Product  |  29 March 2022  |  Stephan Delbos  |  3 minute read

From milkshakes to microcopy: how product content influences customer behavior

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How rational are you?  

Most people in the product world would answer: “very rational”. We like to think of ourselves as experts, the masters of our product, the ones who know how to build what our customers want – sometimes even before they know they want it. 

But there’s an established body of science that suggests we don’t control our behavior as much as we think.  

 

What milkshakes teach us about product content

Ever heard of the milkshake experiment

Conducted by a clinical psychologist at Columbia Business School, this experiment has been foundational for how we think about the relationship between words and behavior. And it tells us something important about how proper product content should work.  

Researchers made a single batch of vanilla milkshake and served it in two containers, one labelled as a healthy, low-calorie protein shake called Sensishake, containing zero fat, no added sugar and only 140 calories. The second, labelled Indulgence, was described as a rich, fat-laden dessert.  

Human psychology being what it is, we can assume that the people who chose the healthy shake felt rather virtuous, while those who chose the dessert felt like they were doing something naughty.  

From the product standpoint, this is interesting in terms of how customers think about themselves and how that self-identification influences their choices between products, and while using them. But what’s even more fascinating is the physical impact made by the words describing the milkshakes.  

Both shakes had the same ingredients, and both had 300 calories. But the metabolism of the people who believed they were drinking the indulgent shake responded as if they had consumed much more food than those who thought they’d consumed the healthier shake.  

The writing on the labels tricked the consumers, and their bodies reacted differently depending on what the label suggested they’d eaten.  

Talk about the power of copywriting!  

  

Milkshakes and microcopy  

I know what you’re thinking: if our subconscious mind controls our actions, customers will react to any suggestions that happen to come their way. How can product content teams possibly predict what their customers want if those desires are likely to change by the minute? 

That’s one of the wonderful challenges of building products that aim to delight the customer. The target is always evolving. 

And this is good news for product content teams. Because when a customer uses your product or platform, you’re giving them suggestions that have real impact. According to Alia Crum, the scientist who led the milkshake experiment, “Labels are not just labels; they evoke a set of beliefs.” Why shouldn’t product content do the same? 

  

How product content influences customer behavior

Let’s extrapolate. Your product content isn’t a milkshake label (unless you’re actually selling milkshakes) but it works essentially the same way.  

Customers read words in your product as they use it. While doing so, they have mental and physical reactions that influence how they feel and behave when they’re using your product – and how they think about your product over the long run. 

Thanks to the work of pioneering neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio, we know that emotion, not rational thinking, is the central influence on the decisions we make. And positive associations with rewarding decisions lead us to repeat them.  

Every detail of product content, from tone to phrasing, to localization and the number of words on a button, has direct implications on how your customers interact with your product and whether they choose to do so in the future.  

Recently at Mews we changed the text on a button from “Sign up in one click” to “Continue”. It’s no secret that CTAs with two or fewer words are clicked more than longer messages. In our case, this simple change resulted in a 10% increase in click-through rate. Why? Perhaps because users feel intimidated or annoyed at the prospect of signing up, while the concept of continuing seems more seamless.  

See? Product content really does affect how customers behave.  

  

Redefining customer-centric product content

Product content teams wield a very powerful tool: words. We’ve got to be sure we’re using that tool to help the customer (and the company) succeed. 

The needs of customer and company intersect because both parties want the customer to use a product or go through a process effectively. 

So, let’s redefine the concept of customer-centric product content. It’s not about showing more personality, it’s about humbling the language to put the user and their needs first. That’s how product content helps companies and customers meet their objectives. Companies can support those efforts by investing into perfecting a product’s language as much as they invest into its programming. 

Quirky, character-forward product content can be fun, but at the end of the day if it doesn’t help the customer navigate the product with minimal effort, even the sweetest tone of voice is only so many empty calories.  

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Stephan Delbos | 29 March 2022

Director of Product Content for Mews, it's fair to say that Stephan has a passion for copy. Outside of work, he's a published poet with a PhD in American Literature and Culture.

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