The Paradox of Choice

We make an estimated 35,000 decisions every day; what to eat, wear, buy, think, say, where to go, who to sit next to, and so on. We face so many decisions that we can even suffer from decision fatigue. It’s why smart people like Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs had multiple versions of the same outfit – with no need for wardrobe choices, the mind is freed up to think other thoughts.

Sometimes we view decision-making as fun. This is the freedom of choice; we don’t want to be told what to do, we want options, no matter how few. Looking at the Travel industry, consumers face several fun choices when planning their vacation.  Oh the places you’ll go! Imagine the views, the food, the experiences. Yet even this process loses novelty and can quickly fatigue consumers- the many choices, prices and variations can be overwhelming and frustrating. McKinsey senior partner Alex Dichter put it recently “An average purchase journey for a single hotel room lasts 36 days; hits 45 touchpoints, distributed among search engines and the sites of intermediaries and suppliers; and involves multiple devices. Travel is a complex, high-anxiety purchase. Often, you cannot return it.”

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What can marketers do to make travelers’ purchase decisions easier? To help relieve the stress, Google recommends fine-tuning your marketing messages to match the customer’s pace. In other words, if the customer is still exploring options and looking for inspiration, don’t push for a sale, help them discover more instead.

Helping travelers discover more means reaching them while they are using a search engine to research and compare choices. According to a recent study, 31% of accommodation searches started on search engines in 2018, up from 23% the previous year. With search now part of all stages of the customer journey (see our post on that here), it seems logical that the same study found that customers who started the journey with a search made their travel purchase faster and with fewer stops along the way than those using intermediary sites such as online travel agencies. Interestingly, this was not because OTAs didn’t offer enough or better choices. It seems that they offer too many choices, forcing the consumer to postpone or start the search over again. Search results, in comparison, returned more curated, on-target results that helped customers make decisions faster. No more analysis paralysis, no more paradox of choice!

If search is becoming more important in the travel purchase journey, it follows that branded search should be seeing better results, too. And indeed, hotel brands are seeing a jump in branded searches: up +8 pp from 34% to 42% year-over-year. Could it be that customers are using branded search to avoid the paradox of choice again? Very likely. Unlike airlines, where consolidation has led to overfamiliarity and general brand indifference, hotel brands are many and diverse. Searching by brand name helps create that shortcut for experienced travelers that helps them decide faster.

To tip the odds of the decision being in favor of your brand, however, you still have to deliver a stress-free and pleasant experience to the end. One where the customer feels assisted, not sold to, and where they leave the site feeling great about their purchases. Challenge accepted?


From a marketing management perspective, here are some questions to consider:

  • According to Google, only 9% of U.S. travelers “always” know which brand they want to book with prior to researching.” How can you differentiate your brand at all stages of the journey: the dreaming moments, the organizing moments, booking moments, and the experiencing moments after consumers make a purchase?
  • Google’s same report states that consumers would be extremely likely to join a brand’s loyalty program If the brand tailored the experience to them. What are some ways to personalize the brand experience beyond allowing hotel guests to choose a room closer to the elevator?
  • Mobile is also becoming the primary device consumers use to research. What must you keep in mind when adjusting your marketing strategy to include a heavy mobile focus? Does device usage affect content messaging?