Thoughts
November 30, 2021

Have a favorite

I have a somewhat useful, somewhat annoying habit. Nearly every time I find myself at a new restaurant, brewery, ice cream shop, or other venue with a new and unfamiliar menu, I ask “what’s the move here?”

In the grand scheme of things, these are all pretty low stakes decisions. I’m sure that I’m not going to accidentally order vomit flavored ice cream if I just pick one that catches my eye. And even if I order a beer that makes my stomach churn, the most I’m out is a few bucks and another round-trip from my seat to the bar. But, something inside of me wants to make sure that I’m optimizing my experience and I’m not missing out on the signature, transcendent experience.

When I ask what the “best thing” is, I receive one of two general answers: item X, or some version of “I don’t know, everything is good.”

The best places have a point of view and answer confidently with the former. I trust you’re not putting garbage on the menu, but something has to be your signature item, right? Unless customers are forced to flip a coin when they walk in, one item is more popular than the others. Remove the friction from the experience and tell me what it is.

Highlighting items on the menu, giving a flavor top billing on the sign, or even just instructing your staff to have a decisive answer to this question all contribute to building social proof. In ambiguous situations, especially where there is a lack of detailed selection criteria, we tend to do what other people do. If everybody else is ordering the IPA, it’s probably a pretty good choice. If the pepperoni slice won a customer’s choice award, then that’s what we’re ordering.

This doesn’t mean that the favorite is necessarily the only item worth getting, or that it will be everybody’s favorite, but it does help the most people be the most satisfied with their selection. Research shows that despite what we may intuitively think, we are actually happier when we have to pick from a smaller number of options than from a larger set. When we have more to choose from, we are leaving more on the table — this chocolate is good, but was the vanilla, mint chip, cookie dough, rocky road, Oreo, pistachio, or strawberry actually better? Narrowing down a large menu to a few favorites eliminates the stress associated with this troublesome paradox of choice.

I recently walked past a bubble tea shop that had a “top 10 flavors” sign next to their menu. This simple and brilliant tool reduces confusion in first time customers who may have heard about “this boba stuff” but don’t actually know what they want, and becomes a useful reference material for staff explaining their offerings.

With music, Spotify has done something similar with their “Popular” tracks at the top of each artist page. Somebody told you to check out Talking Heads but you don’t know where to start? Pull them up in the app and you’ll see that “Pyscho Killer” has 239 million streams, so maybe start there.

Seamless shows you the top items at each restaurant, Netflix has a top 10, Amazon has rankings for thousands of categories, and Steam will show you the most played games. Your restaurant can tell us what your signature dish is. (And if you are new or not sure, just make it up! Specials and best-sellers can be self-fulfilling prophecies!)

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, has a book coming out in 2023, and works with some cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

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