There are many ways to use behavioural science to fuel your marketing

Approaching the challenge systematically makes sense, and a simple tool to help with brainstorming is to consider three levels: literal, liberal and lateral. With each level, the thinking delves a little deeper and the creative rewards grow.  

What do I mean by literal, liberal and lateral? Rather than discuss these approaches in an abstract sense, let’s investigate a practical example: how one bias – social proof – can be applied in these three ways.

Social proof is the idea that people are influenced by what they perceive to be the normal or popular course of behaviour. So, if you can make a desired behaviour seem commonplace it will become more popular still.

Social proof: what’s the evidence?

Social proof is one of the most robustly researched biases in social psychology. Hanming Fang at Duke University has shown it works in restaurants, Duncan Watts at the University of Pennsylvania that it influences music downloads and Nicholas Christakis at Yale University has demonstrated that it even applies to the spread of important health determinants, like smoking and obesity.

A simple demonstration of the bias comes from Cialdini, professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University. In his most famous experiment, Cialdini partnered with an American hotel chain to test which in-room message best encouraged towel re-use. In the control group of rooms, an environmental message appeared: please use your towel because it’s good for the environment. In this scenario 35% of guests re-used their towel.  

The test message replaced the environmental message with one based around social proof, emphasising the norms of behaviour. It said, please re-use your towel because most people do so. Despite dropping the rational message, re-use rates jumped by 26% to 44%.

Literal application

Many brands apply social proof findings in a literal way by explicitly announcing their broad popularity. For example, books proudly proclaim their best-seller status and HMRC communicate that 9 out of 10 people pay their tax on time. Social proof messages surround us.

These campaigns tend to be effective. HMRC test data revealed that social proof messages outperformed the control by 7.4%, an improvement that resulted in millions of extra pounds in tax being paid on time.

Literal application: Oracle

From literal to liberal

If literal uses of social proof can have such an impact you might be thinking, why not celebrate that?

It’s a fair point, but to restrict your usage to these literal approaches would underuse behavioural science. Gains from social proof can be boosted if you harness the full range of insights into social proof, rather than just the topline finding. That’s what I mean by a liberal use – I’m using liberal in a non-political way – it’s exploiting the nuances of social proof and exploring the multiple possibilities revealed in the detail of the research.

One such nuance of social proof can be seen in the towel experiment. In a third version of his hotel message Cialdini mentioned that most guests who have stayed in this particular room re-use their towels. In that scenario, 49% of people complied – a full 40% improvement on the control. Cialdini argued that communicators need to tailor their claims of popularity to the audience.

HMRC have applied this tactic – they found that saying 9 out of 10 people in your town have repaid their tax on time was more 15% more effective than a message which referenced the population as a whole.

Other experiments have shown that social proof is more effective if a person hears the message when they’re scared, in contrast to feeling romantically inclined. You can read about the Vlad Griskevicius study here.

Finally, the HMRC have found that social proof doesn’t work among all segments. When trying to boost tax repayment rates they found that social proof messages back-fired among the largest debtors. You can read about the study in David Halpern’s wonderful book Inside the Nudge Unit.

Marketers can harness these findings by tailoring their comms, reaching audiences at moments of fear and segmenting their audience.

A lateral approach

The liberal approach trumps the literal one, but if you want more creative solutions then try looking at things differently. Think of the experiment as a springboard for creative thinking.

So, to invoke social proof, try suggesting popularity rather than stating it. An example of this lateral approach comes from Apple. In 2001 when the iPod was launched, competitors all used bland, black earphones. Passers-by had no idea which device was being listened to. In contrast, the bright white headphones of iPods stood out. By being so distinctive, Apple appeared to be the market leader long before it was.

Taking a more lateral approach, the behavioural insights are just the starting place. The onus is on us to interpret them as impactfully as possible.

Apple iPod Ad

A unique opportunity

Behavioural science is a powerful tool for marketers when it is used literally or liberally but the strongest effect comes when findings are interpreted laterally.

That’s an opportunity and one I’m excited to be working on with the team at The Behaviours Agency who are combining their strong creative thinking with insights from behavioural science to develop more impactful and effective ideas.

By Richard Shotton

Behavioural Scientist