What is the ‘Commitment and Consistency’ principle?

A few months ago, I saw a watch online that I liked. I went to the brand’s website and looked at their collection. I followed them on Instagram. I showed the watch to my partner and told him I liked it. But then I thought, I should shop around. So I looked online at other watches and found one or two that I liked more and that were less expensive. But in the end, I bought the first watch anyway, despite the alternatives.

What happened here? Did this watch have some magical properties that made me reject all others? I’m sure the manufacturer would like to think so, but probably not. What’s more likely is that I fell victim to the ‘Commitment and Consistency’ principle.

Commitment and consistency is the idea that if we make a small commitment to something – say, expressing an opinion on a topic or signing up for a newsletter – we tend to remain consistent in that commitment going forward. Why? As humans, we have a deep need to stick to our convictions, plus it’s just easier than changing our minds all the time.

For retailers, this means that if you can generate a small action from someone, you stand a better chance of converting them later. Let’s look at my watch example: I declared that I liked this product by telling someone else about it and clicking ‘follow’ on Instagram. These small acts worked as micro-commitments that contributed to my buying decisions – even in the face of better options.

Besides generating follows and WOM, there are all sorts of ways that brands can use commitment and consistency to drive sales:

Ask the right questions

Ask your customers: Why are you shopping for this now? Why are you shopping with us today? Answers to these questions solidify motivations and get customers to commit – out loud – to their missions. I recently heard of how a subscription-model company reduced its cancellation rate: when customers called to cancel, rather than ask, “Why would you like to cancel?” (the logical first question), call-centre staff first asked, “Why did you sign up in the first place?” Answering that question reinforced customers’ reasons for using the service and encouraged some to reconsider cancelling it.

Offer gateway products

It’s common practice for luxury fashion brands to offer small products – wallets, ties, sunglasses – that allow customers to own “a piece of the brand” even if they can’t splurge on higher-priced items. This approach is smart because it keeps a brand top of mind and because it employs commitment and consistency: once I’ve made a small purchase, I’m more likely to make a larger one later.

Run a competition

We’ve all come across ads that implore us to enter to win by following a few easy steps: like us on Facebook, tag a friend, share this post. All are small actions, but all urge entrants to state, “I like this brand.”

Give them a quiz

Blame (or thank) Buzzfeed if you like: quizzes are everywhere, including on retail sites. Activewear site Fabletics is one example. Before you browse, you answer some questions: What kind of exercise do you do? Which colours do you like? How would you describe your style? These types of diagnostic quizzes are more than a fun way to engage customers and tailor recommendations – they also help a customer define what kind of person they are and what they like. Taking a few steps to help customers crystallise (and thus commit to) those ideas is a small but strong action on the way to purchase.

Commitment and consistency is a powerful principle that retailers and brands can use to their advantage. The idea is simple: when focusing on the big conversion, don’t forget about the smaller ones along the way.

Kate Jacobs is the Senior Consultant at Morar HPI, a company which offers consulting services to some of the top brands in the retail industry.

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