Category Archives: Behavioural Change

What is the most powerful weapon of persuasion?

The Power of Commitment & Consistency!

We have all heard stories of how people are often unwilling to intervene when they see a crime committed in broad daylight. Why would people put themselves at risk to assist a complete stranger? Well, in 1972 the psychologist Thomas Moriarty conducted a study to  see if he could use a simple psychological weapon to persuade people  to put themselves at risk of personal harm for a person they had never met before. The research involved the staging of a number of thefts on a New York City beach.

For the experiment a researcher would place a beach blanket within 5 feet of a randomly selected individual. After about two minutes on the blanket relaxing and listening to a portable radio the person would stand up and leave the blanket to walk down the beach.  Within a few minutes a second researcher would walk by and grab the portable radio before trying to make a get-away.

In the control (i.e. no intervention was made) only four people out of twenty tried to prevent the theft. However, the number of people who were prepared to challenge the thief increased dramatically when the researcher asked the individual next to them to please “watch my things” before walking away. In this scenario nineteen out of twenty people challenged the thief.

The experiment confirms that people have a strong desire to appear consistent with commitments they have previously made. Indeed, in his book Influence, the psychologist Robert Cialdini argues that commitment and consistency is one of the most powerful weapons of social influence available to people wanting to change our behaviour.

Why is consistency so important to people?

Consistency is generally regarded as a highly desirable personality trait in our culture. When people don’t appear consistent they are often seen as indecisive and two-faced. The negative perception of inconsistency reinforces the belief that consistency is a valuable characteristic to portray.

However, Cialdini also noted that such is our desire to be consistent that people sometimes act without thinking and abandon strongly held beliefs in order to stubbornly follow a consistent path. He argues that a commitment can change our self-image and force us to act contrary to our own best interests.

“When it occurs unthinkingly, consistency can be disastrous. Nonetheless, even blind consistency has its attractions” – Robert Cialdini, Influence.

Why does consistency become a habit?

Due to our motivation to be consistent we will often automatically make decisions based purely upon achieving this consistency. This of course saves mental energy as it avoids complex decisions. But it can also shield us from the negative and unpleasant consequences of our actions.

“Sealed within the fortress walls of rigid consistency, we can be impervious to the sieges of reason.” – Robert Cialdini, Influence.

Why is commitment so important?

Psychologists believe that stubborn and ill-considered consistency is often the result of people making a public stand or commitment to something.   Once such a commitment has been made people have a tendency to try to ensure consistency at almost all cost even though  it may go against their inner beliefs.

Just look at how UK MPs have supported Brexit since the EU referendum. According to a poll by the Press Association over two thirds of MPs voted to remain in the EU in the referendum. But as the Prime Minister and many MPs made a public declaration to abide by the result the vast majority of MPs voted to support the Bill to trigger Article 50 to take Britain out of the EU.  This is despite the fact that only 52% of voters supported Brexit and many MPs still believe Brexit will seriously harm the economy and the UK’s standing in the world. That is quite extraordinary behaviour.

What kind of commitment?

The psychologist Steven J Sherman arranged for a sample of residents in Bloomington, Indiana, to be telephoned for a survey. Participants were asked to predict what they would say if they were asked to give up 3 hours of their time to collect money for the American Cancer Society.

Not wishing to appear selfish many of the people called indicated they would volunteer. This resulted in a 700% increase in the proportion of people volunteering when they were contacted a few days later by an operator from the American Cancer Society.

Another strategy used by charity call centres involves asking people about their current well-being. The operator asks something like “How are you feeling this evening?” Once a person confirms publicly they are in good health it is much harder for the individual to refuse to help people where all is not well. The theory here is that people who have just indicated that they are doing well find it awkward to appear uncaring by not donating money to the needy in this context.

Start small to aim big!

There is also the foot-in-the-door technique which means that by starting with a small request we can often get compliance later on for a much larger request. This can work in two ways.

Firstly it establishes a commitment to a cause which means we are more willing comply with much larger additional requests. Secondly it can change our self-image from a prospect to a customer or a citizen to a supporter of a cause. This latter effect can result in people agreeing to requests that are only remotely connected to the original small favour they complied with.

Deeds are more influential than words!

To understand a person’s attitudes and beliefs we tend to observe their behaviour. Psychologists have discovered that we also look at our own behaviour to guide our feelings and attitudes. Our deeds are much more influential than words when it comes to our inner beliefs.  And writing our thoughts on paper is one way of showing our commitment to a cause.

Writing our ideas on paper is more effective than a verbal commitment because research indicates that the greater the effort we put into a commitment, the more effective it is at influencing our attitudes and behaviour.

Further, a written commitment also acts as physical evidence of our support for a cause and it reduces the likelihood that we might forget or deny the act. In may also be used to persuade other people because we have a natural tendency to believe that written statements accurately reflect the beliefs of the person who made them.

