Why We Overestimate Technology and Underestimate the Power of Words

Image of Victorian Machine

Many experts assume that Amazon’s social recommender system is its killer feature. But what exactly about this feature makes it a killer?

What — in fact — is the magic sauce of Amazon?

Sure, there is some predictive value in keeping track of many different variables. There always is. It’s probably Amazon’s best kept secret. But I am guessing it’s not only a secret for people outside of Amazon.

If you would ask me what the most persuasive ingredient is of the sauce, I would say it’s copy.

The smartest algorithms make sure you get to see products that you love (to buy). A recommendation engine knows what you really want, what you really really want. Computing thousands of variables is the key to predicting consumer behavior. Right?

Nah, I don’t buy it*. The black box probably does have an impact, but I know for sure that the copy does.

The power of a few simple words

The words “Customers who bought this also bought” are cues of social proof.

This is a very well known persuasive principle of social psychology. Offers that are accompanied by a social proof message will be more effective than those with a merely neutral message.

What if Amazon would use its recommender technology and label it with “You could also try”. That would be a neutral message. A/B test “You could also try” versus “Customers who bought this also bought” and you will get an idea of how much of Amazon’s sauce is technology and how much copy.

And while you are at it, also test “Our editors recommend” as copy with authority cues. I’d bet it will do better than the neutral version.

More and more scientists understand the essential part that psychology plays in what appears to be technological enhanced commerce. If technology gives you an unfair competitive advantage, it’s essential to know what is really at play. It’s not enough to say your black box is the secret sauce.

We shouldn’t spend millions of dollar on technology, just for the sake of technology. Or should we?

People who bought recommender systems also bought yachts.**

The rise of the machines? Not so fast …

I am not a technologist. That’s why I like bashing technology.

I do run a high-end software boutique though, and I am amazed by the number of companies that seem to have an undying hunger for more technology. Most of the time I don’t see much reason for it.

A small sidestep …

Why do you think people buy yachts? Is it because they need a reliable means of transportation? To get them from A to B? For most, probably not. Maybe because they need a place where they can host one of their bunga bunga parties?

Getting warmer …

I think it’s safe to say that showing off to peers is a big part of the reason why luxurious yachts are being bought. “Darling … Henry bought his wife a yacht, so I was thinking of getting one for ourselves as well …”

Is a recommender system (technology) the best investment if you want to go from A to B? If you want to persuade people to buy your products I wouldn’t recommend putting all your hopes in black box technology.

The true killer app

I would advise you to better understand the psychology of consumer behavior.

Knowing why people buy will get you that unfair advantage that technology so often promises.

Understanding other people’s behavior might even shed light on why we buy recommender systems, or throw bunga bunga parties for that matter.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

*A big thank you to Sinan AralDean Eckles and Mats Einarsen for pointing me in the direction of scientific papers on the topic.

**Quote from K Young of his 2013 #DataGotham talk.

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Reader Comments (39)

  1. says

    Hi Arjan,

    Well said buddy.

    We are dealing with an emotions game. Tech plays a part but the words and feelings those words generate creates big business.

    When you get past all the silly tricks people try and fail with, it comes down to making people want what you have to offer through the crowd effect.

    Virtually all follow the other guy because we trust what others trust. At least in most cases.

    Get your copy down. Lessen your business struggles.


    Ryan Biddulph

  2. says

    I certainly agree. I think it’s not about the machine you buy; it’s how you use it. And Amazon is one of those forerunner companies that utilizes new technologies exceptionally well because they cut it down right to the core of human psychology.

    We focus on a similar trait here at Brand.com, except for us it’s about what few words are related with a company’s online image. If they’re positive associations, then people are much more likely to do business with them than if they were associated with, say, “scam artists.”

    Thanks for the great article! Your research shows that simple words are creating far stronger niches of opportunity with each technological advance.

  3. says

    Agree on the copy part!
    But what if the computer generated tips you actually get were of the same caliber? I would love to get personal tips from a real person. An algorithm is sometimes ok, but never really personal?
    I got this from Spotify the other day: You listened to David Bowie. Here’s a song you might like: Billy Idol.

