As communications professionals, we rely heavily on information around the latest trends, forward-looking insights and emerging technologies to help us can better position, pitch and ultimately sell the brands we represent. We read articles about what is coming next, we gravitate toward digital tools that promise to step up our marketing game, and we attend conferences that promise to keep us up-to-date on “need to know” insights.
What we don’t always do, however, is circle back to the realm of academia to learn how communication and psychology theory could be making us better marketers… and that is where we are missing opportunities.
Whether our messages resonate with audience members not only depends on the quality of our content, but on their current state of mind, environment, subconscious biases and experiences. You may think, “Those all sound like factors I can’t control,” and you’d generally be correct. But that doesn’t mean we can’t anticipate how recipients will hear and evaluate our messages—and find ways to nudge them in the direction of desired behaviors.
A Case for Something That Sounds Boring
Better understanding how and why people think and act the way they do is one of the reasons I’ve taken an interest in the field of behavioral economics, the study of why people choose to allocate resources as they do. It often revolves around buyer behavior, but not exclusively. As business communicators, we may not always be directly selling products and services, but our messages are designed to compel audience members to buy… and that makes behavioral economics worth investigating.
Even if you don’t exactly “get” behavioral economics, it gets you. And me. And people in general. It offers insights into what we do, and why—often for subconscious reasons we don’t even recognize. But if you DO understand the reasons, you’ll have a much better shot at resonating with your audience and inspiring them to act.
So, what does behavioral economics actually teach? Here are a few examples that might affect your communications:
- Humans aren’t always rational. There are neurological reasons for this—chiefly that our brain’s pre-frontal cortex is lazy and takes mental shortcuts whenever possible. These mental shortcuts, such as our tendency to “anchor” on the first numbers we see (perhaps a “manufacturer’s suggested retail price” of an item) and having those numbers later influence our perceptions (causing us to think said retail item’s sale price is a great deal), are known as heuristics… and they’re tough to avoid. Heuristics affect how we analyze data and situations every day, but they often function as traps. As consumers, we need to keep this in mind to avoid being suckered… and as communicators, we need to take heuristics and the emotional nature of decisions into account when trying to elicit certain behaviors.
- Framing affects decision making. We are more easily manipulated than we might like to believe. People are more inclined to remember the first and last items in a series than options in between—a phenomenon known as the primacy and recency effect. People will also make different choices with the same information phrased two different ways. In one influential study, participants were told to imagine that a disease was about to break out that was expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs were proposed to mitigate the damage, but something as simple as changing wording between “saving 200 people” and “400 people dying”—the exact same outcome—drastically influenced which option people chose. Phrase messaging in terms that signal loss avoidance rather than gain, and you could see similar results.
- Context matters. It might sound counterintuitive to present a “bad value” to consumers, but that isn’t necessarily the case. The Economist found that many people select to receive online-only subscriptions for $56 a year instead of an online and print subscription for $125. Seeking to boost interest in the second option, the Economist added a third choice—signing up for a print-only subscription for $125. Why would you want a print-only subscription when you could get print and digital for the same price? Because adding the third compelled more people to choose the print and online subscription instead of online-only access, because it felt like a deal.
These are only a few examples of what the field of behavioral economics can offer marketers. A few simple tweaks to how we position our messages and products can drastically influence outcomes.
Thankfully you don’t have to go back to school to learn about these factors; there are great books on the subject (see “Nudge” by Richard Thaler), blogs and podcasts about cognitive biases (see “You Are Not So Smart”), and free online courses (see “Behavioral Economics in Action” from the University of Toronto).
Even if you aren’t much of a reader (but you must be—you made it to the end of this post), you’d be surprised how much you can learn by simply streaming audio on the subject during your drive home from work or next lawn mowing excursion. Invest a little bit of time, and you’ll get a lot out. I’d love to know if you do! Enjoy the learning, and ultimately, the professional rewards.
Lukas Treu is lead, content strategy at AKHIA.