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Persuasion is not enough

Approaching Communication from a Behavioural Science Lens

As marketers and insights professionals, we are firmly grounded in the art of persuasion.  We’ve been trained to think in terms of creative approaches and convincing arguments.   

Thus, we naturally assume that our job is to create awareness and to persuade people.  But realistically, that’s not the case; as marketers, our end goal is to change people’s behaviour.  Indeed, behavioural science teaches us that the connection between messaging, persuasion and behaviour change is far from direct or absolute. There are two primary reasons for this: 

Most behaviour is not fully conscious or considered

As humans, we constantly look for ‘shortcuts’ to reduce our cognitive load and prevent us from being overwhelmed by too much stimuli or too many choices.  This means we do many things on ‘auto-pilot’, from our daily commutes to our habitual purchases.  In these cases, we are largely guided by familiar visual cues (such as shapes or colours) rather than logical arguments (such as features, benefits or claims).  Despite this, marketers often speak to people as though their decisions are considered and rational, providing them information when their minds are not open to receiving it.

Persuading people does not necessarily lead to behaviour change

Many of us would genuinely like to live healthier, act more sustainably and/or adopt better financial practices. But long-term behaviour change is difficult, and we often fall back into familiar habits.   In these cases, people are already ‘persuaded ’ – and simply reinforcing the same point has limited impact (unless the message can be delivered at exactly the right moment).   

So how can we, as marketers, address the twin challenges of ‘auto-pilot’ behaviour and the gap between intent and action?

One answer lies in embracing the key learnings from behavioural science, starting with Richard Thaler’s primary mantra: “make it easy!”

If we want people to disrupt their ingrained behaviours, we need to offer them an easier path and minimise any ‘friction’ (such as hassle or confusion) that gets in their way.   This usually leads to simplicity;  while people usually ask for more features or choices, the reality is that complexity often leads to paralysis and a default to the familiar.

In addition, we suggest three ways that marketers can apply behavioural science to enhance their efforts:

Adopt a ‘behaviour-first’ mentality 

Start your thinking (and your briefs) with the desired behavioural change that the communication is intended to provoke – and work backwards from that point.   Similarly, make a distinction between persuading and facilitating behaviour change within your marketing plans.   You may be surprised how much these simple changes reorient your thinking. 

Think beyond ‘System 1 and System 2’    

While most marketers are familiar with behavioural science, many oversimplify it to ‘System 1’ communication, only emphasising the need to connect on a visceral, emotional level.  But this field has much more to offer marketers, including an extensive set of ‘heuristics’ (such as Framing, Defaults, Social Norms, etc.) that can be applied to improve communication and impact behaviour.  In fact, we systematically apply these ‘COGS’ or ‘Drivers of Influence’ to websites, apps, direct marketing and internal communications – and repeatedly see double-digit improvements in metrics like conversion rates and engagement.

Start ‘Nudging’

‘Nudges’ are small interventions that drive or facilitate behaviour change and help people create new habits.  They can take many different forms, from visual design to reminder systems or ‘defaults’.  Often, they involve reinforcing a message (delivered earlier via advertising) at the exact moment of decision, helping people to follow through on their intentions.  For example, during a recent project we found that making mouthwash visible (‘salient’) in the bathroom (via holders and stickers) was the key to driving regular use. 

Effective marketing communication will always be vital. But marketers who embrace the power of behavioural science – and therefore approach communication as just one step in the journey to behaviour change – are sure to be well-rewarded. 



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