Strategies for conversion:

This is one reason why salespeople will often ask prospects to complete sales agreements as it is one way of getting them to make a small commitment to the purchase. Many organisations also get staff to set their own sales targets and commit to them by writing them down on paper.

Image of testimonials from winkbingo.com and Google Analytics

Testimonial competitions are another commonly used approach to benefit from the commitment phenomena as to have a chance of winning people know they have to be complementary about the product or service in some way. What they don’t realise is that such glowing statements help change their own attitudes towards the product as they begin to believe what they have written.

“We are truest to our decisions if we have bound ourselves to them publically” – Robert Cialdini, Influence

People can be extremely stubborn with their commitment even in situations where accuracy rather than consistency should be the priority. Indeed, research involving the criminal justice system found that hung juries were significantly more common if jurors had to initially indicate their position with a physical show of hands rather than a secret ballot. The act of publicly sharing their initial opinion appeared to make them more reluctant to change their decision later on.

This can be used to good use where we are trying to encourage people to give up a harmful habit such as smoking, over-eating or gambling.  Many weight reduction programs understand that a person’s private commitment is not strong enough to withstand the many temptations that we come across every day. For this reason such programs ask clients to write down their weight targets and share them publicly with other members and family/friends.

Can a commitment change self-mage?

Studies suggest that commitments have most impact upon a person’s self-image and behaviour when they are active, public and effortful acts. In addition the change is most likely to be long lasting if the person own what they have done.

Psychologists found that people are most likely to take ownership of behaviour if they feel they decided to undertake the action without any strong outside pressure. This means that using a large incentive, such as a cash prize, can be counter-productive as the individual may not accept inner responsibility for the act. Thus for people to take ownership of an act it is best to keep any incentives as small as possible.

Here is a summary of the main approaches to obtaining commitment and consistency:

Commitment and consistency is one of the most powerful methods of social influence

 

Implications for conversion rate optimisation:

As Cialdini points out commitment is key. Get visitors to commit to something small, such as giving their email address for access to a white paper or your website and this increases the likelihood that they will perceive themselves as customers. Once they see themselves as customers this increases the chance they may purchase products or services from you.

Ask a simple question:

Lifehack.org is a leading wellbeing and lifestyle blog that publishes tips on how to improve many aspects of your life. When I was researching one of my posts I landed on the site and came across a great example of how to use a small commitment to improve sign-ups.

After about 10 seconds on the site a pop-up is displayed which asks a seemingly innocuous question about self-improvement; “try something different today. Don’t stay stuck. Do better.” If you click on the  “I agree” CTA you are then immediately served an email capture form with the heading “We think so, too!”

Example of how to ask a question to get commitment for improving blog sign-ups

Because you have just agreed that you would like to try something different you feel almost compelled to sign-up to act consistently with how you replied to the first pop-up.  This is a really clever way of using the psychology of commitment to improve sign-up rates.

Become a customer for free!

Whilst working for an insurance company we offered prospects the opportunity to sign-up for a year’s free accidental death cover in return for providing their email address and name and address. Due to the low level of cover and the fact that the probability of an accident causing death are quite small this cost the company relatively little money.

However, we managed to sign up many thousands of new customers from the campaign. We could then  target them with other products that they were now more likely to buy as they were no longer prospects, but customers.

Ask for a review!

For apps get a high rating and a positive review of the user experience by targeting loyal customers. Make sure you then email these users to thank them for their efforts and confirm that their review will be publicly available for all users to see.

Run competitions for slogans, strap lines and testimonials with a promise to display the best ones on your website. Once people have written a positive statement about your brand they are more likely to become a brand advocate and will be a positive influence on other potential customers.

Offer a dream!

JohnChow.com offers advice on how to monetise your blog site. On the homepage there is a great heading in the form of a question – “Do You Dare to Dream?” The very prominent single call to action offers you the chance to download John Chow’s free eBook and “achieve your freedom”. This is a form of commitment as the heading is asking visitors a question and the eBook is a possible solution.

Once you click on the CTA you are served a very simple form asking you to enter your name and email address. As visitors have clicked on the CTA which promises “achieve your freedom” they are likely to feel compelled to complete the form to be consistent with their previous commitment.

In addition, as they will now perceive themselves as customers this should increase the likelihood that they will be prepared to buy one of JohnChow’s  services at some point in the future.

Image of JohnChow.com's email capture form
Image Source:

Consistency for consistency’s sake!

Digital marketers can also fall into the trap of commitment and consistency. Brand guidelines create a strong commitment that most people feel obliged to adhere to. However, applying consistency without thought can harm the user experience and reduce conversion.

