Can you hear it?
Click, click, click…
It’s a pleasing sound.
The sound of visitors signing up for your newsletter. The sound of project requests heading your way. The sound of purchases being confirmed.
You close your eyes and smile. You can see blue sky, sunshine, and sales … aaah, yes!
But all of a sudden, the sky turns gray.
That clicking? It’s the sound of visitors hitting the Back button. Of them returning to Google. Of them taking their business elsewhere.
Why are they leaving?
What makes those other websites more appealing? Why does their content get shared more? Why are they getting the sales?
How can you delight web visitors reliably?
Back in 1954, an American professor was asking himself similar questions about consumer behavior. And he developed an answer – a simple formula that tells us what makes content engaging.
His formula explains why we choose the websites we do – and it’ll help you create content your audience will love.
(And don’t worry, it isn’t complicated.)
Sound good? Let me explain how you can boost your content’s chances of being chosen.
The simple equation that decides content’s fate
We have Wilbur Schramm, the father of communications studies and the founding director of Stanford’s Institute for Communication Research, to thank for this equation. Schramm wanted to explain why newspaper readers preferred certain stories to others. Was there a pattern to their behavior?
To explain people’s choices, he developed the Fraction of Selection. It states that:
The probability of being chosen =
Expectation of reward/Perception of effort
To boost the likelihood of your content being chosen, you must:
- Increase reward
- Reduce effort
Today, the Fraction of Selection explains, for example, why many of us choose streaming services such as Netflix over regular TV stations. We get shows we love (big reward), and we can watch them when and where we want (little effort). In contrast, TV schedules dictate what’s shown and when (less reward, more effort).
Why we choose websites (and how to gain an advantage)
The Fraction of Selection also explains why we choose one website over another.
Think about your own browsing for a moment. You arrive at a website but can’t tell right away if it has what you want.
How long do you search? How much effort are you willing to put in?
When a web page promises to solve our problem or offers a product or service that sounds just right, we happily click through. But the length of time we devote to the page depends on whether the reward outweighs the effort. We follow Schramm’s Fraction of Selection.
How, then, can we use the Fraction of Selection to enhance our own web pages?
Let’s look at some content examples and see how it applies.
Example #1: A landing page
The Focus Booster app helps you use the Pomodoro Technique to manage your time and become more productive. But what if you’re unsure about what the Pomodoro Technique involves? Focus Booster provides an explanation.
Its explanation page ultimately rewards you by helping you decide if the Pomodoro Technique is for you and offers a free trial of the app.
The most important information comes first. You learn what the Pomodoro Technique is, and how you benefit:
“The main premise behind the technique is to work in blocks of time, typically 25 minutes long (called pomodoro sessions), followed by a 5 minute break. Each pomodoro session should demand your full attention on one task, every break requires you to step away from your work to rest.
The result is greatly improved productivity during focused work sessions.”
Those few sentences give you enough to decide if you want to know more. And if you do, you’re rewarded with greater detail as you scroll down the page. You get answers to common questions. And the sections Do You Need the Pomodoro Technique? and Who Should Use it? help you to make up your mind.
To reduce effort, Focus Booster provides a video that promises to explain the Pomodoro Technique in 40 seconds.
Bullet points, graphics, and clear headings break up the text and make the page easy to read.
Contrast the Focus Booster page with Wikipedia’s page on the Pomodoro Technique.
Even though the reward (information) is similar, the Wikipedia page has:
- Smaller text, which makes reading more difficult.
- Longer lines of text, making the page harder to scan.
- Navigation and language options that distract from the main content.
The page demands more effort and harms its chances of being chosen.
Example #2: An About page
Cubicle Centre is a British manufacturer of bathroom cubicles. Hardly the kind of company you’d expect to have a compelling About page. But it does.
Cubicle Centre rewards potential customers by describing the lengths to which it goes to deliver high-quality products:
“We scoured Europe to find the strongest panels and the toughest hinges. We checked out German-made manufacturing equipment. And when we couldn’t find the perfect drilling machine, we developed one ourselves.”
The company goes on to ask How can we help? And it follows up with three more questions:
“Looking for advice on specifications? Not sure about dimensions? Need a quick delivery?”
On its own, the vague How can we help? is an offer that’s easy to skim past or decline. But by asking three more specific questions, Cubicle Centre rewards you by showing it genuinely wants to help.
The company reduces effort by presenting its history as a timeline. The timeline turns what could have been a long, drab business story into an engaging – and quick – read.
Example #3: A Pricing page
Visitors who click through to email provider Mailchimp’s pricing page want to know exactly how much they’ll pay if they sign up.
Mailchimp rewards you with a price chart right away.
And it reduces effort by letting you enter your email list size in the Subscribers box to see exactly which plan is for you.
Mailchimp, Focus Booster and Cubicle Centre all help their visitors find what they want with minimal effort. And in the process, they make a great impression.
Become the chosen one
Every business is different. Every visitor is unique. So no one-size-fits-all solution exists for the perfect web page.
But what every piece of content should do – from Home pages and About pages to blog posts and sales pages – is put visitors first.
The Fraction of Selection helps you do that.
It forces you to think about the people coming to your website. Who are they? What do they want? How can I reward them?
And it ensures that everything on your pages serves a purpose. Question the value of any element that isn’t important. Help your visitor find what she wants without much effort.
Remember Wilbur Schramm and his simple formula. Don’t let those clicks haunt you.
Show your value, ensure your messages shine, and delight your visitors.
Your reward will outweigh your effort.
You’ll become the chosen one.
11 thoughts on “A 62-year-old Formula for Delighting Web Visitors”
great article Richard!
Thanks very much for your kind comment, Dan 🙂
Thank you for this very informative article! A lot to think about and then apply to our work.
Thank you, Louise. The Fraction of Selection helps me not only plan and create content, but evaluate existing material. I hope you find it useful too.
This post is great. Who wouldn’t want to become the chosen one? Thanks Richard for the clearing a path in a world that is overrun with best practices and how to’s.
I can see how the Fraction of Selection would shine a light when planning, creating and evaluating content.
I agree, Dawn. With so much information around, it’s can be hard to know what advice to follow. I hope the Fraction of Selection helps you cut through some of that. You know your visitors (and what they want) best.
Thank you for your lovely comment! 🙂
Isn’t it amazing how “old-fashioned” communication advice still holds true in this digital age? Despite fancy new communications tools, the basics of how to engage and persuade people appear to unchanged.
Great post, Richard!
Yes, that’s so true. What I love is the simplicity of Schramm’s formula. He developed it in an era when metrics were much more basic, yet it remains valid.
Thank you for your lovely comment, Henneke 🙂
I’m a proud communications geek! Love this article. What a fabulous formula that was from Professor Schramm! It still applies!
His formula is going up on my wall.
Thanks for sharing it.
Thank you for your kind words. I’m pleased you enjoyed hearing about Schramm’s formula – I hope you find it useful!
I’ll put this in my back pocket. Thank you for the advice! 🙂
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