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The power of three messages.
Courtesy of Flickr
Courtesy of Flickr 

It’s no surprise that, as humans, we like things in sets of three: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Gold, Silver & Bronze. “So, three guys walk into a bar…” We consider it a winning streak after the third win. And we breathe a sigh of relief after the third “bad” thing happens. But what’s really surprising is a new research study that shows that when it comes to the art of persuasion – or manipulation if you prefer – whether you’re selling shampoo, cereal, restaurants or politicians three claims is not only the magic number – it’s the tipping point. Jam in a fourth and you risk making your audience skeptical of all your claims.

The study, “When Three Charms but Four Alarms” was conducted by two marketing and behavioral science professors at Georgetown University. As Susannah Jacob writes in The New York Times, “The new conclusion, that consumer skepticism crosses a threshold at three claims, counters previous research. For decades, a principle called the set size effect held that the more positive descriptors crammed into a message, the better.”

Turns out that a fourth claim, whether it’s in ads, website content, product packaging or other branded messaging, completely undermines the believability of all the claims. Even worse, it actually reverses what might have been an initially good impression.

I believe that when it comes to marketing your product or brand, there are three (of course) things worth considering:

1. Only the highest-impact product claims should survive.

It will take discipline, leadership and a bit of courage. However none of it is possible without true clarity about what makes your product or service unique. Yup, I know that’s a “duh.” But it’s a really hard thing to get to if there are too many cooks with opinions, not enough real insight about what customers want, or (deep breath) a product that actually isn’t very unique at all. Ultimately, it requires ruthless exclusion to relegate secondary claims to other channels. But please, don’t let your sales presentations become the dumping ground for everything and the kitchen sink.

2. Earned media is an important weapon in a brand’s arsenal.

The research showed that when the source communicating the messages was neutral, then almost any number of “reasons to buy” was a plus. Consumers distinguish between getting information (from a reliable third party or each other) versus being sold or persuaded (by a brand). Social media has only amplified the power of earned media to build deeper long-term relationships with highly engaged customers.

3. More is less.

Yes, consumers want choices, but not too many. It’s just confusing. They’re already cognitively depleted enough. So give them a break. Fewer things to remember or wade through may help you rise to the top of a list.

 

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