Are you selling something? Are clients unsure of its quality? Use the Effort Heuristic – People use the effort it takes to make/acquire something as an indicator of its quality. Make adverts that induce the effort heuristic.
- More effort – more quality
- Low effort – low quality
In 2004, J Kruger and colleagues published a highly influential paper titled “The effort heuristic” in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that shows people use effort as a heuristic for quality. A heuristic is a decision-making shortcut, and we use heuristics when it’s difficult to take another path to reach a decision/conclusion. To estimate quality, one has to go through reviews, experience, trial & error, expert opinion, popularity, logic, etc., which becomes a complex task. So as a way to avoid that, we use the effort it takes to make something as an indication of quality.
In their 2004 paper, Justin Kruger, Derrick Wirtz, Leaf Van Boven, and T. William Altermatt gave a painting, a poem, and a suit of armor for participants to evaluate. They then gave the participants information about how long it took to make them and how much effort went into it. Participants rated the painting, poem, or armor that took more time and effort as more valuable. This effect, dubbed the effort heuristic, was more prominent when participants had little to no understanding of what it takes to make the final product. So higher the uncertainty about a product, the more they will use the effort heuristic. This is the main insight for effective marketing – when someone doesn’t know what your product is, show the effort it took to make it. The lesser they know about the product category, the more you should focus on the effort to justify its value.
You might think a report written in 10 hours is more valuable than a report written in 1 hour. However, a novice could take 10 hours to do what an expert can do in 1 hour. So the real estimate of effort is how you brand that effort. For example – it took me 10 years of working in the industry to learn how to do this in 1 hour. It took me 5 years of intense musical practice to learn this song in 1 day, while a novice is spending a year mastering the basic elements of that song.
Effort requires branding and then it is a powerful way to improve sales or conversions through advertisements.
Here’s how to use it for better sales via ads.
If you are selling art
- Make videos showing how much work goes into it.
- Use time-lapse and sped-up videos to show progress.
- Describe the resources you use and what they cost.
- Show why those resources are worth it for quality.
If you are selling food
- Show the work that goes on before you start cooking
- Depict timers and alarms that show the wait is over
- Show your team and what work they do – including cleaning, prep, and raw material preparation
If you are selling content
- Speak about the time it takes to research and edit.
- Describe the tools you use to offer value.
- Show how much work is discarded to maintain quality.
- Explain the testing or iterative phases of your work.
If you are penetrating the market with new consumer goods
- Show ads about the manufacturing process.
- Show your team.
- Describe the innovation and design process.
- Show all the improvements you’ve made before selling the final version.
Additional tips on how to show effort behind a product
- Show behind-the-scenes content.
- Show your failures.
- Show previous iterations and improvements through the evolution of the product.
- Show how you took user feedback and implemented it.
- Keep records of your development process with photos, videos, candid commentary, storyboards, equipment purchases, machinery installations, etc., and use that footage in ads.
Whether you are freelancing, heading a sales & marketing team, in a startup, or in a small business trying to improve sales, showcasing the effort behind the product will help you, especially when your client or buyer doesn’t know if it will be a good or bad purchase.
Effort indicates quality when quality cannot be evaluated (yet).
Why will someone listen to you showcasing your effort?
When people want to buy, they want to reduce uncertainty about their purchase. They will engage in all sorts of uncertainty reduction behaviors.
- exploring reviews
- unboxing vids
- judging others’ comments
- verifying online presence
- looking at the creator’s credibility
- creator’s transparency
are common uncertainty reduction behaviors.
But that’s not enough or possible in most cases. That’s when you showcase the effort.
The effort heuristic also describes why we often think custom clothes and local handicraft is better than factory-made goods.
We are more aware of the human effort that goes into custom and local items. So, we assign more value to “hand-crafted” than “precision-machine-made.”
There is another side to this heuristic. We judge the quality of a product based on how much effort we took for it. This means the money, time, and effort that goes into acquiring something is used to rationalize how good the final outcome is.
The IKEA effect is a cornerstone example. The effect describes how consumers value products they build or contribute to more than products that take no effort. When a consumer is invested in the product, it seems more valuable. Brands offer customization and feature requests for this exact reason – consumers make a bit of their product. This is something advertisements can highlight. Research on e-commerce does point out that consumers value DIY and assembly only when it’s easy. When it is difficult, it creates consumer dissatisfaction.
