Want to improve your marketing results? Wondering how to tap into proven human behaviors to influence people?
In this article, we’ll explore behavior science tips that lead to better marketing results.
Why Should Marketers Focus on Behavioral Science?
“Why do people do what they do?” This fundamental question has long captivated Nancy Harhut, author of Using Behavioral Science in Marketing. As co-founder and CEO of HBT Marketing, Nancy has built an agency around answering that question and leveraging behavioral science insights to craft more effective campaigns and increase customer engagement.
Nancy traces her interest in what makes people tick back to navigating an overprotective mother. She constantly had to justify and argue her case to do normal teenage activities. This experience instilled in her a fascination with figuring out how to convince people and change minds.
Years later, as her marketing career advanced, Nancy discovered Dr. Robert Cialdini‘s seminal book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and immediately saw applications for driving marketing success in her client work. The book fleshes out the psychological mechanisms behind why people say yes, distilling scientific research into bite-sized principles any communicator can harness.
Nancy began experimenting, incorporating tactics from Robert’s research into client projects for everything from newspaper subscriptions to credit card rewards programs. A pivotal experience came when her agency tested a piece she had written using behavioral science against an existing best-performing ad for an insurance client.
Her behavioral science messaging led to a 459% increase in sales over the control, confirming her belief in the power of this approach to multiply marketing ROI.
For Nancy, it solidified the one-two punch of overlaying science-backed shortcuts to human decision-making atop conventional marketing best practices. When crafted together, their combined force proved highly persuasive.
Many marketers assume their audience carefully weighs options before taking action. However, behavioral science reveals a far different reality. Rather than deeply analyze every choice, people often rely on mental shortcuts and hardwired intuitive responses to conserve mental energy.
As marketers, behavioral science allows us to trigger these reflexive behaviors to nudge audiences toward taking the actions we want, specifically through strategic messaging. While it can’t make people do something they don’t want to, it can tip the balance for people on the fence.
According to Robert, people don’t like to be out on the bleeding edge, and they don’t like to be lagging. Most people are comfortable in the “magnetic middle.”
For example, Nancy’s team included a graph in their messaging when they tried to get dentists to buy more insurance at her former agency. On the graph, $0 was the least amount of insurance, and $3 million was the most the company sold. They personalized a “you are here” marker for each dentist’s current level of coverage.
Importantly, they targeted dentists who had less than $1.5 million in coverage, so they’d see themselves left of the middle of the graph.
Before reading anything, dentists would look at this graph and feel that they were lagging—that they didn’t have enough coverage. Nancy didn’t expect everyone to rush out and buy the maximum $3 million policy. But she thought showing them their current spot below the midpoint would nudge many closer to $1.5 million or a bit above. And that’s exactly what happened.
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People are also more likely to do what you ask them to do if you give them a reason why. For example, “because” is a powerful automatic compliance trigger. When people see or hear the word “because,” they often start nodding like Bobbleheads. They begin to agree before processing what comes after the word. They assume whatever’s coming after it is going to be a good, legitimate reason.
Nancy believes that anticipating the mindset of your prospective customers is critical. They might be particularly frugal. They might be risk averse. They might think that all products in a particular category are the same. Understanding your customers’ mindset helps you craft the correct argument and message to help overcome it.
Wielding Behavioral Science: An Actionable Framework
Ready to harness behavioral science’s persuasive power? Nancy offers a practical starting framework tailored to marketing:
First, clearly define your target audience and campaign challenge or desired outcome. For example, you may want newsletter subscribers to attend a free webinar or email promo recipients to follow you on Instagram. Outline the specifics from the beginning.
Next, consider why someone might hesitate to take that action. We all have built-in fears holding us back—of too readily trusting and looking foolish and uncertain. Knowing your audience’s particular barriers makes it easier to overcome them.
Finally, explore relevant behavioral science triggers that could help alleviate their concerns, including authority, autonomy bias, and cognitive fluency principles.
#1: Wield Authority for Instant Credibility: The Authority Principle
Seeking trust with your target audience quickly? Borrow it from reputable third parties. People are conditioned from childhood to recognize and respect authority figures. As a marketer, calling upon recognized experts to validate your claims allows you to shortcut the time-intensive trust-building process.
For example, maybe you’re searching for a ski parka, and the U.S. ski team says they trust L.L. Bean’s parkas. So, you confidently purchase their parka and go about your day without being bogged down in more research or comparison shopping. Or maybe you see a toothpaste brand in the store, and the label says the American Dental Association backs it. You might be more inclined to purchase that brand because you trust the ADA.
