commerce marketing. Unlike other articles, I’m also going to discuss how to avoid potential damage from the information bias.

First, let’s define the information bias more sharply and look at how it came to be identified. Because, you know, I have all of this information I’ve gathered. And, more seriously, it’s good to have the full picture.

Does Information Bias Explain Unnecessary Medical Tests?

The go-to research into how the information bias works was published in August 1988 by psychologists Jonathan Baron, Jane Beattie and John C. Hershey. They presented their test subjects with a problem about diagnosing a fictitious disease:

A woman has symptoms and a medical history that suggest with an 80 percent probability that she has globoma. If it isn’t globoma, it’s either popitis or flapemia. There are treatments available for each disease, but each treatment does nothing for the other illnesses.

An ET scan with a positive result would indicate she has popitis. A negative ET scan would identify flapemia. If she has globoma, positive or negative ET scan results are equally likely.

Here’s the question: if the ET scan was the only test you could run, would you do it?

Most of the study participants said, yes, they would run the ET scan, even if it was expensive to do so.

But an ET scan would be pointless.

globomaRight? Of 100 patients with the patient’s history and symptoms, 80 will have globoma. The ET scan doesn’t change that. In fact, it doesn’t tell you anything that’s relevant to the diagnosis.

Of the 80 people with globoma, 40 are likely to get a positive result from the ET scan and 40 could see a negative. With or without ET scans, we know that 20 out of the 100 could have either popitis or flapemia.

Globoma will always be the most likely diagnosis, no matter what an ET scan finds. Treat her for globoma!

The test subjects already had all the information they needed, but they wanted more before making a decision. They were ready to spend money for useless information, just to have more.

Everyone knows more is better. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes more information is just more. Sometimes it gets in the way.

information buttom

(Image source)

Information Bias Can Help, Harm e-Commerce Conversions

Another study, done in 1994 by researchers in the Department of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, found that when people are trying to determine the value of a product they don’t know anything about, having information about it can actually hinder their thinking.

price vs. valueIn this study, researchers had participants complete contingent valuation (CV) surveys about two expenditures — increasing student fees for a campus movie theater and buying a personal noise filter — to determine their willingness to pay (WTP). Contingent valuation is a tool for judging hypothetical transactions, and WTP is an aggregated measurement of CV surveys to determine the value of these made-up goods.

But because these are goods people have never seen before, customers don’t know their value. It is supposed that, to determine value, customers apply “constructive preferences,” which are developed on the spot from a wide variety of heuristics and memory, and are biased. This wrecks the validity of the WTP measurement.

It’s expected that the best way to counter the bias of constructive preferences is to provide detailed information about the product.

The UMass researchers found that WTP increased along with the quality of information about the value of the transaction.

pull quoteThat’s good. Provide your customers with strong descriptions of your product’s value and they are more likely to buy. According to the study, this is especially true when the subject matter is of high relevance to the customer, because they are more likely to truly consider the information.

But a customer who does not have the motivation of high relevance — who finds the subject matter only relevant or says it has low relevance to them — will not be sold by otherwise persuasive information (i.e., sales copy).

However, low-relevance study participants were motivated by an altruistic element added to the descriptions. But altruism only worked on those who saw the project / product as having little personal relevance.

Which, why would a customer who didn’t care about your product or service wind up on your landing page in the first place?

It appears, the researchers said, that:

The recommendation to provide ... detailed information about the posited transaction may not offer a satisfactory solution to the problem of information bias. Under conditions of low relevance, respondents may fail to process the information carefully, and even if they are motivated to process the information, the description can bias their estimates depending on the nature and quality of the arguments it contains. Information bias is, in our opinion, particularly likely when respondents lack prior knowledge about the good.

Yet another study found a downside of information bias caused by providing patients with narrative descriptions of medical care they’ve received instead of just the usual list of procedures. The report says the additional information “may bias individuals’ decision making, resulting in patients making poorer decisions.”

As expected, the additional info provided in narratives had more effect on decision-making than routine reports, but “there was some evidence that narrative information encouraged the use of heuristic rather than systematic processing.” That is, relying on instincts instead of thinking it through.

In other words, providing a description of your product will induce an information bias, which causes customers to see more value in it. But those who are particularly attracted to your product will carefully weigh your product description, which means you need to provide good information to make the sale. It’s no surprise that the UMass study found a weaker-quality product description led to lesser WTPs.

