Content influences offline purchasing behavior in profound ways. Its online influence is even greater.
"People say, I don't trust my own experience, but I trust those numbers," Christopher Hsee told Time Magazine in December 2008, when commenting on how people can be unduly influenced by product descriptions. Hsee, a professor of behavioral sciences and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, ran a set of experiments in conjunction with researchers at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
In one experiment, people were asked to choose between two digital cameras. When shown examples of photos taken by each camera, 26 percent of people chose Model A. When a similar group of people were told beforehand "that model A was a 4-megapixel camera while model B was a 2-megapixel version, a full 75% chose model A," Time reported. "How information is presented can also have a drastic effect: when resolution was expressed as 2,900 dots on the diagonal as opposed to 4 million over the entire screen, preference for model A fell back to 51%."
In another experiment, a group were given two towels. One was much softer than the other. 57 percent of people chose the softer one. Another group were asked to draw circles based on how soft they thought the towels were-the larger the circle, the softer the towel. After drawing the circles they were then asked to choose a towel. 83 percent picked the softer towel, 26 percent higher than the other group. Turning their feelings and opinions into actual content changed the opinions of a significant percentage of people.
"It's not hard to imagine using a product, talking about it on a web site for other consumers, and, in the process, upping your own chances of buying more," wrote Barbara Kiviat, the author of the Time article. "One big problem with letting your buying be swayed by specs is that your underlying preferences likely don't change along with your purchase decisions -- and so you wind up at home with things that don't make you as happy."
This was confirmed by a study called "Feature Fatigue", published by Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, which was featured in the February 2006 issue of Harvard Business Review. The study found that "consumers give more weight to a product's capability benefits and less weight to a product's usability before they use the product than after they use the product-despite the fact that a product's usability strongly influences their satisfaction with the product."
While "people prefer to purchase products with more features … when people actually had a chance to use the product, they were more satisfied with the simpler version," the study stated. "Even though people want more features, companies need to balance initial purchases against long-term satisfaction and repurchases. They could eventually lose market share if people are consistently and systematically unhappy with their product."
Think about the Web for a moment. For many products we don't get a chance to 'hold' them, to try them. So, the way the content is written is even more important in helping to frame expectations. Web content needs to be managed in a rigorous, professional and scientific manner.