Avoiding Over-Justification

We’ve been talking about metadata recently, and I’ll return to that series shortly. But today, I want to talk about a deep-rooted problem in interactive marketing: over-justification. Over-justification is one reason online profit margins are so slim and a big reason Troy, on “The Apprentice,” heard those two scary words from Donald Trump: “You’re fired!”

What Is It?

Over-justification is rooted in psychology. Simply put, it’s giving someone a reward or incentive for doing something inherently good. In a marketing context, over-selling is part of over-justification. On “The Apprentice,” one piece of advice Troy received (and ignored) was, “Don’t sell when it’s already sold.” He sought someone’s help. Even after it was offered, Troy kept trying to prove why helping him was a good idea. It soured the deal a little, and his project’s credibility was called into question.

Over-justification is closely linked with reward schedules and human psychology. Any good book on childrearing raises the subject. Think of convincing your kids to eat their vegetables. Eating your vegetables, as a concept, is not an inherently bad idea. Children aren’t born with a predisposition to believe vegetables are the worst part of dinner (or that dessert is the best). It’s you, through over-justification and over-selling, who reinforces these ideas.

If you ever said to your child, “If you eat your vegetables, you can watch TV tonight,” or “If you finish your homework, you can stay up late tonight,” you’re guilty of over-justification. In doing so, you’ve made implicit statements: “Vegetables are bad” and “Doing your homework is bad.” They are in fact, so bad, you bet your children wouldn’t do either without a reward like watching TV or staying up late. By rewarding them for doing something inherently good, you’ve made them regard how good the action is (eating or studying) with suspicion. If either action really were good or fun to do, they wouldn’t need a reward, would they?

Online Over-Justification

Marketing is brimming with over-justification. A classic example is the infomercial in which you’re shown a product for $89. The company throws in four or five more products as incentives to buy the first one. (Order the set of five knives now! You’ll also get the juicer, the paring knife, the cookbook, and a stainless steel wok!) By the end of the infomercial, you’re really wondering how good the original product really is. They’re trying awfully hard to get you to buy it. Music clubs that offer you 50 CDs for $0.50 as a sign-up incentive are suspect for the same reason.

I’m not saying business is so good and customers are so plentiful you should just sit back and not try to lure more in. But in acquisition marketing there’s a fine line between making people aware of your services and overselling those services to the point of losing credibility.

One common reason for an incentive is when you’re introducing a new behavior pattern and trying to migrate people from an older and costlier one, such as an airline offering 1,000 bonus miles the first time you use its online check-in system. It’s trying to move you to a different channel and an unknown business process. The bonus is an incentive.

Even so, something inherently more convenient for the customer shouldn’t require added incentives. It should be obvious to the customer this is a better service. The incentive makes me feel I’m saving the airline so much money by switching to online check-in the company feels it must “even things up” by giving me 1,000 miles. I wonder how much money I’m really saving it. Is 1,000 miles enough compensation? Why not 2,000 miles?

In acquisition marketing it’s easier to win a customer who already has a need for your services. Before you spend the time figuring out what incentives to add to your products and services to make them more attractive, take a step back and think about your target. Have you invested equal time in discovering those audience segments with a genuine need for your company’s services? Those people don’t require over-justification and over-selling to recognize the value of your services if they’re already sold on finding a solution to their problem. As Troy learned the hard way, you don’t need to sell something that’s already sold.

Until next time…


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