Those who are less motivated about your product won’t pay close attention to the additional information and, if they read it, may become confused. They may see the value and be ready to buy, thanks to your description, but they are more likely to misunderstand what they are buying.

This can lead to conversions and sales, but also to unhappy customers and all the trouble and loss that follows. Don’t think that this is a problem for the guys in Sales. A customer who bad-mouths your company, even if it’s undeserved, can cause a lengthy and costly headache.

So, the lesson of how to capitalize on the information bias tells you to:

  • Describe your product’s value with enough landing page content to trigger the information bias.
  • Make your content high-quality so it persuades your engaged customers to convert.

Optimize Your Landing Pages to Trigger the Information Bias

Identification and study of the information bias tells us that the more information you put into a product description, the more you’ll assure a potential customer that your product represents a good value.

Extra information makes a customer feel more confident in their decision to buy, simply because they have it, even if a lot of the information has zero impact on how they actually decided to make the purchase.

This doesn’t mean you can just say anything. Your product description needs to provide some worthwhile information, and it needs to be persuasive. You still have to make the sale. The information bias does not jeopardize your job as a marketer.

In many respects, for marketing purposes, “more” really is better.

Your landing page’s More Information button, or better yet the Read More button, can do wonders for your conversion rates if you fill your customers’ heads with good material.

read more button

(Image source)

And, while usually we think of information as text, don’t forget that images are information, too, if they are actually informative.

Eye-tracking studies conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group prompted their principal, Jakob Nielsen, to write that “users pay close attention to photos and other images that contain relevant information but ignore fluffy pictures used to ‘jazz up’ Web pages.”

To create quality descriptive content that reaches customers, follow two old journalism models:

  • inverted pyramid story formThe inverted pyramid. This means you state your most important points first and work in less important facts and broader issues as you go on. You can lose a reader at any point, so get vital information to them right away.
  • The 5 Ws (and an H). Your product description needs to answer the basics. This Bigcommerce blog tutorial about how to write a product description nails it:
    • Who is this product for? Target your user according to gender (women or men), age group (college kids, retirees), lifestyle demographic (new mothers, car enthusiasts) or some other defined group of people.
    • What are the product’s basic details? Describe attributes such as colors, dimensions, materials, product features and functions.
    • When should someone use the product? Is it meant to be used during a certain time of day, seasonally or for a specific type of occasion? Just as important is pointing out whether a product can or should be used every day or year-round, which will speak to its long-term value.
    • Where would someone use this product? Is it meant for indoor or outdoor use, for your car or your home?
    • Why is this product useful or better than its competitors? This can be anything from quality to value and/or features.
    • How does the product work? This may not be necessary for every product, but if you are selling anything with moving parts or electronics, it’s a must-have.

Five Ws of storytelling

(Image source)

(Hey, Conversion Optimizer, do the 5Ws explanations sound familiar? They should.This information is a lot like what you need to create the customer profile that your product description targets. Researching questions like these is one way to know your customers. These are also answers that inform your unique value proposition. Remember that an optimized landing page, which is where product descriptions reside, targets a valid buyer persona and plainly explains your product’s UVP.)

And because we’re online, follow the newer writing model for scannable text. This explanation of how users read on the web tells us to use:

  • Highlighted keywords. This includes boldface or italicized text, contrasting typefaces, varied colors and other effects. Links in your copy also highlight text.
  • Sub-headings. Sub-heads should meaningfully describe the content below and use keywords in primary positions. Don’t be too “clever,” but a little wit is endearing and memorable.
  • Bulleted lists. Like the one you’re reading now. List one- and two-word points of information and elaborate in one or two sentences.
  • Short paragraphs. Each paragraph should express a single idea, even if (especially if) it’s only one sentence. Users are likely to skip past additional ideas if they don’t catch them in the first few words in the paragraph.
  • The inverted pyramid style. (See, I told you.)

One point I’m leaving out of the list above is the recommendation that online writing should be “half the word count (or less) than conventional writing.” As I’m sure you know, this thinking has changed in the last few years.

Longer writing is what’s valued online today, which plays right into our goal of prompting an information bias.

Length is valued, Moz explains, because longer articles tend to be shared far more often. “In fact, sheer word count was more closely correlated with sharing than any other variable examined.” People share what they like and value.

Or, as Search Engine Land says:

To put it succinctly, long-form content can make you look like more of an expert in your field, increase the likelihood of engagement and sharing, improve your search engine results page (SERP) rank, and increase your audience; because of your content, you will be viewed as an “authority” on the subject. All of that works to your benefit and translates to better brand awareness.