I often come across copy that is low contrast and unreadable or the CTA is not prominent because designers have blindly followed brand guidelines. Brand guidelines should not be used as a reason not to think about the design and how it appears to the user. Because brand guidelines cover the whole site there are often instances where they just don’t make sense because guidelines are just that. They should guide, but not be applied automatically without thought.

Below is an example from partycasino.com which uses a  grey font on a black background. The contrast is really poor and the use of pink for hyperlinks is especially distracting.

Image of partycasino.com homepage where the colour pink is used for links

Displaying identical navigation elements in the header across the whole site can result in redundant and distracting navigation tabs on certain pages (e.g. Join Now link shown on a sign-up form). This can also lead to situations where certain navigation elements (e.g. an Options tab) only have one menu item on some pages because of the site structure.

Consistency in design is seen as beneficial because the user becomes accustomed to what to expect from a site. However, this begs the question should we never surprise visitors? The answer to this depends on the context, purpose and quality of the surprise. What is the cost of not surprising visitors compared to the benefits of delivering something unexpected?

Consistency is only one of a number of design principles and sometimes they conflict with one another. If we want to optimise conversion this may sometimes mean making compromises with consistency to give priority to more important elements of the user experience.

Conclusion:

Consistency is a powerful force in social influence that can be employed to nudge users towards desired actions. Remember commitment is the main driver of consistency and it is one of the few persuasive weapons that can also change a person’s self-image. Consistency is such a strong motivator that it can even create habits that will sustain long-term behavioural change. Use it with care and also avoid falling into the trap of consistency for consistency’s sake when making design decisions.

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You can view my full Digital Marketing and Optimization Toolbox here.

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  • About the author:  Neal provides digital marketing optimisation consultancy services and has worked for  brands such as Deezer.comFoxybingo.com, Very.co.ukpartypoker.com and Bgo.com. He uses a variety of techniques, including web analytics, personas, customer journey analysis and customer feedback to improve a website’s conversion rate.
  • Neal has had articles published on website optimisation on Usabilla.com  and as an ex-research and insight manager on the GreenBook Blog research website.  If you wish to contact Neal please send an email to neal.cole@conversion-uplift.co.uk. You can follow Neal on Twitter @northresearch, see his LinkedIn profile or connect on Facebook.

Does ‘MarComs’ Signal The Death of Marketing?

Marketing is a Discipline!

 

In a recent podcastRory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of advertising  group Ogilvy and Mather UK,   expressed the view that the second client marketing departments are “reduced to ‘MarComs’ marketing is almost lost”. So why do organisations think marketing is solely about communications?

Marketing communications is of course a fundamental element of the marketing mix, but marketing is a discipline and a way of thinking. Communications should be an integral element of the four P’s, not a separate silo.  Turning marketing into MarComs inevitably changes the relationship between areas that were once part of the marketing department.

They establish their own priorities and see communications as a service rather than part of the same discipline. This risks turning marketing into a process rather than a creative discipline. Once this happens MarComs is in danger of becoming a factory that churns out content that follows the set templates and adheres to the brand guidelines but is unlikely to take risks or inspire customers.

Creativity is at the heart of the marketing discipline and it should be applied across all areas of the function to have maximum impact. A fragmented marketing function also encourages a tactical  approach to marketing as MarComs  have to respond to what product, pricing and the sales channels decide to do, often with little planning or discussion beforehand.

 

Can Behavioural Economics Save Marketing?

 

Image of mri-head scan
Source: Freeimages.com

 

Rory also mentioned how behavioural economics (BE) has the potential to allow creative people, like marketers and market researchers, to expand their reach into other areas of influence. It won’t solve the organisational problems of marketing,  but BE can provide a valuable framework and language to create strategies for behavioural change. This would involve coming up with ideas for better choice architecture or nudges to influence the decisions people make.  Marketers could be well suited to this role because it requires a creative and analytical approach to problem solving.

Neither is this about persuading people to do things they don’t want to do or selling them unsuitable products. If we do that we have failed as marketers and people soon get wise to such unethical behaviour. It would not be sustainable either as companies would not want to risk damaging their brand’s reputation. No, this about understanding how and why people the choices they make, but not just limiting ourselves to marketing products and services.

Humans do not seek a perfect solution:

One of the most fundamental insights that BE gives us is that people seek to satisfy rather than maximise as we live in world of imperfect information and trust. Our goal with most decisions is to avoid a disaster rather than seeking a perfect solution. If this is the case then it should not be a surprise that messages often used in promotional material that refers to an “ideal” or “perfect” solution to “fully” meet your needs misses the mark?

 

Image of friends in a huddle
Source: Freeimages.com

 

Habit Formation:

Evolution has slowly created and shaped human decision making processes and so our cognitive machinery is little changed from when we first formed early civilised societies many thousands of years ago. As a result we still rely on many of the same strategies for determining who we should buy from and what to do in new and uncertain situations. This explains why people so often refer to their social networks to identify people who they can trust.

