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The big power of a little nudge

How to use behavioural science to improve your marketing

[Image courtesy of Mark Smith at Flickr Creative Commons]

“Too late – I took it to the bank,” said a friend of mine the other day on a WhatsApp chat.

I’d made what I thought was an ironic comment, but he’d taken it literally.

You know what they say about giving a thing and taking it back. By the time I tried to rope in my backhanded compliment, he was already basking in the warm glow of praise, unwilling to let it go.

We all ‘take it to the bank’ from time to time, often without realising it. We hear what we want to hear, project our thoughts and feelings onto the words of others, and often overrate our own abilities. It’s all part of being human – which is what makes us all endlessly fascinating.

Nudging your way to success

I was thinking again recently about why we do what we do when I revisited Nudge for a project I’m working on.

This was the book that took the world by storm back in 2008, becoming one of The Economist’s must-reads of the year. It was so influential that the British government set up its own ‘nudge unit’, otherwise known as the Behavioural Insights Team, and Barack Obama appointed one of the authors, Cass Sunstein, as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

The idea is pretty simple: you can make small changes that have big consequences. You don’t need to spend billions or deploy an army of civil servants. You simply need to understand what ‘nudges’ people to behave differently.

‘Psychological interventions’ – in other words, nudges – are incredibly powerful, because they hit the sweet spot and spur people into action. Here are some examples: 

  • Asking voters about their motivations for voting the day before the election increases turnout by 11%. By contrast, $4bn in TV advertising in the recent US presidential election increased turnout by just 10%.
  • Writing to doctors at the beginning of the flu season telling them they’re high prescribers (among the top 20%) can reduce prescriptions by as much as 3.5%.
  • Telling taxpayers most people have already paid boosts tax take. Going one step further and saying most people in their neighbourhood have done so yields even more impressive results. 

To err is human

All of these nudges rely on the cognitive biases that most of us have.

Conformity bias is what’s driving the doctors and taxpayers: while everybody says they want to be different and individual, in practice they really just want to be like everybody else (which explains the irresistible pull of Facebook and other social media). 

These cognitive biases are so pervasive we hardly even notice them any more. See if you recognise any of them (as I certainly do): 

  • The path of least resistance, which you’ve probably experienced when you’re faced with endless choice on a shopping trip. You go for the easiest, most hassle-free one. If you’re planning any sort of campaign, sale or offer, remember that. Easy is good. 
  • Availability bias, where things that are top of mind tend to be the ones you reach for. This is a particular trap you should try to avoid if you’re carrying out a survey: you get the answers to the questions you ask, so make sure you’re not leading the witness. 
  • Loss aversion: if somebody tells you you’re going to lose £100 it’s twice as powerful as if they say you’re going to save £100. So choose your words carefully when you wave those numbers around. The same figure can yield different results depending on how you use it. 
  • Anchoring: where you start dictates where you end up, whether you’re negotiating a fee or buying an LBD (was £500 – now only £250!). All value is relative, so your perception of that value is inevitably linked to something else: a previous purchase/sale, a mental price tag, how many cups of coffee it would buy instead. 

These mental flaws that we all have are not only fascinating to behavioural scientists. They’re also a way for marketers to connect with clients and prospects.

The more you understand human nature, the more you can craft a message that’s relevant, targeted and successful. One in which what you say is what they hear, whether it’s a marketing campaign or a WhatsApp chat.

And maybe this time, you can take it to the bank. 

Find out more: 

Forget the how and focus instead on the why

It always pays to start big, then think small

[Image courtesy of Anna Vignet at Flickr Creative Commons]

I was chatting not so long ago with a salesperson who was frustrated.

He was trying to engage senior decision makers by talking in a language they understood. But the marketing folks back at base weren’t supplying him with materials that pressed the right buttons.

“It’s not the how I need – it’s the why. That’s what will get them sitting up and listening,” he said with a sigh.

His company produces an enterprise software solution that deploys clever algorithms to analyse and optimise…

Hmm. Let me start that again.

His company helps their clients cut costs, eliminate wastage, prosper in a tight market with global economic uncertainty, and streak ahead of the competition. 

Now that’s a better story, but it’s still not the why.

Every company wants to do all of those things. And every B2B solution provider claims they do those things, so the story ends up being more compelling, but still quite generic.

So we need to take it one level higher.

What issues are his clients facing? What’s the cost of not taking action? Why should they turn to his company for a solution? What are their competitors doing? Where is the marketing going? What are the latest trends? Are they going to be left behind if they don’t act? Where are the hidden threats?

Or put another way, why should they care?

Simple is as simple does

There’s always a temptation when you talk to – or write for – clients to dive into the detail. After all, that’s what will differentiate you from the competition, right?

You’ve got such a great story to tell, and you’ve spent the last six months living, eating and breathing the detail of your product or service. Why would you not want to put it all out there? 

