Customer choice of product information yields online sales

Internet marketing—freed from the constraints of print, radio or video clips—means an unrestricted opportunity to inundate the consumer with comprehensive product information… right? Actually, that might not be the best online strategy, according to Ann Schlosser, an associate professor of marketing and Evert McCabe Faculty Fellow at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Schlosser’s latest research, with Sharon Shavitt of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, finds that giving customers a sense of choice over the product information they view on a Web site can result in a more positive view of the company, thereby making them more likely to buy the product. This goodwill is especially prominent in the face of subsequent negative information, such as a bad review.

“This study shows that the more you involve consumers in finding information they want to know about the product—sort of identifying their own message—the more positive feelings they have about the company,” Schlosser explained. “The resulting goodwill increases their likelihood of purchasing, even to the extent that they become resistant to negative information about the product.”

Design Web sites wisely
This research challenges the old notion of marketing as a one-way communication medium, with the consumer in the passive role.

So rather than assail visitors with every bit of product information at once or shepherd them to a single “click here for more information” link, Schlosser said that companies would do well to organize their sites like Garmin, the GPS system maker, as an example. For each product it sells, Garmin offers visitors the opportunity to customize their shopping experience by choosing, via a set of links, to learn about product features, view images, read specs, see what comes in the box, view accessories or purchase maps.

“Web sites that do not offer a choice of product information via hyperlinks may not be designing their sites optimally,” Schlosser added.

Promote choice carefully
A final experiment in the study found that calling attention to customer choice can also be good for business—but only if retailers hit the right note. “If the online choice is too subtle, it doesn’t have the immediate effect of earning favorable feelings about the company,” Schlosser said. “If it’s too obvious that a company is offering customers this kind of choice as a persuasive tactic then it can backfire.”

The study, “The Effect of Perceived Message Choice on Persuasion,” is published in the July 2009 Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Earlier this year, Schlosser was named among the 50 most prolific marketing scholars over the past quarter century in the Journal of Marketing. In 2006, she was named the second-most prolific scholar of Internet-related marketing research in the Journal of Advertising.