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A common piece of advice in the AB testing space is to test headlines and images to find the combination that yields maximum value. But there are endless possibilities and it’s not feasible to test them all, so how do you focus your tests on only the content that’s most likely to have an impact? Having a good hypothesis of why a change will be effective is key, and one such theory is framing.

Framing is the simple idea that different ways of presenting the same information will evoke different emotional reactions, and thus influence a person’s decision. A simple example is that the statement, “the odds of survival one month after surgery are 90%” is more reassuring than the equivalent statement of, “mortality within one month of surgery is 10%.” Although these statements present the same information, they bring drastically different associations to mind. With the former, it’s easy to envision an outcome of survival (and thus be willing to go through with the surgery), whereas the latter evokes death (and thus be less likely to take the perceived risk).

The subtleties of framing a message are well known to marketers. For example, CityCliq saw an 89% conversion increase by changing their headline from, “Businesses grow faster online!” to, “Create a webpage for your business.” The original headline is abstract and framed passively, whereas the winning variation is framed in an action-oriented way.

This idea can be used more widely than for just selling products – any organization that’s trying to spur people to action can make use of it as well. Convincing people to volunteer for a cause, sign a petition, donate money, etc., can all be greatly influenced by the way the message is framed. For example, Banks, et al., studied how this phenomenon affects behavior by showing two groups of women videos on breast cancer and mammography in order to convince them to get screened. The first group’s video was gain-framed, espousing the benefits of having a mammogram; whereas the second group’s video was loss-framed and emphasized the risks of not having one. Only 51.5% of those who saw the gain-framed video got a mammogram, compared to 61.2% of the latter group. The information presented was equivalent, but receiving it in a loss-framed context forced people to imagine the scenario of having breast cancer, which spurred them to action out of fear.

So how do you know which way to frame your message? There are no one-size-fits-all rules – it’s still important to test variations. But now instead of arbitrarily changing words (which could go on ad infinitum) you have a narrower and more focused approach to crafting messages. You want to avoid testing essentially equivalent phrases that are unlikely to have any significant impact on your goals. For example, the phrases, “the odds of survival one month after surgery are 90%” and, “there is a 90% chance you will be alive a month after surgery” contain the same information and are framed equivalently, and thus aren’t likely to change your visitors’ behavior. Instead you should think about strikingly different ways you can frame your value proposition and test each of them. Try asking yourself:

  • Is this positive or negative (e.g. the odds of survival example)?
  • Is this loss-framed or gain-framed (e.g. the mammography study)?
  • Is this action-oriented or passive (e.g. the CityCliq create a web page example)?
  • More generally, what associations are brought to mind? For example, deli meats that advertise “95% fat free” sounds healthy, whereas “Only 5% fat” sounds unhealthy. This is tricky to ascertain a priori, but you can read messages to people around you (co-workers, friends, family) and ask what first comes to mind when they hear it.

Your message may not have a clear answer for all of these, but for the pertinent questions you should use AB testing tools to test messages with the opposite framing. More likely than not, one of them will have a clear impact on your goals.

Have an example of a messages framed in two different ways where one outperformed the other? Comment below or send an email to marketing at for the chance to write a guest post on the Optimizely blog.

For more on this topic, read chapter 7 of Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.