The answer is simple: people don’t do detail. You don’t, I don’t, nobody does. We start at the top and work down – but only if we’re interested and engaged, and need detail to justify our choice. 

For the second time in six months, a simple message has triumphed over the complex detail. Donald Trump has swept to power, sending shockwaves across the US and the world, just as Brexit did back in June.

‘Make America great again’ was the why, as simple and effective as ‘Vote Leave, Take Control’ was in the summer.

The how may be somewhat more complicated after January in the US, and March in the UK (if Article 50 is triggered), but the why made people sit up and care.

And go out and vote.

Swipe right

But let’s leave the heady world of politics behind for the moment, and return to our salesperson.

Clearly the clever algorithms and whizz-bang analytics aren’t setting his target audience on fire. Cutting costs, increasing efficiency and all those good things would get him a bit more facetime with prospects, but he needed to pull back and find a better way in.

“Pretend you’re speed-dating the prospect,” I said. “The buzzer is going to sound very soon, and you need to get them to want to see you at the end of the night. Tell me how you’d hook them.”

Ever one to take up a challenge, the salesperson was happy to play along. And one by one, the killer arguments just kept on coming. 

Clients in this sector are short on working capital, so they have no manoeuvring room if there are new competitive threats or an economic downturn. They’re having to cut back their R&D, so they have no new products coming down the line. They don’t know in detail which clients or sectors are the most profitable, so their efforts aren’t targeted. They’re in a precarious financial position, and often go for short-term gain that might cause long-term pain.

“I can fix all of these things,” he said with a big smile. “But isn’t that the buzzer?”

I almost asked him for his number. But instead, I gave him the list I’d been writing down while he was in full flow.

He’s now given it to his marketing department, who are finally on board with the idea that it sometimes pays to start big, then think small. They’re drafting top-level thought pieces that show clients they ‘get’ them and their world.

Now they know the why, they can leave the how for later, when the relationship is a little further down the line. 

This could be the start of something big. Next time I see the salesperson, I’ll ask him if his clients are swiping right

Somehow I think they just might be.

Nothing lasts and nothing matters (and why that's good news)

Exploding mobiles, fading memories and managing the message

[Image courtesy of iphonedigital at Flickr Creative Commons]

Oh to be a fly on the wall at Samsung HQ at the moment.

After one of the biggest mobile phone PR disasters in living memory, it would certainly be interesting to know how they’re bearing up in Seoul.

At one point it looked like they were getting on top of things with their recall programme – but then the replacement handsets also went up in smoke, adding insult to injury. At times it felt like watching a mobile phone version of Source Code

In the end, they took the only decision they could, announcing the immediate suspension of production and definitive recall of all units in the market. It’s been a monumentally expensive episode, with the Korean giant steeling itself for a $3 billion hit in Q1 2014.

But here’s an interesting thing: according to some industry experts,  it could all be forgotten in as little as six months.

Why is that?

Because this is a fast-moving environment, where product launches are frequent. Samsung has at least two major events a year, and other manufacturers are clamouring for a share of a saturated market by constantly upping the ante. 

Already people are in post-Note 7 mode, looking forward to the much-anticipated Galaxy 8, which is expected to be unveiled at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona at the end of February.

So what lessons can we learn from the exploding mobiles? 

Memories are short

This is good news, because it means that bad news is soon forgotten.

Back in 2014, commentators were asking whether Malaysia Airlines had a future, after the disappearance of flight MH370 and the shooting down of of MH17 just four months later.

Two years on, people are still flying with the airline, and it’s even posted a profit.

So bad news doesn’t last, however bad it is. In our always-connected world, there’s always something worse to replace it.

The downside is that good news doesn’t last either. It doesn’t matter how slick your product launch is, how revolutionary your service is or how positive the survey results are. Nothing lasts forever, so you’d better have some more good news down the line.

Which is yet another good reason to have a marketing calendar that maps out the next 12 months and has constantly rolling activity.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

OK, so self-destructing phones are pretty dangerous and need to be taken off the market. But that marketing campaign that you’re agonising over, the website design you can’t quite make up your mind on, the copy you’ve been trying to hammer into shape for the last week isn’t.

I remember a few years back spending two whole days trying to decide on the size and colour of the dots for my website logo. I went through every conceivable hue and saturation, brightness and tint. They got bigger and smaller, and moved from left to right, from top to bottom.

It was a small but telling example of the famous analysis paralysis (probably an INTJ thing, but let’s not go there). And in the end, I simply made a snap decision and moved on.

So if the big decisions barely matter, why sweat the small stuff?

Most decisions are not show-stoppers, so imagine how much time you could save by just deciding and moving on. How much more work you could get done. How much earlier you could call it a day. 

Get in front of the story

You miss a deadline, or your service falls short. The delivery doesn’t make it to your customer, or you say something you shouldn’t have in a meeting.