A widely studied aspect of marketing is loyalty programs and when users choose to opt-in. Studies show that users prefer a loyalty program when 2 conditions are met:
- They require effort to join them, and the user believes they can meet the requirements better than the average typical customer. For example, I buy more coffee, so I have an advantage in qualifying for this loyalty program over someone who visits the cafe less than me. This nudges them to feel special. Researchers dub this the effort advantage.
- The loyalty program suits the user with what researchers call the idiosyncratic fit heuristic. Consumers who somehow relate to the loyalty program are more likely to join the program than those who don’t relate. Researchers say that the unique qualities of the program should suit the consumers’ identity, needs, or future goals.
If you’ve wondered why universities and companies make it so difficult for an applicant, it’s partly the effort heuristic. Universities and corporates use the effort needed to qualify or apply as a way to value themselves higher. Over and above attracting a better crowd and filtering those with a lesser commitment to their potential. By creating strong barriers to entry through multiple interviews and admission requirements, universities and corporations amplify their perceived value by invoking High effort advantage and High idiosyncratic fit.
Another study suggests a similar pattern, but participants were split based on their social status and evaluated packaged goods. Low social status participants (as opposed to high status), preferred products with more complex packaging, which gave them indirect information that the producers of the goods must’ve put more effort into the product. Researchers suspect that low-status consumers conclude that a product is valuable because they believe the makers put in more effort when its packaging is complex. The same principle can apply to ads. When consumers think they have to put in some effort to reach a product, they would conclude it is valuable. Call-to-actions or step-wise instructions in the form of a rhyme or tagline can easily convey this information.
Consumers generally tend to pay a premium when companies make effort to display or advertise their products. The viral Sleepy Owl coffee advertisement clearly shows this. A model does a silent body language narration of what it costs the company to display the ad. Other successful ads from the company show effort by showcasing the process of making good coffee. Research corroborates this. When consumers feel the company makes an effort for them, they reciprocate it by being more willing to purchase their products, and also pay more for them. But consumers don’t like feeling betrayed, if the attempt to show effort is seen as insincere, consumers don’t reward the company for their effort. So ideally, effort shown through adverts must be candid and not solely with the goal of persuasion.
If the ad is not good enough, you’ll find it hard to convince others your product isn’t good enough. If the ad shows no effort, they’ll think your product took no effort, so it isn’t valuable.
When a consumer waits a lot for a reward, like traveling 1 hour to a new restaurant, they think – “this better be worth the travel.” In such cases, the restaurant can use the effort heuristic to value themselves higher by showcasing the effort it takes to offer consumers their food.
Consumers’ tolerance for unknown products/services
From a marketing psychology point of view, a potential customer base can be classified with one powerful variable based on their purchase or interest history. Over and above demographics, a market can be segmented as having high or low “tolerance for uncertainty.” Tolerance for uncertainty is simply how accepting someone is of risky decisions and unknown factors, and how much effort they will put into reducing that uncertainty.
Recent research suggests that highlighting an advertisement as “potentially the best” may work better than proving they are the best. The potential excites people with a high tolerance for uncertainty. And the effort heuristic is potentially a way to reduce uncertainty for those who have a low tolerance for uncertainty.
One study shows that people differently value the potential for something being the best based on their tolerance for uncertainty. Those with a high tolerance for uncertainty, that is they are willing to take risks, are more excited by the potential surprises and are willing to try something new out. Those with a low tolerance for uncertainty are less inclined to try something out when there is high potential. So when you make adverts that reduce uncertainty by showcasing the effort, consider how tolerant of uncertainty your market is and what you can do to reduce or increase it.
Those who have a low tolerance for uncertainty generally seek immediate clarification and further details. For example, they would employ uncertainty reduction behaviors like quickly going through the menu of a restaurant if their friend wants to take them to a newly opened restaurant. Zomato knows this. They ensure the menu is available with a bunch of different category photos, including a vibe check, so the user knows what they are getting into. This is a move to reduce uncertainty as much as possible.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
I’m based in Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play 2 guitars at a time.