Some time back, we identified an issue where customers were hitting product pages for our digital media content, but then abandoning the site immediately after. After seeing this, we dug in a bit further and saw that the majority of this was from customers coming directly to the site via Google or other search engines.

The best way to get to the bottom of this behavior, we decided, was to put together a survey and ask customers why they were leaving. After gathering quite a bit of feedback, the reason became abundantly clear: roughly 75% of respondents said they “decided not to purchase” because they “wanted the product for free.” (And that doesn’t include the people who would be too embarrassed to admit such a thing!)

Well, obviously making product free wasn’t an option – at least not if we actually wanted to retain licenses, continue to exist as a company, or follow any sort of ethical standards we have in place. So we struggled a bit – was this group of visitors simply a lost cause? Were they people who just weren’t going to be converted to customers?

We followed-up the survey with a test of removing some of the barrier, simply by offering a rather generous coupon for the first purchase. The result? Nothing. It appeared to come down to “I want it free or not at all (or I’m determined go elsewhere and find it for free / pirate it).”

So, after this disheartening response, as well as negative results from other related tests, including some page redesigns, etc, we decided to put this on hold, and for the time being, accept that these people weren’t likely to be customers.

But then we came up with an idea: What if people were just reminded about the legality and ethical aspects of paying for content vs. trying to find it for free? Was it possible that some customers didn’t even know that the “free” content they were looking for was actually illegal, and also not helping out the songwriters in any way? Perhaps reminding them of this would plant a seed, and make some of them think twice.

And so, we went ahead with a test. What happens if you put a message about copyright and ethics on a product landing page targeted to customers who may have come in looking for free product?

So far, it turns out, it has a definite positive impact. We’ve put together several different variants of messaging, including reminders that buy paying they are supporting songwriters, reminders that by buying from us what they’re doing is legal and they aren’t risking trouble with the law, and several variants in-between. We’ve run these against each other, as well as generally against messaging about how the product works (new customer product value messaging) and another coupon. The positive lift is definitely apparent in the “ethics” messaging – but negligible in the other types of messages.

It does seem to make sense, especially now that I’ve done additional research. In particular, I’ve been reading The Honest Truth About Dishonesty by Dan Ariely (author of the equally fantastic, must-read, Predictably Irrational), and according to research he’s done, this kind of behavior is mirrored in other, similar, circumstances. From what he’s seen and from what we’re seeing, people tend to act ethically, but even more so when they are reminded to do so. In his experiments, people were presented with “honor pledges” before reporting scores on tests, and were less likely to cheat. In our instance, people who are reminded of the ethical implications of shopping from a legitimate source that follows laws and supports songwriters through royalty payments appears to actually convert some people who would have earlier just left the site and searched to get it “free” somewhere else.

The simple take-home: Reminding people of ethics appears to encourage ethical behavior.

I’m guessing those anti-piracy ads before movies do more good than I’d previously assumed.

Ethical Reminders Have a Positive Impact: Increasing Conversion Rate on Digital Media Sell-Through Via “Morality Messaging”
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