In business as in life, stuff happens – some of which you can control, and some of which you can’t. What really matters is how you react when things go wrong.

So if something goes wrong, whether it’s your fault or somebody else’s, it’s alway best to take control and manage the message – before somebody else does. If you act quickly and decisively, frame the message and propose a plan to minimise the damage, you’re well on the way to a solution.

Samsung realised this and took positive action to own the problem and control the direction of travel of the story. Of course part of that is cultural, and getting it right was a question of national pride (in a country where you can be born in a Samsung hospital and make your last journey thanks to a Samsung funeral centre). Perhaps we should all be a bit more Korean. 

Getting in front of the story works for problems big and small. From minor service glitches to an army of incendiary handsets and everything in between.

And however bad it gets, remember you can always take comfort in the thought that memories really are short. Mine certainly is: I’m already toying with the idea of a Galaxy 8.

Because it can’t happen again. Can it?

The art of interviewing for marketers

How to get the most out of a client, subject-matter expert or just about anybody else

[Image courtesy of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung at Flickr Creative Commons]

“They really said that?” asked an incredulous client recently. “Why do they never say this stuff to us?”

The answer was simple. I’m not my client, just a writer who was conducting case-study interviews on their behalf.

So the compliments just kept on coming, in a way that would have been impossible if my client had been talking direct to their clients. “You’re fabulous and I love working with you” is a lot more difficult to say than “They’re fabulous and I love working with them”. 

So being an impartial third party definitely helps.

But there are also some general guidelines that will make any interview go more smoothly. Here are my top 10: 

  1. Decide on your objective. I know it sounds obvious, but it’s a really easy step to skip. The key thing here is knowing what you want to get out of the interview. A killer story about a successful deployment? In-depth knowledge of a subject from somebody who’s a definitive authority? Quotable quotes for testimonials? Customer insight? 
  2. Always confirm. Plans change and priorities shift. So what was a convenient time when you set it up last week may suddenly become an inconvenience in a packed diary. It’s always a good idea when you speak to an interviewee to confirm they’re still OK to talk. If you sense hesitation, reschedule. There’s nothing worse than a hassled or rushed interviewee, dispatching questions with the briefest of answers. 
  3. Record the call. It’s much easier if you know that you can play back your conversation later and pick up anything you missed. Plus, you’ll get more accurate quotes and won’t spend all your time desperately trying to write or type verbatim in a real-time conversation. You should tell your interviewee you’re recording – and most people are fine with that. 
  4. Set expectations. I always start by telling people what I’m hoping to achieve, and how the interview fits into the wider picture (‘Acme Inc is relaunching their website in a couple of months, and they’d like to have some new case studies.’). Nobody likes being interviewed, so if you explain clearly what you goal is, and how the process works, they’re much more likely to open up and give you what you want. 
  5. Have a clear structure and a logical sequence, so your interview follows a predetermined path. It doesn’t need to be exhaustive – just a skeleton list of bullet points will do. It’s easy to forget what to say next next when you’re focusing on the here and now. Having another question on your list means you’ll never have one of those embarrassing pauses.
  6. Don’t be afraid to deviate. Structure and sequence are all very well, but life isn’t a straight line. Almost every interview I’ve done has taken a detour. Sometimes you have to guide the interviewee gently back on track, but often, the direction they take you in is more interesting than the one you mapped out. The trick is recognising when you’re on to something good and running with it. 
  7. Ask open questions. ‘Did the deployment go well?’ is just asking for a one-word answer (yes/no). As is ‘Do you enjoy working with Acme?’ It’s much better to say ‘Tell me about the deployment’ or ‘What’s it like working with Acme?’ Even so, when you ask an open question, you may well have to gently encourage the interviewee with a supplementary question. A really effective tactic is simply to repeat what they’ve said back to them (‘So the deployment took just a month?’) which is often all it takes to keep them talking.
  8. Talk less, listen more. As an interviewer, you need to get out of the way and let somebody else take centre stage. An interview doesn’t obey the normal rules of conversation, where you generally talk as much as you listen. I remember years ago playing back an interview I did and marvelling at how long my questions were, and how often I interrupted the interviewee. I learned my lesson, and never did it again. 
  9. Ask for details or clarification. Not interrupting interviewees is all very well, but only if they’re on topic and it’s all making sense to you. If not, interrupt sooner rather than later to clear up uncertainty or get them back on track. It’s always a mistake to do the equivalent of nodding obligingly when you’re struggling to understand a native speaker of a language you’re learning. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you don’t understand. 
  10. Round things off. Once the interview is over (and you should always finish on time), recap the procedure to the interviewee: next steps, editorial control/veto (usually required for case studies), photo/bio information and when they can expect to hear back from you. Also, whether it’s OK to contact them by email if any queries come up.

