Behavioral science concepts help to explain why people take certain actions in specific situations. Books like Nudge (R. Thaler & C. Sunstein) have made behavioral science more popular across business leaders, government agencies, and the general public. Many of the concepts have been used to try to help people make better life choices (e.g., pay taxes on time, save for their future, stop smoking, etc.), but there are also applications in marketing.
Some concepts are so popular in advertising that we think of them as basic marketing levers. For example, “social proof” is the idea that what other people do and think influences the choices we make – hence the widespread use of celebrities, referrals, and testimonials in advertising. Another extremely common tactic is featuring offers for a limited time or at a limited quantity. This is leveraging the concept of “scarcity” (we assign more value when items are not abundantly available).
Social Proof Examples:
Learning about behavioral science can help us assess and improve our customer experiences. Understanding more about customer motivations and evaluation criteria through behavioral science can illuminate opportunities to adjust messaging and contact strategies. Testing may identify which subject line or headline works better, but familiarity with behavioral science concepts can help us explain why so we can apply the knowledge more broadly.
Okay, now that we’ve established a better understanding of what behavioral science concepts are and some practical applications in marketing, let’s dive into a few simple concepts you can pursue for your program today. It is important to adapt these ideas to your business and test different approaches to see what works for your situation. I’ve intentionally selected concepts that have broad applications across many industries and marketing channel types.
1. Loss Aversion
This concept is tied to the theory that the pain of losing is twice as strong as the pleasure of gaining. This means that consumers have potential to be more motivated by avoiding loss than by gaining something (e.g., stop losing money vs. saving money).
Thought starters for testing the loss aversion concept:
You can test loss aversion in any channel in any part of the messaging, such as headlines, body copy, bullet points, email subject lines or pre-headers, lead-ins to CTAs, etc. But using it more prominently is more likely to result in a measurable impact.
2. Recognition Heuristic
This concept states that recognition is “an easily accessible cue that simplifies decision making.” Recognition is great in cases where someone subconsciously thinks, “this is a brand I know and trust” or “this is a product I’m familiar with.” But it can also backfire in situations like “they’ve sent me this exact offer 10 times already.”
Consider how quickly you sort your postal mail into what you want to keep vs. what gets trashed or needs a closer look. You instantly recognize a red envelope from your friend as a potential birthday card, and likewise, recognize obvious promotional pieces as potential “junk mail.”
The best way to test recognition heuristics is to try an approach that is drastically different from what you’re doing now. You can still stay true to your brand guidelines without causing creative fatigue. Remember that consumers are not giving your work the same attention that you are, so switching out some pictures and graphics may not seem as fresh to them. Test approaches with more variety.
Thought starters for testing the recognition heuristic concept:
While the loss aversion concept is most easily represented through copy, the recognition heuristic can apply to both messaging and visual look of the creative.
3. Pain of Paying
This concept is fairly literal. People would rather not part with their money, especially in cash form (slightly less friction with a credit card or digital payments). If we want to be more liberal with this concept, we can also consider other types of “painful payments” that brands ask for, such as trading free items to get personal information and email or SMS sign ups.
Thought starters for testing the pain of paying concept:
This concept is not as relevant for standard branding creative, but definitely applies in any content related to sales or to asking the target to take action. Even if the CTA is just for taking a survey, the “pain” might be associated with their time and/or providing information. Is your current approach causing added friction?
A concrete next step is to evaluate the experiences your prospects and customers are having when they interact with your brand. Don’t limit this evaluation to just one channel or interaction point.
Document where the opportunities are and then decide which ones you will test first, prioritizing those with highest potential impact and/or lowest level of effort to change. You may have multiple channels with opportunities for testing these concepts, but it might make the most sense to start with testing via digital channels such as email, website, digital ads, and landing pages. With these you don’t have the production expense of versioning radio/TV and can get almost real-time updates on which test versions are generating more clicks and sales. Once you are confident with the winning approach you can implement across other channels.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog next month to see more ways you can apply behavioral science concepts to optimize your customer experience and sales.
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