To drive growth, focus on increasing desire—not just decreasing friction

As a marketer, salesperson, UX designer, or product leader, part of your job is to reduce the friction involved if someone wants to buy something from you.

For example:

  • Make the button bigger

  • Use brighter colors

  • Write shorter copy

  • Put everything on the homepage above the fold

  • Add the call-to-action button everywhere on the website

  • Send reminder emails about the sale

  • Use monetary incentives, e.g. discounts, bundles, promotions, and reverse promotions ("The price goes up next month!”)

The underlying assumption is, “If I make this easier (or cheaper) for you, you’ll eventually want it.”

But this logic is fundamentally flawed.

First, it ignores how people jump through hoops all the time for things they want. And they’re willing to go the extra mile—to pay more, do more work, or try harder to get those things.

Second, there are lots of products that are free and you still don’t want them. For example, free apps cost you nothing, but you’re not itching to download every single one.

To be sure, reducing friction is important. There’s a ton written about conversion rate optimization (CRO), and it’s smart to optimize the low-hanging fruit that’s currently preventing sales.

But when 90% of your marketing strategy is about reducing friction, it’s a race to the bottom. You can only discount so much before you give your product away for free or your business becomes unprofitable.

To drive growth, you can’t just decrease friction. You have to increase desire.

You’ll hit a ceiling

You can make it incredibly easy for someone to download your app and create an account. Slick design. Fast loading. Quick ways to log in with Facebook or Gmail. Nothing on your site ever breaks.

But unless a customer wants to create an account, none of that matters.

There will be a point when you’ve made the button as big as it can be.

You’ve sent so many reminder emails that people start to unsubscribe or report you as spam.

You’ve squeezed out every last drop of product improvement, so if a user wanted to upgrade, you’re certain they could easily do it.

But there will be a ceiling with the gains you make from removing friction.

People jump through hoops for things they want

Did you pick your spouse because they were the most convenient option?

No, you probably picked them despite needing to overcome obstacles: location, your in-laws, scheduling around their calendar because you knew it was worth it.

Check out this photo:

This is a line outside Momofuku Milk Bar in New York. These are all the same people who say, “I’m too busy. I don’t have enough time.” But they have time to wait in line for ice cream. You probably know someone who has waited in even longer lines for the new iPhone.

Harvard makes you jump through a lot of hoops. You need to get two letters of recommendation, write a couple essays, pay hundreds of dollars to take the SAT, get good grades, etc.

The dean doesn’t say, “Hey, let’s remove all requirements because it’s friction for you.” They don’t care. They know their value  and they’re betting you will do. If you get in, you’ll say, “Take my money!”

Cognitive dissonance can work for you, or against you

Here’s the thing: Cognitive dissonance is real. Your brain likes being consistent with itself.

For example, here’s cognitive dissonance working in your favor.

Me: I waited in line for a long time to get this thing.

Me: I would only work hard for things I really want.

Me: I must really want this thing.

Me: This thing is great. I’m so glad I bought it.

Awesome! Cognitive dissonance made the customer get more value out of your product, without you needing to change anything about the actual product. That’s value created out of thin air.

On the other hand, here’s cognitive dissonance working against you:

Me: They promised me a gift card if I signed up.

Me: I had to sign up because I wanted the gift card, not necessarily because I wanted the product.

Me: I must not like this product very much if they had to bribe me to join.

Yikes. Not great.

You don’t want your customer to go down that line of thinking. If the story they tell themselves about you isn’t in your favor, you’re facing an uphill battle.

Spend some energy on increasing desire

No amount of decreasing friction will have the powerful impact of a good increase in desire.

So what if instead of just focusing on reducing friction, you spend some of that energy on making someone want to engage with you?

This isn’t simply about making your product better. This is about proactively crafting the story the customer gets to tell themselves (and their friends) when they use your product. It’s about how your product helps your customer be the person they always imagined.

We tend to focus on removing friction because it feels comfortable: Your customer might complain that they didn’t see a sign, so you make the sign bigger. Done and fixed. When you’re reducing friction, you can almost work through a checklist of the most common items of friction.

There’s less of a formula for increasing desire. The strategy and tactics depend on your business, your levers, your relationship with customers, and your story. These all feel messier than reducing friction. But it’s precisely because it’s messier that fewer people attempt to work on this--so a small gain could create out-sized returns and help you stand out.

You want to build a business where people are willing to jump through more hoops, wait in longer lines, and search harder if they can’t find you on the first try.

What would you do to encourage that kind of irrational need for your product?

This is a good question to challenge yourself and your team to think about.

Remember: You can’t spam your way into people’s hearts. Find ways to earn their attention instead.

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Wes Kao