Follow these tips, and you’ll be interviewing like a pro. But just one last thing: do remember to double-check your recording technology before you start. Not doing so is a mistake you make only once.

Take my word for it. 

The marketing lessons we can learn from politicians

The business of politics – and the politics of business

Marketing lessons we can learn from politicians

It’s only a few short months since I was quietly admiring the political skill of David Cameron, after reading a biography by Lord Ashcroft.

Fast-forward and Cameron has disappeared off the radar, his political career engulfed by the Brexit storm.

He’s out of Number 10, and will soon be leaving the green benches of Parliament to head into early retirement or a lucrative career in the private sector (becoming what the French charmingly call a pantouflard – a ‘slipper-wearer’, a reference to how cushy a politician’s life is when they make a seamless transition to the business world).

His fall from grace set me thinking about how politicians are like brands, with their success often owing more to marketing and clever PR than any objective differentiation. 

So how do today’s crop of politicians shape up as brands? What are their strengths and weaknesses? And what can we learn from how these animals operate in the political jungle?

Let’s see.

The challenger brand

This is a great position to be in: you simply take pot-shots at the market leader or the incumbent leader, immediately putting them on the defensive. You’re the new broom, and sweeping is high on your agenda.

Donald Trump is a challenger brand, with a deep war chest that he’s not afraid to break open to gain market share. He’s riding high on a wave of anti-establishment resentment. 

But this position by definition doesn’t last if it works.

When you overtake your rivals, or you get elected, you now have a target on your back, and you’d better come up with the goods. Just look at what happened to Nick Clegg in the UK, and you’ll see what The Donald has to look forward to if he heads down Pennsylvania Avenue.

The brand you know and trust

Hillary Clinton is part of the establishment Trump is hitting out at, so she has to turn that necessity into a virtue.

Though the Clinton brand is instantly recognisable, it’s not without political baggage – containing the notorious dress of ‘that woman’, among other things.

But as a Washington insider, she can confidently play the ‘voice of experience’ card. She regularly asks who voters would choose to have their finger hovering above the nuclear button. (Personally, I’d have a hard time trusting any politician, of any stripe, past or present, with their finger anywhere near it.)

Clearly, having been close to the heart of power for many years, her message is that she’s the safer, more predictable, more stable choice.

It’s important to remember here that people often vote not for a candidate but against another (cast your mind back to Jacques Chirac vs. Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002). 

Commercial brands often make the mistake of thinking their marketing message exists in a vacuum – but it doesn’t.

Just like Hillary and Donald, they’re put in a lineup and compared and contrasted. So you’re judged not just on your own merits, but on your relative merits when you’re standing next to your competitors.

The non-stick brand

Just eight years ago, Barack Obama couldn’t put a foot wrong. He was the ultimate in cool brands – the Apple of politics. 

But he hasn’t closed Guantanamo, Obamacare still raises hackles across the US, and his inability to get legislation through (especially in the last two years, with the Republicans controlling both houses of congress) all mean he’s leaving if not under a cloud, then at least with less than blue skies.

But he’s managed the message well, and is an unparalleled speaker. He forms instant connections with people, and is not afraid to let his human side show. He does gravitas perfectly, but balances it brilliantly with levity and good humour.

Eight years on, and he’s still the coolest political brand – internationally, it not domestically. 

The anti-brand

In a world of 24-hour news cycles, constant spin and managed messages, refusing to play the game can often work in your favour.

Teresa May is the ultimate safe pair of hands. She adopted a low-key strategy during the referendum campaign, and avoided the cut-and-thrust of the power struggle that followed David Cameron’s departure. She then stepped in as the compromise candidate, and preached a story of reconciliation and harmony. 

It was brilliantly played – if, in fact, she was playing. Of course with politicians you can never tell, but she’s either sincere or fakes it very convincingly.

May is returning to a low-key style of leadership out of the media spotlight. She says she’s ‘just getting on with the job’ – a phrase that was much used and abused by predecessors, but one which she actually appears to be putting into practice.

Virtual reality

In the end, what matters in business as in politics is presentation, credibility, and the subtle interplay between the two.

It’s a well-worn cliché that you create your own reality, but when it comes to political campaigns, it goes even further – creating other people’s reality.

In marketing as in life, there is no absolute truth. You only have to look at the below-the-line comments on some newspaper sites (The Guardian is the frontline of the Brexit battlefield) to see how implacably opposed the pro and anti sides are. And how neither will cede an inch in the ongoing struggle for the moral high ground.

You can’t win all of the people all of the time – so you shouldn’t even try. Instead, much like the politicians, you should play to your strengths and play up the competition’s weaknesses.

It doesn’t much matter what the product is – it’s how you market it that counts. And we can learn a lot from politicians when we look at how they’ve sold their political messages, and positioned themselves over recent years.

And yes – even from The Donald.