Nancy recalls another example of the authority principle: some criminals in Oregon dressed as bank guards and stood in front of a Wells Fargo ATM. They put up a fake sign that said the machine was broken and instructed people to give deposits to the guards. When people came to use the ATM, most read the sign and handed over their cash to the dressed-up crooks without question. The criminals walked away with thousands of dollars.
The scheme worked by having the dressed-up robbers point to an official-looking sign telling ATM users to hand over their money because the machine supposedly wasn’t working.
In his book, Robert discusses an experiment where a man illegally jaywalked across intersections. Sometimes, he wore a nice business suit; other times, he wore a work shirt and pants. Researchers watched how many people would jaywalk after seeing him do it.
When the man wore the business suit, 350% more people followed him by jaywalking too. His professional appearance influenced people, even though he didn’t actually know more about safely crossing the street.
People may question puffery from someone selling a product, but research shows they’ll have far greater belief when a respected authority confirms its merit. Social proof is constructive for new brands or those expanding into new territory. Sharing current customer testimonials or highlighting credentials like elite university degrees or celebrated past employers also fosters confidence through affiliation with their authority.
Similarly, showing a positive quote from an industry expert makes others think that the expert endorses and approves of what you are offering. Nancy took this route, securing backing from Robert himself to adorn her book cover. The halo effect from Robert’s name gives her book instant added credibility.
You can also create content that makes you appear to be an authority in your industry, especially if you’re just starting out. Imagine you’re a conversion optimization agency, and you’ve published a 110-point eCommerce checklist. Since you posted this considerable guide, your clients will think you’re an authority, thereby establishing your credibility and subject matter expertise.
#2: Activate Autonomy by Offering Options: The Autonomy Bias Principle
You can also spur action through autonomy—giving people a sense of control. Humans have a deep-seated desire for control and agency over themselves and their environment. Behavioral scientists find that humans intensely dislike being forced into decisions.
Research shows that giving people choices taps into this bias, making them more likely to take action. Simply having 2–3 options instead of one can dramatically increase their willingness to buy on the spot. In fact, giving people a choice nearly quadruples the likelihood that they will make a buying decision.
People often delay purchases to keep comparing possibilities when faced with just one option. But a couple of alternatives frame a situation as merely selecting between this or that rather than deciding on the broader yes or no. Now, commitment becomes far more palatable.
Besides escalating response rates, optionality also unlocks price anchoring effects—comparison shopping allows you to feature premium offerings that make middle-tier ones suddenly seem like a steal. Some examples include:
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- A software platform with monthly versus discounted annual payment plans
- A product bundle with basic versus deluxe versions
- Event tickets offering general admission + VIP packages
People focus more on how a price compares to other prices rather than just looking at the actual number amount. This cognitive quirk means that showing more high-priced items makes people much more likely to buy “decoy” mid-tiered products than showing just the lowest-priced items.
If people feel like they have some control, it will impact their behavior. And the best way for people to feel like they have control is to offer them a choice.
For example, researchers conducted a study at a retirement home, dividing residents into two groups. The control group got set activities—a movie every night picked by staff and a plant in their room. The test group got to choose their film each night from some options and decide which plant to have.
About 18 months later, twice as many people had died in the control versus the test group. The researchers controlled for age and health issues. They believe having small choices like movies or plants gave the test group autonomy and motivation to keep going.
Nancy gives another example: behavioral scientists visiting New York noticed an interesting thing happening at crosswalks.
The city turned off the pedestrian buttons that made the walk signal appear. The buttons no longer worked—the signals were now on automated timers. But some crossings still had the non-working buttons on the posts.
The researchers observed that when a button was present, people would press it and then wait for the walk signal before crossing, even though the button did nothing. Just having the button made them feel in control, so they followed the lights.
At intersections missing buttons, people often looked both ways and immediately darted across the street.
For marketers, autonomy bias also applies to pricing models. Nancy recommends using the “but you are free” (BYIF) tactic. First, describe your offer. Then, ask for the sale, but remind your customers, “The choice is yours” or “It’s up to you.” This tactic doubles the chance people will buy. It reminds customers that they can decide while presenting them with options.
People want freedom in choices, even when being persuaded.
Pricing strategy matters, too. A small number seems more affordable, even if it equals a large total. Like $365 a year becomes $1 a day. It feels cheaper at $1, though it adds up identically.