And all of that increases the perceived quality of your product description, which increases propensity to buy.

It is also crucial that the message of your landing page and all other elements of your campaign, from PPC ads to the check-out thank you, convey the same message to the same targeted users.

Writing at any length is more easily advised than done. Some of us are naturally more expressive than others (Hello!). But you (aided or not by your colleagues) really are the expert on your product.

writer at workJust start writing.

Write scannable text and create images that address who, what, when, where, why and how.

Here are nine more tips for writing product descriptions from Shopify. Here’s some writing instruction for e-commerce that speaks to long-form stories. “A long form is what it sounds like: waxing poetic about something you wouldn’t normally flesh out into a substantial story,” it says.

If you just can’t put the time into it or aren’t confident about your writing, hire help. If there’s a daily newspaper in your town, I guarantee there are laid-off writers available whose skills you can benefit from.

Optimize and Profit, Don’t Perish Due to Information Overload

Unfortunately, while you can use your site users’ propensity for information bias to entice them to spend more time with you and convert, this bias presents a real downside for the both of you as well.

Too much information can be a bad thing. As I say above, a secondary aspect of information bias is that it can lead to information overload.

"Sometimes, extra information adds no significant value,” one explanation says. “Sometimes it simply serves to confuse.”

You’ve probably heard of information paralysis or analysis paralysis.

“For marketers, this is a big sticking point,” Marketing Land says. “You’re immersed in your product on a daily basis. It’s hard to see the buyer’s journey with fresh eyes.”

This makes it easy to “dump your notebook,” to use another old newspaper expression, and write up everything you know.

There’s a fine line between the amount of content in a product description that will entice or repel your customers.

But you can keep from crossing the line with your product descriptions and on your landing page by simplifying your pages and your descriptive content.

Calvin writingAfter you’ve written a product description, go back through it and get rid of the unnecessary and potentially bothersome parts of it:

  • Get rid of jargon. Write in plain, everyday language.
  • Look for redundancy. Some repetition is good for transition and for driving home important points, especially in text likely to be scanned instead of read word-for-word. But if you’ve said it once, you can drop the reruns for brevity.
  • Delete examples and asides (such as parenthetical information). Ask whether an explanation or comment really adds to your message.
  • Look for unnecessary words. “That” is a primary offender; see how the sentence flows without it. Instead of “for the purpose of,” can you just say “to”? Look for shorter ways to say it.

Have someone else read your product descriptions and suggest cuts that leave your message intact but make it more easily read / scanned.

Meanwhile, you can tie yourself up because of your need for more and more information.

information overload

(Image source)

Analytics data, work-related reports and the many newsletters, blogs and other material you need to read to stay caught up can swamp you.

To fight analysis paralysis, One Up Web advises:

  • First, know your goals. “We can’t develop a strategy without them, and we can’t improve our strategies if you aren’t committed to them.”
  • Second, know your basics. Set benchmarks from existing data before you establish goals.
  • Third, know your values. Know what you are getting for a conversion vs. what you are shelling out (cost per acquisition).

For decision making, here are two guidelines I was recently reminded of by articles at SteamFeed and Formisimo, respectively:

  • Colin PowellOccam’s Razor: The heuristic dates to 14th century England and the logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham. It’s been stated many ways over the years, but basically submits that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Or more succinctly, the simplest solution is usually the best solution.
  • The 40-70 Formula: In most cases you only need 40 to 70 percent of the data to make a successful choice. This comes from Colin Powell’s My American Journey (excerpted here). Powell, at right, said you’ll never have 100 percent of the information you want, but you need about 40 percent of it. "Once the information is in the 40 to 70 range, go with your gut."

At some point, you’ve gotta suck it up, pick one and run with it. And then, whether you break the tape at the finish line or crash and burn in turn one, own it.


We naturally want more information to guide any decision we have to make. But sometimes the extra data is useless, and sometimes it can be harmful.

As an online marketer, giving potential customers more product information satisfies a need they will only fulfill somewhere else if you won’t do it. And by doing it, you can also help your conversion rate, especially if you provide quality information.

But be careful not to overwhelm customers or to be overwhelmed by an information glut yourself. Fight the downside of information bias by knowing what you want, what data you have and what you have to do.

And then, shy or not, have the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.

Topics: Cognitive Bias, Conversion Optimization, e-commerce, Information Bias, Web Psychology

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