    You see what I mean here?

    • says

      Spotify sometimes annoys me with its recommendations because they can be almost TOO obvious…like “You listened to Neil Young, try Bob Dylan”…and I want to say to Spotify, “What, you think I’m not familiar with BOB DYLAN? Please don’t insult my intelligence.” Therein lies the problem with this type of technology, I guess; there’s no way for Spotify to know that my husband and I own most of Dylan’s albums, and I’ve listened to them probably hundreds of times. Mostly, what I want from Spotify is stuff I don’t already have. I guess I threw it off by listening to a Neil Young song here and there.

      I DO usually find Amazon’s recommendations to be helpful, though, especially if I’m looking for books in a series or other books by the same author, or baby products that usually go hand in hand, or whatever. And I completely agree that “Other customers who bought this also bought” is much more likely to make me pay attention than “You might also try.”

    • says

      Well said Arjan! Psychology is so important in today’s business world. Even the slightest words can make a major difference in the way client’s perceive information. Applying these concepts to customer service is crucial too. “How may I help you” implies to consumers that they have an issue vs. “How can I best assist you” comes across as a kinder offering of guidance in their matter. I think more personal customer assistance or recommendations are here to stay for some time. Despite our technological world, we still celebrate companies such as Zappos or Lowe’s with excellent (human/in-person) customer service.

  4. says

    Now that you mention it, I realize LinkedIn has a “people who viewed this profile also viewed…” and I have to admit that I (perhaps at a near sub-conscious level) tend to associate the status of the person I am viewing with that of the people who appear in this window.

    Really shows you how powerful that social proof cue is.

    And it also shows the importance of cultivating a community of customers, rather than a static audience.

    When we take a community approach to our businesses – meaning we make our customers part of the value creation process – we can actually cultivate evangelists who will provide more legitimacy for our business than any advertising could ever hope to.

    Thanks again for the thought provoking post, Arjan.


  5. says

    The sooner you get 15 pages of ‘Also Boughts’ the better you’ll be if you’re selling on Amazon.

    I had a great book recently on 75 eBook promo sites. I wrote it for my target audience and marketed it right to them. Many probably thought I was crazy to give the book away for 4 days, but I didn’t think so.

    I was able to get my 15 pages of ‘Also Boughts,’ 8 US reviews and 4 UK reviews, and my decision to set the price to $0.99 coming off the promo ensured I got a boost back into the paid category rankings, all the way to the Top 20 in my case.

    I lost out big time short-term (I would have had thousands of dollars if those giveaways were paid sales) but long-term it will increase my visibility.

  6. says

    What I love about this post is that you show, rather than simply tell us, what you mean. You use words in an inventive, dynamic and engaging manner. The difference between (words) and WORDS is, well, exponential.

  7. says

    “Nobody cares what you know until the know that your care.” Ever hear that?

    I follow and agree with the point made here.

    But, start with caring about the reader, show it, and be clear in what you say.

    O’boy wish I could do that!

  8. says

    What do you think of machine learning that considers each of your visits to Amazon and re-sets the pricing based on your behavior and purchase history?
    So the first time I visit Amazon a book is $12, the second time it’s $14 and the third time it could be up or down in price… all based on recency and frequency of visits and spending habits.
    The best part is if I log in from another computer the price of the book may be $10 cause Amazon doesn’t know it’s me. Is that 1:1 marketing acceptable to you?
    The airlines do this democratically with yield management pricing… everyone gets screwed equally. This is called giving shareholders value.
    So is it copy or tech? This is tech.
    [I am a copywriter by trade, but I yield to tech for getting us to where we are. Cause 100 years ago we used the same COPY and traded on the same human behavior as we do today.]
    Jay Rosenberg

  9. says

    It has to be both. Relying only on technology is risky because a recommendation engine is only as good as its data, and that can cause all kinds of issues. Relying only on copy means you’ll miss great insight into your customers. When the two work in concert along with professional judgement, then you have your secret sauce.

