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Buttered Popcorn Syndrome: Why Two Directives Are One Too Many

By January 13, 2012February 1st, 2018Marketing Insights & Strategy
Buttered Popcorn Syndrome: Why Two Directives Are One Too Many

My marketing inspiration today comes directly from the movie theater. You see, nearly every time I order snacks at a theater, the same conversation ensues. At first, it was annoying. Then as time passed and it continued to happen, it became amusing. After a while it was simply a study in human behavior. Ultimately, it’s an insight into how human behavior can affect your marketing.

The problem is Buttered Popcorn Syndrome, and it will wreak havoc with your snack order and your business plans alike.

Here’s How It Works

The movie theater is crowded and you’re about seventy-two seconds away from missing the first preview. You approach the concession stand running your order over in your head, so when the kid in front of you who can’t decide between Sno-Caps and SweeTarts is done holding things up, you can move things along. At long last, the kid has decided and his mother has finished counting out 36¢ in pennies. You approach the counter and announce smoothly:

I’ll have a large buttered popcorn and a large Pepsi.

And that’s when Buttered Popcorn Syndrome sets in. It hardly ever fails. The person behind the counter grabs a bucket, starts shoveling in popcorn, then stops and turns to you.

Did you want butter on your popcorn?

You wonder: is that not what I just asked for? But patiently, after all it’s now twelve seconds into the first preview, you answer, “Yes.” Recommence shoveling and a bucket of popcorn materializes. Alas, so does the next question.

What did you want to drink with that?

Thirty-nine seconds into the preview you repeat your request for a large Pepsi.

And so it continues. Heaven help anyone who orders a candy bar, hot dog or second drink with that order. It’s simply TMI. Poor concession stand employee’s brain cannot handle the barrage of information. The result is that you must repeat, or risk ending up with the wrong order.

How This Affects Your Marketing

This isn’t a commentary on the state of hiring at movie theaters or the lack of mental capacity of the probable high school student who takes your order. Nor is it a reflection on our diminishing short-term memories. Rather, it’s a simple statement: give a person too much information and little, if any, will be processed.

This is important when it comes to giving your customers and prospects information about what actions you want them to take.

Any marketer will tell you that a call-to-action is the central piece of a good marketing strategy. Define what it is you want your customer, website visitor or Facebook fan to do and prompt her to take action. This is sound advice. But rarely is it emphasized that a call-to-action is singular. It is an action, not actions.

If you ask your customers to do too many things at once, much like I asked that concession stand employee to do too many things, the entire exercise will be lost.

In the case of the buttered popcorn, I gave two directives: make it large and make it buttered. Experience has taught me that two directives are one too many. Even worse, in reality I gave four: large popcorn, buttered popcorn, large soda, Pepsi soda. Faced with four actions, the employee had to choose one, and the rest… well, I doubt they wiggled through the membrane of a single gray cell.

These days, when I’m not amusing myself at an employee’s expense, I ask for a large popcorn. Eventually he’ll ask if I want butter, and I’ll say yes.

If you want a response that results in the outcome you desire, you should use this strategy with your customers. Ask them to take a single, primary action. Once that’s done, you can try for a second.

This isn’t just anecdotal. It’s been supported by numerous usability and conversion studies that show that when there are multiple calls-to-action in a single place – whether that’s on your brochure, your Facebook landing page or your website home page – people will generally fail to take any action at all.

The Problem Is More Common Than You Think

Most of us want our customers and prospects to take more than one action. We want them to contact us for services, Like us on Facebook, sign up for our newsletters, download our eBook. If there were only a single action to take, it would probably be time to rethink our business outreach.

The problem is that we string these actions together like the largebutteredpopcornandlargepepsi request, and when it comes to marketing, it results in a more serious consequence than missing a preview.

The average consumer, overwhelmed with choices and directives, will experience a mental fatigue that results in zero response. No new fan. No new subscriber. No new lead.

What’s A Smart Marketer To Do?

Reduce the amount of mental effort required of your customers and prospects by defining the single, most important action that you want them to take at any given time. If your top priority is getting new email subscribers, then make that the directive. Make it easy, make it clear and don’t dilute your message or distract your customer by adding “and Like us on Facebook.” Just ask for popcorn.

Then, when you’ve achieved your goal, follow up with a second action and ask for the butter. For example, once a person completes your subscription form, instead of a generic “Thank you for your submission” message, you can provide one that’s more meaningful, such as “Thanks for subscribing. Like us on Facebook for more.”

These are sometimes called micro calls-to-action because you’re leading your prospect or customer to an end in baby steps.

The nice thing about micro actions is that you can start with the easy ones (c’mon, just subscribe, it’s easy and free!) and progress to the more demanding ones once you’ve built a level of confidence and trust (how about giving us your phone number so we can contact you about our services?)

Another strategy is to change the directive based on its location.

You aren’t confined to a single call-to-action just because two is too many; the key is to distribute and apply them appropriately. For example, on your website home page, your directive might be to sign up for your newsletters. But on your services page, your directive is more likely to be getting people to contact you for a consultation or meeting. And if you’ve gotten someone as far as your contact form, don’t muddle the issue by asking a person to do anything besides fill out that form and submit it. A contact page is not the right place to start asking for Likes and Pluses and Tweets… unless it’s in the “Thank You” message, in which case, ask away!

The Moral Of The Story: If You Want The Butter, Ask For The Popcorn First

Here’s your homework. First, define the actions that you want your customers or prospects to take. Make a list and make it specific. Next, prioritize them. Figure out what’s most important to furthering your business goals. Finally, decide where and how you’ll implement them so that whenever you touch a customer or prospect, you’re only ever asking them for one thing at a time.

It works in movie theaters. And it works in marketing.