The TMI Effect for Pictures Can Reduce Your Sales

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tmi effect pictures

As consumers, we love more pictures of products we’re interested in.

Close-ups, multiple angles, etc. ensure we know what we’re buying. One person might buy a running shoe for its stylish appearance, but another might be most interested in its sole design. Yet another might want to examine the lacing or ventilation.

One could easily conclude that more product images are always better. That would be wrong.

In fact, a Stanford study shows that adding more images can actually reduce the desirability of products.

The TMI EffectNot long ago, guest author Liraz Margalit explained how adding product specifications and descriptive information on the main product page reduced sales in some cases. (See How the TMI Effect Cuts Your Sales, and 4 Ways to Avoid It.)

In that article, “TMI” stood for Too Much Information. (For non-US readers, the TMI acronym has turned into a popular colloquial abbreviation, usually invoked when someone is telling a story with unappealing details.)

The research suggests that in this context, TMI might also stand for “Too Many Images.”

Gestalt vs. Component Processing

The reason for both TMI effects is related, though not identical.

Showing consumers long descriptions and wordy specifications is thought to change their decision-making from a more emotional process to a more rational one. This, in turn, causes the consumer to compare pluses and minuses, think about alternative products, consider negative outcomes, and, perhaps, end up making no decision at all.

gestalt-component

For images, the way our brains process “big picture” vs. detail views are called “gestalt” and “component” processing. When we process how a shoe looks, we’re in gestalt visual processing. When we study the detail of how it laces, we’re in component mode.

Including more images and views, then, tends to push consumers into component visual processing. This, in turn, makes products seem confusingly similar by reducing the importance of the overall appearance.

As reported by Stanford Business Insights, researcher Baba Shiv noted,

Seeing multiple views did not make one product seem more attractive than the other. It made them both less attractive.

Seeing multiple pictures of two products may make both less attractive. #ecommerce #CRO Click To Tweet

Product Agnosia

The scientists describe the phenomenon as “product agnosia,” a term based on the Greek word for “not knowing.” New information gained from viewing additional pictures tends to cause the viewer to forget the original product differences.

Here’s an example from Zappos.com. While the company is amazingly successful, do you think that the plethora of product images available to inspect give significantly more information to the consumer than the main product shot?

zappos

Some products don’t suffer from the product agnosia effect. Products with important performance details, like mobile phones, are one such product. In these cases, looking at the details can sharpen product differentiation.

The product page for a Blackberry Passport from AT&T has many views of the product, four videos, and many screens of additional information accessed by scrolling down:

att-blackberry

This seems like a lot of information, but for a product in this category, particularly one that isn’t brand-driven like the newest iPhone, it may be just what the consumer needs.

Marketing Implications

So what’s a marketer to do?

The authors suggest delaying the purchase to allow the customer to get back into gestalt mode. For example, the customer could be encouraged to place the item into a shopping cart and then complete the purchase later.

My concern with a delayed purchase is that it may never happen.

Trillions of dollars worth of merchandise are abandoned in ecommerce shopping carts every year. While retargeting and other techniques can prevent a few of these losses, I think deliberately delaying order completion is a risky strategy.

Here’s what I recommend based on Shiv’s and other research:

First, if you have a product that does indeed have important feature differences and design details that customers need to examine, go ahead and include multiple images. They may help close the sale.

Second, if your product is simple in concept, like a fashion item, consider a single, high-quality image. This may not always work – I suspect few women would buy a bathing suit without seeing both front and rear views. But even in those cases, providing the minimum number of images necessary will likely work better than a larger number of views and close-ups.

Third, consider a compromise strategy. If you think some, but not most, customers will want to see a variety of product images, put them behind a clickable tab. This is the same strategy recommended in the product information TMI article.

By putting the extra images behind a tab, or perhaps in a popup accessed by a link, they don’t distract the buyer driven by brand, emotion, and other non-conscious factors. The buyer who is concerned about details and features, on the other hand, will be able to easily find the images to continue the evaluation process.

If you do use detail images, consider labeling them with key differentiators. For example, if your briefcase carry strap attachment is double-stitched and riveted for durability, say so in a label. Instead of becoming homogenized with competitor product images, your image will stand out.

If you aren’t certain how your customers are making their decisions, testing the conversion rate with one image vs. multiple images would be relatively simple.

