The power of sets: An upsell/cross-sell tactic you can use
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The power of sets: An upsell/cross-sell tactic you can use

Want an insight that will work every time and help you get sales? In that case, don’t read on. This isn’t one of those.

But if you’re interested in an insight that is pretty cool and will work some of the time — notably for up- and cross-selling — please do keep going.

Researchers at Harvard Business School recently described something about human beings that you may have encountered before but didn’t think much about: People feel some kind of inner need to complete sets of things. This probably explains why folks collect stuff like stamps, coins and beer mugs.

To see how strong an urge this is — and what it may motivate people to do — the researchers set up an experiment in conjunction with the Canadian Red Cross’s 2016 online fund-raising campaign.

‘Survival kit’

About 7,000 potential donors who went on the website were randomly split up and sent to three different landing pages. All three pages showed six items that were billed as important to the survival of unfortunates around the world. But they solicited donors in different ways.

One page stressed cash donations to purchase the items. A second tried to get donors to make specific gifts instead of cash, and showed a globe with a marker indicating where the gift would be used. The third landing page asked donors to give the items as a set, which it called a “Global Survival Kit.” This page included a progress bar, in the form of a line that gradually went around the globe as the items were added to the donor’s cart.

The results showed the power of the set-completion mindset, even with a set that was completely arbitrary. Some 21% of those who shown the kit page made the full donation of six items. Meantime, just 5% of those who saw the global marker page did so, and only 3% of those from the cash page.

Taking risks

This finding is substantial in its own right. But paired with an earlier piece of research, it becomes very powerful indeed. That research involved online gambling. In this experiment, participants were given the opportunity to make a series of up to four low-stakes bets, with the odds considerably better for the first three plays than the fourth. The fourth play was also the only one where participants could actually lose money.

The participants were shown a running tally of their winnings, in two different formats. One group saw circles representing nickels, with the circles filled in where they had already won the money and empty where they hadn’t. The other group saw a single quarter, cut up into “pie pieces” either full or empty.

And again, the need to complete a set drove the experimental participants. Some 29% of those who saw the quarter — a representation of a set of winnings — went for all four bets, even the riskiest one, while just 16% of those who saw individual nickels did so.

The conclusion: Not only are people motivated to complete arbitrary sets, they’re willing to take economic risks to do so!


Maybe you can see where this is going, as far as sales is concerned. We’re looking at situations like these:

  • a buyer either has purchased something from you earlier, and you’re trying to get them to add on, or
  • you’re approaching a buyer with a package that has multiple options and you’d like them to buy as many as possible

When these classic up- and cross-sell opportunities arise, the research indicates that you’ll have a better chance if you present your products or services as a set that the buyer would benefit from buying most or all of. Of course, as the researchers point out, the set mustn’t be too large or expensive, which would likely have the opposite effect from what you want. But if you frame the deal right, you’re “setting” yourself up for success!

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