Jeff Zych

Framing your message for maximum impact

A common piece of advice in the website optimization space is to test headlines and copy to find the optimal messaging. But there are endless possibilities and it’s not feasible to test them all, so how do you focus your tests on only the content that’s most likely to have an impact? Having a good hypothesis of why a change will be effective is key, and one such theory is framing.

Framing is the simple idea that different ways of presenting the same information will evoke different emotional responses, and thus influence a person’s decision. A simple example is the statement, “the odds of survival one month after surgery are 90%” is more reassuring than the equivalent statement of, “mortality within one month of surgery is 10%.” Although these statements present the same information, they bring drastically different associations to mind. With the former it’s easy to envision an outcome of survival (and thus be willing to go through with the surgery), whereas the latter evokes death (and will be less likely to take the perceived risk).

The subtleties of framing a message are well known to marketers. For example, CityCliq saw an 89% conversion increase by changing their headline from, “Businesses grow faster online!” to, “Create a webpage for your business.” (They have since further optimized their homepage to have a different headline). The original headline is abstract and framed passively, whereas the winning variation is framed in an action-oriented way.

This idea can be used more widely than for just selling products — any organization that’s trying to spur people to action can make use of it as well. Convincing people to volunteer for a cause, sign a petition, donate money, etc., can all be greatly influenced by the way the message is framed. For example, Banks, et al., studied how this phenomenon affects behavior by showing two groups of women videos on breast cancer and mammography in order to convince them to get screened. The first group’s video was gain-framed, espousing the benefits of having a mammogram, whereas the second group’s video was loss-framed and emphasized the risks of not having one. Only 51.5% of those who saw the gain-framed video got a mammography, compared to 61.2% of the latter group (an 18% increase). The information presented was equivalent, but receiving it in a loss-framed context forced people to imagine the scenario of having breast cancer, which spurred them to action.

So how do you know which way to frame your message? There are no one-size-fits-all rules — it’s still important to test variations. But now instead of arbitrarily changing words (which could go on ad infinitum) you have a narrower and more focused approach to crafting messages. What you want to avoid is testing essentially equivalent phrases that are unlikely to have any significant impact on your goals. For example, the phrases, “the odds of survival one month after surgery are 90%” and, “there is a 90% chance you will be alive a month after surgery” contain the same information and are framed equivalently, and thus aren’t likely to change your visitors’ behavior. Instead, you should think about strikingly different ways you can frame your value proposition and test each of them. Try asking yourself:

  • Is this positive or negative (e.g. the odds of survival example)?
  • Is this loss-framed or gain-framed (e.g. the mammography study)?
  • Is this action-oriented or passive (e.g. the CityCliq create a web page example)?
  • More generally, what associations are brought to mind? For example, deli meats that advertise “95% fat free” sounds healthy, whereas “Only 5% fat” sounds unhealthy. This is tricky to ascertain a priori, but you can read messages to people around you (co-workers, friends, family) and ask what first comes to mind when they hear it.

Your message may not have a clear answer for all of these, but for the pertinent questions you should test messages with the opposite framing. More likely than not, one of them will resonate better with your audience.

For more on this topic, read chapter 7 of Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.

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