Most marketers understand, at this point, that sending the same messages to everyone on your list all the time is not really helping. We all know that trying to be all things to all people results in being nothing to anyone. Being generic doesn’t work. It’s been proven time and again that marketing gets FAR better results when it is targeted and specific.

And yes, we marketers also know that the way to get targeted and specific is to segment leads into different “buckets” or interest groups. Doing that allows us to send information to them that is relevant to their interests, which, in turn, means that they’ll be more likely to read our emails, click our links, and ultimately, to become a customer or client. Pretty simple, right?

CAUTION: Slippery Slopes Ahead!

So how do you get your leads into segments?

Unfortunately – and I say that because it makes me sad when I see it – many marketers think the best way to do that is with a form that they ask people to fill out, or with (shudder) a survey. Might as well have a billboard flashing – TELL ME THINGS SO I CAN SELL TO YOU. Nope. no thanks.

Even if it were a good idea (it’s not), those things DO NOT WORK. Not only do you turn people off (do YOU love doing surveys or things that look like surveys?), if they DO fill out the form or complete the survey, there’s a pretty good chance you’re getting bad data.

And bad data is a marketer’s nightmare.

It’s actually worse than “no data,” which is the other thing you get when you turn people off and they exit the form or survey without ever completing it.

But this isn’t a post about how to properly segment your leads (or is it?). This is a post about choices. It’s CHOICES that turn off the people on your list, and it’s CHOICES that give you bad data. Unless, of course, you are VERY disciplined in the choices you provide.

A quick story…

Even this list feels overwhelming.

I was on a call with a client and they wanted help with a lead capture (opt-in) form. This particular client was a continuing education institution, and the form was to allow people to join the mailing list. With a lovely opening sentence, “So that we can send you the information you need, please let us know your interests from the list below,” they then populated the form with 47 different interests and expected people to choose between them.

47 choices, each choice representing a particular area of classes that the school offered. All so that the school can put leads into segments based on their interests. Yikes.

What do you think happens when you provide a list of 47 choices to people? To put this into context, imagine what would happen if you asked people their favorite color, and provided a list, with checkboxes, of all 64 crayon colors in the crayon box. Yeah, no.

The answer is in the jam study

It’s called “the paradox of choice” and it confounds marketers every day. Many marketers (and people in general) believe that if we offer potential customers more choices, they’ll be thrilled and more likely to buy – since it’s obviously more likely they’ll find what they want. In reality, the more choices we offer, the LESS likely it is that the potential customer will buy.

So what does that have to do with jam? Back in 2000, a couple of psychologists, one from Columbia and one from Stanford, published a study about choice, featuring jams. At a local grocery, a table was put out and jams were put on display. On alternate days, the table had either 6 different jams or 24 different kinds of jam – four times more. And I’m sure I’ve foreshadowed the outcome to the point where you know that the most jam sales occurred when there were only 6 jams on display.

While choice seems appealing, choice overload generates the wrong results. Ready to be really shocked though? In this study, sales when there were 24 jams on display were TEN TIMES LESS than when there were only 6 jams on display.


In the article I read about this, they used the term “Choice paralyzes the consumer.” What I usually say is “Too many choices get confusing, and confused minds don’t buy.” A colleague says “Confused minds don’t say yes.” Any way you slice it, more choices result in fewer sales.

Is that the only study? Nope. Since this groundbreaking work in 2000, a ton of research has been done on the topic, and studies in other areas (like food and clothing) have shown the same results. (Here is one of those studies – a very scholarly work from 2015: Choice overload: A conceptual review and meta-analysis)

Jams, Marketing, and Data

As you might have gathered from how things have gone so far, the school that put out the “subscribe to our newsletter” form with 47 different choices on it didn’t get a lot of takers. In fact, once that form was put into place, newsletter subscription requests dropped substantially. Simply put, when confronted with that many choices, most people simply stopped filling out the form and went on to other things.

In cases where the users DID fill out the form, there was no way to know if the data was even valid. I mean, haven’t you ever been confronted with a form you HAD to fill out and you just checked every other box? or the first five boxes? or did an “eenie-meanie”? Did you really consider every choice before checking or not checking its box? (If you did, you are a better person than I am, LOL.)

Good marketing data is what marketers need.

From a marketing perspective, it’s simple. Expecting that your leads will explicitly tell you what their real interests are is a huge mistake. A tiny percentage might. Most won’t. They’ll either make it up, giving you bad data, or they’ll tell you nothing, giving you no data.

You want GOOD data. You want data that tells you what people are truly interested in knowing about, and you want data that gives you some understanding of what is motivating the person on your list and what they might eventually buy.

You can’t get there with 24 choices, or 47 choices.

The truth is that, in most cases, you can’t get reliably good data with any number of choices, if those choices look like “Tell me things so I can sell to you.” Potential buyers of your products and services are too savvy and, frankly, too jaded to fall for those tactics much any more – and certainly not in the context of a first contact.

Do this instead

If you want to know what interests the people on your list, or the people choosing to join your list, listen to them. “Listen” to their clicks, their page views, their downloads.

Good metrics are part of good “listening.”

Plan your content, from your email marketing to your blog posts to your ad strategies, to allow you to monitor INTERESTS – not just a single click in an email. What blog posts are people reading? What download offers are they taking? What emails do they clickthrough? What pages do they view on your website? What ads (if you’re running them) are working?

That data forms what we refer to as an “intent database” – a referenceable, searchable way to understand your best prospects for each product or service you sell. It’s good data because it comes from actions and behavior, not from clicking checkboxes on a form or in a survey.

You’re allowing the people on your list to tell you the segments they belong in without you having to explicitly ask them. It allows you to get to know your leads so you can build an appropriate and honest relationship with them.

Bottom line, it sets you up to sell more of whatever you sell. And, after all, that IS why we market, right?