  10. says

    Guttenburg invented the printing press which transformed the way people thought of and described the world they live in through words. It brought a revolution of thought and expression by enabling more people access to the written word.
    Today technology is doing the same. Butthe message is still with words.

  11. says

    Well said.

    Copy + Technology is the sweet spot. However, it’s not necessary for every industry. Most of my ventures are just WordPress sites with a few nice plugins. That’s it. No need to invest millions when you can just write amazing copy.

    Love you.

  12. says

    Hit the nail right on the head. So many marketing gurus pop up with all the new technology and convince people that everything has changed. In reality words still matter. Focusing on crafting a strong message works regardless of the medium.

  13. says

    Hello, and thank you for your great blog post. The depth of ideas impressed me, and it seems like it would take a lot of research to write at that level.  Your ideas are appreciated.

    I deal with the concept of technology and words in my own blog, and I find the topic fascinating.I especially like the fact that you used social psychology in approaching the power of words. It is fascinating to think about what makes words persuasive and how our words have effect, or lack it. I bash technology to, at times, but I think the two can fit together nicely. I say that as I write to you on my beloved MacBook Pro, and I am aware of my need for technology. I am also aware of the power that technology and algorithms have over me, and find it frightening.

     I will return to this site often, as I can see the information is valuable for bloggers like myself. I enjoy making new contacts and connections, and hope to get to know you through your blog. Feel free to connect with me. All kinds of opportunities open up when we collaborate and work together.



  14. says

    I agree totally.

    Your post reminds me of horse racing at Longchamp [which I visited on my first visit to Paris in the 70’s]. Between the train station and the race track we encountered a number of people peddling “Guaranteed to win” betting systems. We wondered – if their system is success-guaranteed, why would they not rather spend their time celebrating with family and friends?

    Ditto for all vendors of “solutions”. If you’re so successful, why not lead by example – your own?

    Check how the solution works for the solution provider – always. If your dentist has bad teeth … you get the drift.

  15. says

    A well formed article!

    Technology for sure has eaten deep into the business of copywriting. It’s on the rise and will continue to be like that.

    However, the business of conversion all lies on writing a damn copy. In most cases, flipping open your wallet may not be the best option for most industries.

    WordPress is an eye catchy product of technology which has served its purpose. With the very few plugins tailored to making the visibility of content simple, it becomes paramount we check what and where we invest.

    Again, it all boils down to writing an amazing copy that captures, convinces and converts.

    Thanks for such an awesome content!

    Copy + Technology is the sweet spot. However, it’s not necessary for every industry. Most of my ventures are just WordPress sites with a few nice plugins. That’s it. No need to invest millions when you can just write amazing copy.

    Love you.

  16. John Waghorn says

    Nice post Arjan and an interesting concept. Obviously if people are being fed information or being directed to pages that’s one thing, although you also need relevant and decent copy to entice an audience.

    Even small chunks of copy as you point out can be extremely powerful from a psychological point of view. Amazon do a good job at this I think, but there are other reasons for their success. Essentially, you need to get the best of both worlds in the sense of having the technology to deliver the services/products and also the copy to turn visitors into loyal customers.

  17. says

    Nice article, Arjan. Technology can be very helpful, and leads to some of us getting lazy in our marketing techniques. The danger is that technology can get a little creepy, too – I for one hate being followed by re-targeting advertising techniques. Technology, used wisely, can certainly be a great help, but IMHO, great copy will always win.

  18. says

    Arjan Haring has unmasked the unbridled truth; the best “app” is the human “app.” However, many people don’t trust their own judgment so the prelude that: “Customers who bought this also bought” is a way of fitting in without risking being first or being left out. They would rather “copy” what others have done; it is safer. You are right Arjan: “The true killer app: to better understand the psychology of consumer behavior. Knowing why people buy will get you that unfair advantage that technology so often promises… The black box probably does have an impact, but I know for sure that the copy does…”~ Arjan Haring
    UNTIL THEN…”Copying” will continue to prevail while the original “app” goes under-utilized.”

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