Marketers can also charge more for monthly payments than for yearly payments, even if doing the math shows the monthly total is pricier over a year. People focus more on the smaller monthly fee, feeling like it’s an affordable bargain, rather than multiplying it by 12 months. The anchor of lower monthly price tags outweighs the higher ultimate cost.
#3: Simplify Complexity: The Cognitive Fluency Principle
Ever page through a textbook and suddenly realize you failed to comprehend the past few pages? That frustrating experience highlights how essential simplicity and flow are for understanding. Behavioral scientists call this concept cognitive fluency—how new information is mentally processed quickly.
Marketers need their customers to feel confident. Because if they don’t feel confident, they won’t make that buying decision.
People gravitate toward information that takes less effort to process mentally. Simple and easy-to-digest messages feel more truthful and inspire greater confidence. Think about how frustrating assembling Ikea furniture can be when the instructions are confusing. But when the directions have clear and simple pictures showing each step, it makes the process much easier.
Visual clarity gives people more confidence to complete the task.
From images to copy, optimizing for cognitive fluency wins more positive reception and boosts response from your audience. Avoid jargon and use straightforward language, like shorter words and conversational phrasing, to make concepts more accessible to digest.
Sometimes, marketers hesitate to “dumb down” language, believing it makes them appear less sophisticated. Yet research into abstracts of academic papers, for example, found the reverse—simplified text enhanced perceptions of the authors’ intelligence!
Researchers at Princeton conducted a study on stock names. Looking at how easy the names were to pronounce, they put stocks into two groups—easy and hard names to say aloud. The study found that stocks with easily pronounceable names performed better in the market for several months. The stocks with hard-to-pronounce names did worse.
Cognitive fluency matters. Ultimately, the easy-to-pronounce stock names saw greater market success.
Similar to how you want your brand’s messaging to connect with customers, it’s also essential for your visual appearance to feel inviting and engaging. Contrast paragraphs crammed wall-to-wall with text against whitespace. Use fonts that are more familiar and easy to read.
For example, researchers ran a study about an exercise routine. Some people read about it in an easy-to-read font like Arial. Others read the same content in a more ornate, complex font.
After reading, people estimated how long the routine would take. Those who saw the easy font thought it would take about 8 minutes. Those with the ornate font said 12 minutes.
So when something is more challenging to read visually, people assume actually doing it will also be more difficult. The hard-to-process font made them think the workout would take longer, even though the text was identical.
Reverse type—type that uses white text on a dark background—works well for small pieces of copy or things you want to stand out. But it’s unsuitable for lots of text or paragraphs—it can cut your readership by 50%. The same goes for italicized text. You should italicize words or phrases to emphasize them, but not entire paragraphs.
Your customers will take the path of least resistance, and you want that path to lead them to the action.
Remarkably, even tiny linguistic shifts can have a big impact. Simple tweaks like changing “complementary” to more concrete “free” in the subject line of emails lift open rates by 50%, according to Jay Schwedelson, founder of SubjectLine.com and president and CEO of Outcome Media.
Nancy notes another example: an eCommerce company added a new $5 shipping fee. This usually hurts because people dislike extra fees. But the company tested two ways of presenting it:
- A $5 fee
- A small $5 fee
Logically, $5 seems low already. But adding the word “small” before it increased sales by 20% versus just saying $5 fee.
Word choices can make a big difference. It’s worth taking the time to deliberately choose your words, not only so that they’re shorter and easy to understand or so that your message is more brief, casual, and friendly, but also because it’s very deliberate—one different word can really pay off in terms of your response rate.
Specific, concrete language aids comprehension too. Another study found that emails that use more concrete language for an eCommerce site resulted in a lift in sales. “Pants” became “blue jeans,” and purchases amplified by 30%. Creating a mental picture can translate to more sales. So, carefully evaluate language, design, imagery, and text to smooth understanding—it pays dividends.
Behavioral science offers marketing practitioners valuable and often counterintuitive insights into why people behave as they do. Rather than relying on assumptions about human decision-making, behavioral science reveals the mental shortcuts and hardwired reflexes people actually use. Savvy marketers can leverage these findings to craft more persuasive messaging using simple tweaks.
While conventional marketing best practices provide an essential foundation, a layering of behavioral science can potently boost customer response. As Nancy puts it, behavioral science gives you “that secret sauce” to increase the likelihood that people take your desired action.
Other Notes From This Episode
- Connect with Michael Stelzner @Stelzner on Instagram and @Mike_Stelzner on Twitter.
- Watch this interview and other exclusive content from Social Media Examiner on YouTube.
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