Don’t trust your instinct

when we’re excited about a product, our natural tendency is to show it off. We include pictures from every angle showing every amazing detail. We describe the features, benefits, and specifications as completely as we can.

Before committing to that approach, though, keep the TMI effects in mind. Simpler is often better, and less distracting content can result in more sales.

Beware the TMI Effect - adding pictures can reduce sales. #ecommerce #CRO Click To Tweet

Related: How the TMI Effect Cuts Your Sales, and 4 Ways to Avoid It.

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12 Comments

  1. fransiska says

    I have been through this. I once sold clothing and when I put picture of the cloth from many angle, my sales decreased. But if I only put picture of front of the cloth, my sales increased. I think it was because some clothes looked terrible from behind.

  2. mb5 says

    A few years ago my MBA dissertation did some research that was up this alley. I investigated quantum of product information and its impact of purchase decision involvement (that is, the extent to which a consumer actively processes information that might lead towards a decision). I investigated three products, a tube of toothpaste, a mobile phone and an automobile. The only one where where additional points of product information led to higher involvement was the mobile phone. The implications were the marketers were wasting time and resources with more information and worse, probably causing people to by stymied in their efforts to purchase!

  3. Mariella Remund says

    It would be interesting to study the correlation between: one image, more images and different location of activities in the brain.
    My attempt to a hypothesis:
    one image: fast decision making, emotional, result: buy!
    more images: this would slow down the emotional decision making process, the rational section of the brain would be switched on, calculations and comparisons would take place, result: wait or don’t buy at all.

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      That’s what the researchers concluded about the inclusion of more product details in the earlier article, Mariella. Makes sense.

  4. lucas says

    I’ve sold clothing in the past and have found other factors to be more important. I usually included more than one photo, but it was often to display information on the tag such as brand, size, RN #, materials, and country of manufacture. I found what was more important than how many photos was actually how professional the photos appeared. Taking time to edit my photos properly made my entire site much more professional, and had a greater affect on sales than the number of photos. Additionally, creative long-tail titles, and more detailed descriptions benefit organic SEO much greater than the potential missed sale one might see from product agnosia. This is an interesting article, but I would personally prioritize other factors first before limiting my titles, descriptions, and photos.

  5. TeyaB says

    Seconding lucas experience that multiple, high quality photos matter to consumers when purchasing clothing. Zappos many views of the merchandise plus details are one of the reasons I shop their website. Their huge success in the marketplace suggests my preference is not an exception. I tend to compare other clothing website experiences to Zappos and eBag, and if I don’t find the specific information I’m seeking, they’ll lose the sale.
    This isn’t intended as a rebuttal to the general findings of Dr Shiv’s study. It seems likely that the gestalt first impression is going to get lost when drilling into the details. But on a website like Zappos where a search might pull up hundreds of matches, I shop first based on the gestalt first-impression of the main product view, collect a set of candidates that may meet my criteria, then drill down into the details, matching product features to my requirements to narrow the list of candidates. I suspect that moving from the gestalt to the component is a good way to describe most people’s shopping strategy.
    However, the web page layout does need to be considered. Websites like Zappos and eBag provide a large main image, with other images shown in thumbnail view, and details not displayed as if they have equal weight, but hidden so that users can drill down. This is the way that most modern websites are designed.

  6. Alexei Raskolnikov says

    What can you tell me Mr. Dooley about the websites that are selling graphics and certificate templates? It’s advised to use a simple image or a complex set of images with mock-ups for each certificate? Thank you!

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      I’d recommend a personalized version of the appropriate certificate, Alexei. No data, but I expect that would maximize conversion.

  7. Justin says

    It would be interesting to also see if more images tied to less refunds. Sure, you may have visitors that choose not to buy because they end up finding things they didn’t like. But how many would have returned the item if they had seen less images and didn’t discover that they didn’t like it until they received it.

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      Good point, Justin. That would be interesting to study. I suppose it might relate to the product itself – would multiple views really add useful information?

  8. Robin says

    As stated above, critical images of manufacturing source, material, brand tags are always good.

  9. Steve Jewell says

    Great article! It is a tough decision however, and can ultimately depend on personal preference as well as the current mood of the individual. I know that if I have almost made up my mind on a product already when shopping online, one picture is likely to make me stick with the decision to buy. However if I am researching between different products I often find it frustrating that there are not enough pictures of a product from enough different angles; often ending up looking around on other sites to try and find more images! Catch 22!

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