Should behavioural science be a part of your marketing mix?

Changing customer behaviour is at the heart of the marketer’s challenge. How do we understand our customer, create an offer we hope will appeal to them? And then, critically, change their perceptions and cause them to act.

It’s increasingly difficult in a fast-changing, digitally-enabled world and requires a sophisticated blend of inputs to create an approach that works.

Opening up a recent lecture at the RSA, Robert Cialdini and Steve Martin introduced us to the idea at the core of their new book: small changes in behaviour can deliver a big impact. But the power that results in the impact is not contained in that small change itself. The small, easy to implement change is simply a trigger.

This is not new news. In his behaviour model, B J Fogg talked about the three necessary conditions for change: motivation, ability and a trigger. But how do you create those triggers?

Cialdini and Martin refer back to the three core motivations of people (covered in the book that brought Cialdini to fame – Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion). They suggest that if you can create a trigger that appeals to those motivations you can deliver great impact.

Those who’ve sat through a few slick business book presentations could be forgiven for a touch of cynicism. However in this case, these assertions are based – according to Cialdini and Martin – on scientific fact. And the facts are astonishing.

For example, they worked with the NHS to address the costly issue of no-shows. Typically patients receive information of their follow up appointment passively. Martin and Cialdini ran a test to see if they could improve on the no-show rate by appealing to a basic influence principle. One of the three core motivations is that people wish to see themselves in a positive light. Incorporated into this motivation is a desire to behave consistently, honouring and being seen to honour one’s commitments. Simply by asking patients to repeat back to the receptionist the date of the appointment resulted in 3.4% fewer no-shows. A reduction which might seem small until you consider that people failing to attend medical appointments costs the NHS £800m each year. It became even more interesting when receptionists put another small change to the test. This time they asked patients to write down the details of their appointment themselves. The resulting sense of commitment, reinforced by patients’ handwriting their appointment card, resulted in a reduction in no-shows of 18%.

This is no panacea however. The authors note that using techniques informed by behavioural science are not a stand-alone solution. Those who would seek to influence others need to use them as a part of a ‘palette of tools’. This is important.

Businesses need to fast-track their understanding of customers in order to work out the best means of reaching, engaging with and influencing them. But simply asking them how to do it won’t necessarily get the right answer.

Martin gives the example of a hotel chain that tested asking its customers at the check-in desk whether they considered themselves to be a customer that cared enough about the environment to reuse their towels. The influence trick here was to frame the customer in a positive light, projecting on them a reputation as someone who cares and getting them to verbally to commit to this image in public. Guests then went on to live up to this commitment, not only reusing towels, but switching off lights and tidying their rooms. Had they been asked, would hotel staff or guests have predicted that tactic would deliver that result?

An agile, blended approach is much more effective. One that recognises insight can come from anywhere and the closer we can get to the real world, the better the solution will be. And that draws on professional best experience and reported customer insight, but also importantly, factors in real customer behaviour.