This approach is highly unlikely to lead to a disaster as long as the person selling the goods or services is aware that they could lose significant social capital if they sell something that is unfit for purpose. If, however, it leads to a satisfactory outcomes we may create a habit as we have learned to trust the person or brand concerned. Much of what traditional marketing refers to as brand loyalty is in fact habits. The insight here is that marketing is most likely to be effective when it focuses on habit formation or piggy-backs off an existing habit. Disrupting a habit is more important than the message.

 

image of people sitting outside Starbucks
Source: Freeimages.com

Brands:

Brands are also framed by how people interact with them and the stories they tell each other about their experiences. Trust is strongest when we learn through experience and the actions of the brand that they can deliver on their promises. The key relationships with a brand are the interactions between customers and employees. These define the brand relationship much more strongly than any advertising or social media campaign ever can.

 

“The product creates the experience.

The experience creates the reputation.

The reputation creates the brand.”

Dave Trott, One Plus One Equals Three: A Masterclass in Creative Thinking

 

Image of Tesla car

Emotions:

The context of our decisions and our underling emotions are also crucial to our decisions.  We are much more willing to spend money and pay a premium price when we are searching for a last minute Christmas present that we promised to buy for our partner or children. We hate the feeling of regret and will seek to avoid it if we can. This is partly why scarcity is such a powerful motivator as people don’t like to feel they missed out on a bargain (i.e. loss aversion) because they were too slow to get to make a decision.

 

Image of man looking at a laptop
Source: Freeimages.com

As a result communications that triggers an emotional response are often more effective at getting attention and influencing behaviour than a purely rational message.

“Showing personality in your app, website, or brand can be a very powerful way for your audience to identify and empathize with you. People want to connect with real people and too often we forget that businesses are just collections of people.” – Aarron Walter, Teamtreehouse.com

Other useful insights from behavioural economics include:

  • We feel most comfortable when our behaviour conforms to recognised social norms relating to concepts such as fairness and social responsibility.
  • Humans are not the selfish, independent thinking agents that economics would have us believe. We will often hold back from behaviour that we believes treats others unfairly or lacks respect for others.
Image of behavioural economics decision bucket
Behavioural Economics Decision Bucket – Factors that influence decision-making.
  • Although people usually have clear explicit goals when making a purchase (e.g. I want a new car), they do not have full access to their psychological goals (e.g. security and adventure) that help drive brand choice. For this reason there is no point using direct questioning to try to uncover these implicit goals. Our preferences also change over time and so consumer demand is continuously shifting in response to many influences.

Image of implicit goals

Source: Decoded: The Science Behind Why We Buy – Phil Barden

  • Intrinsic motivations, such as mastery and autonomy, can be more powerful at driving our behaviour than carrots and sticks, especially when the activity is not routine. Indeed, research has shown that extrinsic motivators, such as bonuses, often reduce motivation and performance when applied to creative tasks.

As you can imagine these insights can be employed in any environment where behavioural change is needed. This could be to tackle health and safety issues, reduce waste, improve compliance with good working practices, address employee motivation, or improve the effectiveness of communication.

 

Image of Ogilvychange.com homepage

 

So what next you might say. Well, Ogilvy and Mather, the global advertising and marketing agency, have already created a new business unit, Ogilvy Change, dedicated to the application of behavioural economics to deliver measurable changes in behaviour across a diverse range of environments. I recently attended the monthly London Behavioural Economics Network meeting where the team from Ogilvy Change  discussed work they had conducted on behavioural change in a factory in South America for improving hygiene and the psychological optimising of a call centre in the UK.  From small beginnings the team at Ogilvy Change are now working with a number of global businesses to press forward the application of behavioural science in the real world and maybe it is time we did the same.

Thank you for reading my post. If you found it useful please share using the social media icons on the page.

You can view my full Digital Marketing and Optimization Toolbox here.

To browse links to all my posts on one page please click here.

  • About the author:  Neal provides digital optimisation consultancy services and has worked with brands such as Deezer.comFoxybingo.com, Very.co.uk and partypoker.com.  He identifies areas for improvement using a combination of approaches including web analytics, heuristic analysis, customer journey mapping, usability testing, and Voice of Customer feedback. The objective is to ensure the aim of each webpage is aligned with the organisation’s business goals. This helps to improve conversion rates and revenues significantly as almost all websites benefit from a review of customer touch points and user journeys.
  • Neal has had articles published on website optimisation on Usabilla.com  and as an ex-research and insight manager on the GreenBook Blog research website.  If you wish to contact Neal please send an email to neal.cole@outlook.com. You can follow Neal on Twitter @northresearch and view his LinkedIn profile.