The Principle of Least Effort or Least Resistance


Humans Are Inherently Lazy. They Take The Path of Least Effort or Resistance At All Times. So Our Marketing Needs to Apply The Principle of Least Effort.

The Principle of Least Effort in book form?

Another way of explaining this is not to say that humans are lazy but to describe them as being very efficient. Because why should they exert a lot of effort if there is an easy way to achieve something. Indeed why should any human or animal work harder than they need?

The reality is that nature recognises this and applies it in many biological and natural systems. It is more than a simple principle. It’s often called the Law of Least Effort, Zipf’s Principle of Least Resistance or the Law of Least Resistance and it has a huge impact on everything from the way water flows downhill to the way we need to design our marketing. It’s such a fundamental law that it is replicated in the Law of Least Action which is used to derive Einstein’s General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.

The Law of Least Effort in Marketing

Originally named by Harvard linguist George Kingsley Zipf as The Principle of Least Effort (PLE), in his 1949 paper, Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort, this law applies as much to sharks as to people. In fact, WW2 codebreaker Alan Turing described what has been called a reaction-diffusion theory over 60 years ago. This has now been shown to apply to the way that sharks skin reduces resistance ensuring it uses the least possible effort when moving through water. Water is a very dense medium and without finding a way to reduce drag shark would be exhausted by the sheer effort of moving.

And so it is with marketing. People take the easiest route through what they consider to be dense layers of information.

For example, they tend to give up looking for a phone number on a website that has hidden it three or more clicks from the home page. If we want website visitors to contact us by phone we need to ensure our phone number is highly visible. For many reasons of web psychology, the best place is in the top right-hand corner of every single page PLUS on the contact page.

Making a phone number highly visible can significantly boost phone calls, and hence orders. And if you prefer people to email rather than phone make your email address highly visible in the same way instead.

Why Does It Matter?

The thing is if people can’t easily find your contact details they take the path of least resistance and don’t contact you. The path of least effort is often to search for another supplier or product. And now that voice search is increasing in popularity, due to devices such as Alexa, and the use of Siri etc., this is going to happen more and more.

Path of least resistance: where humans cut corners because it’s much easier

Of course it’s not just on websites that the Path or Law of Least Effort applies. It applies once someone phones as well. If you don’t answer the phone quickly people are likely to give up and try somewhere else. The fact that on occasion we are tied into a call and are made to wait to talk to, say, our utility supplier, doesn’t negate this. If anything it makes it worse because having to wait on one call makes us want to be answered quicker on the next. If we fail to recognise this in our marketing we stand to lose a lot of potential customers.

Complicated, Long Forms, Inhibit Buying

Whether it’s a long complicated form that needs filling, or a website check out process, if it takes to long then people leave. Think about how often you’ve tried to buy something online and they ask what you think is a load of irrelevant questions before you can buy. If you are like the majority of people you will give up and not buy. Buyer abandonment rates are incredibly high. According to research, the average abandonment rate on e-commerce websites is 70%, with some sites reaching 80% (in my experience 80% is still on the low side, I’ve seen sites where abandonment rates are in the mid 90% region).

It’s not just when people are buying that they abandon processes. My experience in the education sector has revealed many processes that are unnecessarily complex and deter prospective students from attending Open Days etc.

The objective of a college open day is to get the prospective student into the college to have a look and talk to staff and current students. It isn’t strictly necessary for them to book in advance, they could just turn up on the day. But if the college encourages people to book a place it provides an idea of how many people they need to plan for. It’s not an exact science but is indicative of numbers.

A Better Way: Acknowledging The Principle of Least Effort

Are all the questions necessary?
Are all the questions necessary?

However, all that is needed to do this is to ask for the attendee’s name and an email address. The email allows future contact with pre-event reminders and post-event news. And provided GDPR is adhered to this is fine. The problem comes when overzealous staff think they need to know the prospective student’s mobile number, current school, expected exam results, date of birth, nationality, race, gender, and a host of other details. Some of these things are hard to justify on any basis and others are unnecessary at this stage. The fact that stats are required by government departments about students studying at the college is no excuse to ask the question before they even set foot in the college. I frequently question the legality of such questions.

What I do know is that every extra question posed, or new page of questions, haemorrhages prospective students. Abandonment rates soar when we ask too many questions.

Too Many Choices & The Law of Least Effort – Analysis Paralysis

BT Offer shows the Rule of Three and the The Principle of Least Effort

Despite what retailers seem to think, humans can’t cope with too many choices. Give someone 20 different options and they dither. They go from shelf to shelf, rail to rail, and shop to shop.

Some businesses understand this. For example, BT often applies the Rule of Three. They normally only offer the customer three options, normally at three different price points. In most cases, the cheapest option is ignored by the majority of buyers, but what is really important is there are not many options and The Principle of Least Effort takes effect.

A Commercial Example

In the case shown in the image, BT has offered five options. But when closely examined they have done so very cleverly. Because of the layout, most prospects will see a group of three and a group of two options. One being a Superfast option and one being Ultrafast.

Supermarkets behave differently. The big four have loads of options. Try buying shampoo, detergent or wine and you’ll see what I mean. This means they need loads of shelf and warehouse space with costs being forced up The German discount supermarkets do it differently. They have a handful of options .. and sometimes no options. This keeps their costs down, allow them to charge much less AND acknowledges The Principle of Least Effort.

Using Simple Language is an Application Of Zipf’s Principle of Least Resistance

Simple language is an application of Zipf’s Principle

If we make the language we use too complex or difficult we find people glaze over. It is easier than engaging the brain and thinking about what is being said. The least resistant thing to do is turn off! That’s bad for marketing.

Clearly we don’t want to talk down to people, but why not use everyday simple language rather than complex academic or industry language. UNLESS, of course, these are your audience .. even then don’t go over the top.

Short Decision Paths and Fitt’s Law

Least resistance applies in a much wider context to that discussed so far. It also applies in the physical world, in for example computer games played on a real-world screen! Fitt’s Law is about human-computer interaction and ergonomics.

Put simply it means that if the action to be taken, for example, to move a cursor is too much effort people don’t bother. And if they are expected to scroll down the screen or go to another page, they often avoid doing so. Its too much effort and the least resistant way is to do nothing. Inertia rules.

The shortest decision path is to do nothing.

That’s not to say we make everything easy. For example, I’ve added several hyperlinks in this piece for those that want more information. But I do so knowing that the majority of readers will not follow a single hyperlink. So, knowing this, I have to include everything they need to know on this page.

Social Proof As A Means to Negate The Principle of Least Resistance

Social proof, which usually means testimonials, are a common way to overcome buyer resistance. The idea is that if all these people say the product is good I’ll want to buy. And to an extent, it works. And it’s true to say that this is truer so in some cultures than others. My American colleagues use testimonials far more than my European colleagues.

Kahneman & Tversky: Thinking Fast and Slow

In many senses the above laws and principles are supported by the work of Kahneman and Tversky. In Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he talks about their work establishing the facts behind emotional and logical thinking. They describe it as system 1 and system 2 thinking. The first being instinctive and the second slower and logical. As marketers, we need to be cognisant of both but recognise that most purchases are emotional and instinctive. That being so we need to understand The Principle of Least Effort.

Daniel Kahneman wrote, “The law (of least effort) asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs.“

I discuss other marketing laws here.

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