Dan provided a great summary of the attributes of ideas that catch on:
Keep it Simple (Stupid) -- the Rule of KISS
One of the attributes he expanded upon was "simple." Presenting users with too many choices reduces their response rate. So, avoiding "decision paralysis" is one key aspect of keeping an idea simple.
This can be completely non-intuitive at times. There are certainly situations in which you would think that adding more choices would lead to higher conversions.
Dan offered up a few examples. One study involved an analysis of retirement contributions made by employees through company-offered retirement plans. These plans all offered employees a variety of funds to put their money into. The study showed that for every 10 plans added to the mix (more choice), overall employee contributions went down one percent.
Doesn't make sense, right? I decided to test this one myself and ran a simple experiment.
As part of a promotion, a Web site offered people a free 30-minute consultation with a resume writer or a free 30-minute consultation with a career adviser. We got an OK response rate on this promotion, but then we tweaked it to offer only the resume writer. The response rate doubled. This is a scenario in which you would think that more choice would capture the interest of more visitors, but it didn't.
The Curse of Knowledge
A major element of this is what Dan refers to as the "Curse of Knowledge." This was also illustrated by an example.
There were two groups of people used in a study: tappers and listeners. Tappers were told to tap out the rhythm of a very popular song. The songs were designed to be songs that everyone in the survey would know it upon hearing it (such as "Happy Birthday").
The listeners were tasked with guessing what song the tapper was tapping out. Only one in 40 of the listeners correctly guessed the song. When asked to predict the success rate, the tappers guessed it would be one in two.
The problem: the tappers could hear the melody in their head, but the listeners, of course, could not. The tapper's knowledge caused them to not fully appreciate the situation of the listener.
This is an extremely common business problem. In Web site design, publishers put up sites based on their assumptions, and it's common not to test those assumptions. This is a dangerous way to go about business. Knowing your business by definition gives you the curse of knowledge. An excellent argument for landing page optimization if there ever was one.
Make it Real (Concrete)
It's so important to make the concept easy to understand. To illustrate this, Dan retold a rather famous urban legend:
There was a man at a bar, and this beautiful woman came up to him and offered to buy him a drink. Later they go back to a hotel room, where he blacks out. When he wakes up, he finds himself in a bathtub full of ice. There's a sign on the wall telling him "Don't Move, Call 911."
Frightened, he follows the instructions. Once he makes the call, the person on the other end of the line gives him the bad news: he's the victim of organ donor thieves.
What makes the story continue to circulate is its concreteness. The image of sitting in the bathtub of ice is a memorable one. In addition, the idea of being hit on by a beautiful woman is enticing to men, and the shocking thought of having your organs stolen. The story hits you at multiple emotional levels.
I recently tested this concept on a site. I saw a place where a vague tag line was used for an offer that was intended to catch a wide bucket of people. We tightened up the description, and made it narrower, knowing that some people who could be helped by the product would now be overtly turned away.
The result? Increased conversions by 37 percent. One of the reasons for this relates to my recent column about the "attention-challenged generation." Most likely that promotion you're offering won't get anyone's focused attention unless it catches a user's eye. If it takes them a few seconds to interpret your message to see if it applies to them, you've already lost.