The benefits of making information hard to read

Making consumers exert more effort to buy something — through midnight releases or long waits outside the store, for example — has been a successful marketing strategy for companies seeking to fuel consumer interest in new products such as electronic goods, shoes, and movies.

But does making product or service information harder to read or process bring similar benefits to sellers?

Yes, in some cases, says marketing assistant professor Elise Chandon Ince.

Elis Chandon Ince
Many studies show that making information
easy for consumers to read or process benefits
the product or service provider. Sometimes,
however, sellers benefit by doing the opposite,
research by Elise Chandon Ince shows.

“There is an abundance of theoretical research showing that making information easy to process for consumers is the best way to go,” Ince says. However, recent research that she conducted with Debora Thompson, of Georgetown University, shows that “in certain instances, increasing processing difficulty can have a positive impact” for the service provider.

Ince says that a well-known 2008 study by psychology researchers showed that people judged an exercise routine and a cooking recipe to be more difficult when the instructions were hard to read, due to the font used.

Participants in that study, she says, “misinterpreted the difficulty of reading the information as indicative of the amount of effort and skill required to actually perform the task and thus were less willing to do it.”

Information processing difficulty influences value perceptions

Building on that study's findings through their research, Ince and Thompson found that information processing difficulty not only leads to perceptions of task difficulty but also motivates people to hire service providers for the task. Moreover, “the more effortful and demanding the task seemed, the more skilled the agent seemed to the consumer and the more valued the service.”

The authors conducted experimental studies with undergraduate student participants in different service scenarios: an online coaching service that helps students apply to graduate school, an online course preparing applicants for the admissions test for graduate business school, a campus social media event, a financial advisor service, a dry cleaning service, and a real estate service.

In the experiments, study participants were asked to read the information and provide their opinions about the perceived competence of the service agent as well as the perceived value of the service. The authors varied the font size, type, and background contrast.

“The participants reported higher willingness to pay for a one-year subscription for the online coaching service; were more likely to attend the social media event; saw greater value for the online preparation course, the financial advisor, and the dry cleaning service; and were more likely to hire the real estate agent in cases when the information about the service was difficult to read (compared to when it was easier to read).

Judging people by their names

Extending their research with another instance of information processing difficulty, the authors looked at the impact of last names and the difficulty or ease of pronouncing them.

They devised experiments that varied the name of a career coach: either J. Brown, the 5th most common last name in the U.S., or J. Schiefelbein, the 1809th most common last name. “Study participants tended to like the coach with the easy-to-pronounce last name better,” Ince says, “but they were more likely to pay a premium to hire the one with the difficult-to-pronounce last name.”

Ince says that these effects were obtained only when the participants believe that the service provider is competent — increasing information processing difficulty does not enhance the service agent's value when competence is in doubt.

The takeaway

Businesses should not make it impossible for consumers to read their materials, Ince says, as this would likely drive customers away. “Calibration is certainly an important practical issue, and more research is needed to investigate the optimal levels of information processing difficulty in real-life settings.”

But, she says, her research suggests that “slightly increasing the complexity of the vocabulary or font used in descriptions of a service or job titles or staff credentials can boost perceptions of effort or skill required and service value.”

“In retail settings, subtle manipulations of processing difficulty might already be successfully at work,” she notes. “Dim lights, hard-to-read menu fonts, and long and convoluted dish names are frequently used in fine dining restaurants.”

The authors' study, “When Disfluency Signals Competence: The Effect of Processing Difficulty on Perceptions of Service Agents,” has been published in the Journal of Marketing Research.

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