It’s Marketing, Not Magic

There have been a lot of meaningful examples recently of the ways in which behavioral economics can change consumer behavior. When The Economist offered consumers two subscription levels, the majority of people kept choosing the cheaper, less ideal version. Yet when they introduced a third, more costly option, people suddenly began purchasing the slightly more expensive version that was being originally ignored. As Forbes described it in 2013, “As expected, no one chose the third option, but something magical happened! An overwhelming majority now chose the second option.” That’s right. Magic.

The same article details an extremely popular example many of us know. A group of people were asked to rate bottles of wine. Some were told the wine was very expensive while others were told it was very cheap. Those told the wine was expensive believed it was a better wine—a far better wine—than the version with the less expensive price tag. Magic!

These examples, and many more like them, demonstrate an understanding of a number of different biases people operate under while going through life. The website The Psy-Fi Blog created “The Big List of Behavioral Biases.” The Ambiguity Aversion bias suggests that we hate uncertainty much more than we hate risk. As such, we’re more likely to engage in a riskier behavior we know than one we don’t. As I mentioned in my blog post about the psychology of luck, the Illusion of Control bias is when we make ourselves feel in control of situations over which we have absolutely none.

Unfortunately, with these new biases in hand, many marketers believe they can completely change their consumers. It’s all about the behavior, the environment and the triggers. So we create environments and triggers and attempt to remove obstacles that are along the path to our desired behavior. If we can do these things just right, we can, almost magically, make everyone a loyalist. They will purchase our products in triplicate and do so every Monday at 3:00pm.

So we see websites being built to get consumers to the shopping cart. We see stores redesigned to help them find the most expensive items. For years, grocery stores have put milk at the back of the store so that you have to walk past all of those doughnuts. Sweet, delicious doughnuts.

This, my friends, is behavior change. It is amazing. It is scientific. It is magic.

Or not. And behavior change is a bit of a misleading name because it suggests we, as marketers, can change the behavior of others. Yet we can’t. And if you’ve ever tried to feed a five-year-old green beans, you painfully know this is not true.

We don’t change behavior. We inspire it. We guide it. We make the path to new behavior, and the behavior itself, and the reward of that behavior, as positive as possible (or as least negative as possible). It isn’t a magic wand. It’s empathy. It’s why in every model of behavior change you might find (consider BJ Fogg‘s model), you will see that there must be some level of motivation. In order for us to identify that motivation or help provide that motivation, we have to have a deeper understanding of the human truth. Then we can change human behavior.

So put away your psychology wands and get to work listening to your customer. Once you get to know them, you’ll know exactly how to inspire them.

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