Psychology-Driven Brand Design. Creating and Refining Remarkable Brand Identities.

The Ambiguity Bias is Scaring Away Your Customers

Table of Contents

The Ambiguity Effect: The Experiment

Imagine you’re at a carnival. You stop in front of a game called Pick Pink. Sitting on the table are two boxes side by side, each with a covered hole cut into the top, just large enough for your hand to fit. The booth attendant tells you that inside both boxes are yellow and pink marbles. The object of the game is to reach in and pull out only pink marbles. Admittedly, not the most exciting game in the world, but you decide to give it a try.

The only thing is, you have to decide whether you want to pull from the box on the left or the box on the right. The box on the left has 50 yellow marbles and 50 pink marbles. The box on the right also has 100 marbles, but you don’t know how many of each color. There could be 90 pink marbles or 50. Or just one. Which box do you decide to play?

This is exactly the type of experiment that led Daniel Ellsberg in 1961 to conclude that most people will take their chances with a known probability for success (selecting from the box containing the 50/50 mix) as opposed to the unknown (ambiguous) probability of the other box.

That, in a nutshell, describes the ambiguity effect. It is the tendency for people to behave as though ambiguous information will lead to negative outcome rather than a favorable one, even if the actual chances are even, or positive.

What Does the Ambiguity Effect Have to do with Marketing and Branding?

We’ve discussed a few cognitive biases before and how they can impact your bottom line (Read more: “Running on Default”“The [Ethical] Way to Use Cognitive Biases to your Advantage”). The ambiguity effect is yet another cognitive bias that can impact the success of your marketing. In laymen’s terms, we can just call it “the fear of the unknown” and this uncertainty can send potential customers running to your competitors if they seem more like a sure thing.

The ambiguity effect could be affecting your conversions without you even realizing it.

  • You offer free consultations on your website, but you don’t get a lot of interest
  • Customers are adding products to their cart, but not finishing the checkout process
  • Your lead-generating popup is not generating very many leads

Of course, there could be many factors at play here. How do you know if the ambiguity effect is one of them?

To answer, you have to put yourself in your prospective customer’s shoes. If anything about the process is unclear, or not compelling enough to proceed, they won’t.

Let’s take a look at the three situations above from inside the head of your website visitor…

  • “Hmm, a free consultation, huh? How much value could possibly be in a free consultation? Nothing in life is free. What will this ‘free’ consultation require of me? I don’t have time to waste on a consultation that is just a sales pitch in disguise. And can this company actually help me? Their website has a lot of aspirational promises, but it all kind of sounds like fluff. Where are the real results? Are these guys reputable?” There’s not enough to reassure the potential customer a free consultation would be worth their time and energy. Dun dun duuuunnn!! — UNKNOWN.

  • via GIPHY

  • “Check out? Well I didn’t actually mean to add this product to my cart. I thought the button I clicked would just show me more details. That’s kinda weird. Anyway, I’m sort of interested in this product, but there aren’t many reviews. Some other products had lots of reviews. Does that mean this product doesn’t work? If I’m going to pay this much, I want it to work. Maybe I should keep looking. What is the return policy? Do they have a guarantee? And why can’t I see how much shipping would cost?” All these unknown variables, not to mention the confusing “add to cart” button can cause customers to simply move on. Dun dun duun! — UNKNOWN.
  • via GIPHY

  • “Ugh, this annoying popup. ‘Sign up for special deals’? I literally JUST landed on this website; I don’t even know what they sell, much less it’s something I’d want to buy. If I put in my email address, they’re probably going to bombard me daily with sales emails. No thanks.” A pushy popup delivered at the wrong time can deter people before they have a chance to get enough information to feel comfortable. Dun dun duuuuun! — UNKNOWN.
  • via GIPHY


How Can You Solve the Ambiguity Effect in Your Marketing?

The solution to not enough information seems obvious: more information.

On the surface, this may seem like a catch-22. Why? Because web experts claim that “people don’t read anymore” and that “less is more.” These are valid data-based conclusions. I don’t dispute them.

So we need to restructure the problem. It’s not always “not enough information.” It could be “not enough relevant information” or “not clear enough information” or “not the right information.”

Therefore, our solution to the ambiguity effect is not “more information,” but “better information.

Tips to Counteract the Ambiguity Effect on Your Website

How can you present better information to your prospective customers? Here are some actions you want to take on your website to make a future with you seem less scary for them.

1. Anticipate friction (questions, fears, or objections) and address them fully.

What are the obstacles in people’s minds that could potentially keep them from purchasing? Price, availability, quality, usefulness, value? How can you reassure them on these objections? Weave in your reassurances naturally into the flow of information, or list them all on a separate FAQ page.

2. Hide information but keep it accessible

You want your pages to be simple so as not to overwhelm your users. But you want information readily available to offer more clarity. So, keep top-level web pages concise, but offer an easy way to access details when desired. For example, on an overview of your services, a “more details” button is all you need beside a concise description for each one. Those interested will click; those not ready will keep skimming.

3. Use clear CTAs and instructions

If you’re asking people to take some action on your website, you want to make sure you’re not scaring them away or misleading them with the call-to-action (CTA) that you use. Rather than use “Submit” on your button, use copy that is more descriptive, like “Complete Signup”. And if your button says “Complete Signup” don’t make people go through another three steps before the signup is actually complete. People are going to be wondering what the consequences are of giving up their personal information, making contact with you, signing up for your free trial, etc. If your CTA is not clear, and consequences not stated, people will be hesitant to take that step.

4. Detail your process

Especially for service-based businesses, people may be wary of what exactly to expect. If you have a set process in place, communicate it clearly and simplistically. Just knowing that there is a tried-and-true procedure will help reassure people that you offer stability and consistency, and that they can trust in what comes next. Setting expectations is vitally important as a trust factor.

5. High-quality product photography and video

It’s been shown that product photography can make or break an e-commerce site. Since people can’t touch and hold items in their hands before buying something online, you want to provide the next best thing. Professional, detailed, high-quality photography and video will lessen the ambiguity of your product and make people feel more comfortable about buying. Use large photos and show the product at different angles.

6. Collect testimonials or encourage reviews on neutral third party review sites.

Social proof is one of the biggest trust factors there is. If 99 out of 100 people recommend something, there’s a good chance you’ll like it too. If 0 out of 0 people recommend something, it will give pause. There is less of a perceived risk when you know others have bought from a company and have had favorable results.

7. Hire a good copywriter

Because you want each word on your website to deliver the biggest bang for your buck, it’s worth it to invest in a professional copywriter. Ideally you want one that is well versed in both conversion and SEO. Many business owners, while experts in their field, may not be experts in communicating or selling. A professional copywriter can state your case in a compelling way, clearly stating the benefits of buying from you. This is possibly the single best thing you can do for your website.

Special Implications of the Ambiguity Effect

  • New products and young companies are at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to the ambiguity effect. With no reviews and little indication of past experience, these things are seen as more of an unknown.
  • Women tend to show greater ambiguity bias than men. So if your customers are primarily female, you may need to give this extra attention.

It Comes Down to Trust

Ultimately, to defeat the ambiguity effect, you need to make people feel more confident in the decision to give you their business. Be clear, build trust, and eliminate ambiguity. Case closed.

Picture of Nyla Smith

Nyla Smith

Nyla is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 15 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton Roads, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.

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