Anchoring And Search

A few columns back, I talked about psychological priming and how it could play out in a search environment. In today’s column, I’d like to talk about a related concept: value anchoring.

Given almost every product category, with the exception of those things we buy very frequently (in my case, chocolate bars, beer and books), we don’t really know what the current going price would be. Either we don’t buy them frequently enough, or the price is subject to market volatility. We may have a rough idea of prices, but we need to adjust this price estimate to the current market conditions.

We need a pricing framework because, as consumers, we need to establish in our own minds what a “fair” price would be. This concept of fairness taps into some pretty deep emotional triggers -- ones that vendors should be aware of. I’ll explain in a minute how these concepts of fairness can play out in a typical purchase journey.



Remember, our determination of what price is fair is totally arbitrary. It’s not as if we know objectively what the “fair” price for a carton of eggs, a big-screen TV, or a hotel room in San Francisco is. We make these pricing decisions based on comparisons to available information. And it just so happens that the first piece of information that is available to us tends to play a significantly bigger role than any of the subsequent information that we may come upon. That first price we’re exposed to anchors our heuristic comparisons and tends to linger in our subconscious, triggering emotions that drive our perceptions of fairness.


If we have to adjust our pricing expectations upwards, because the first price baseline is too low, we feel frustrated and taken advantage of.  Our brain’s warning signals go off and we suddenly feel anxious and go on the defensive. Our mood takes a turn for the worst.


If, on the other hand, we are able to adjust our pricing expectations downward because we’re finding prices substantially lower than the first price encountered, we’re almost euphoric. The reward center of our brain is telling us we’re getting a great deal and the resulting dopamine hit gives us a buying high.


Once again, these feelings are based on nothing more than us grasping at the first number we see, and then judging all subsequent pricing information against it. But the fact that this is nothing more than a gut call is exactly the point; its lack of rationality does nothing to diminish its emotional punch.

Now, let’s look at how this might play out in search. Remember, there’s a pretty good likelihood that many consumer journeys may start with a search engine. It’s also likely that many search advertisers might advertise the lowest price possible in order to capture the click. Given this, it wouldn’t be surprising to see that the initial benchmark price could be a very low one. There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as the prices the buyer will eventually pay will land in the same ballpark.

But, as is often the case, if prices start rising quickly because of the inevitable “fine print” exclusions, conditions and lack of availability, the advertiser is going to trigger all the wrong emotional reactions in the prospect. Rather than “hooking” them by dangling an unobtainable low price as bait, they instead unleash a wave of negative emotions. Even if they end up still capturing the sale (due to the competition not being able to beat the inflated price) they will not be engendering any brand “love.”

This is yet another example of focusing on the end result without thinking about the journey. If we become myopically focused on conversion rates, for example, to the exclusion of all else, we might be ignorant of the long-term brand damage we might be causing by capturing those clicks through a digital version of the classic bait-and-switch con.

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