You’re at a conference, you’ve taken on a ton of information. Your brain’s trying to make sense of it all and then, very occasionally, a speaker steps up and just totally blows your mind. That happened to me recently when I heard Roeland Dietvorst, a neuroscientist who works with marketers to improve campaign outcomes.
His talk ranged from football playing bees, to monkeys’ innate sense of fairness, and from Kahneman’s systems 1 and 2, to MRI scans that can be used to draw the images you’re picturing in your mind (yes, really). All of it was amazing and I it’s been circling round in head ever since.
In practical terms, for digital comms and marketing there were some very pertinent points. Some of them intuitively feel right, but it’s worth formalising them.
Keeping people in flow
The immediate priority for me to is to refocus on flow. People are busy living their lives and do many everyday things with little thought or effort; they’re using Kahneman’s System 1, the automatic, easy, low power mode. When they’re scrolling through Facebook, they’re definitely in System 1.
Traditionally, marketers interrupt people with messages. We’re trying to create some space in their minds for our brand or product or service while they’re busy doing other things. For example, we drop TV ads or billboards into their day. Online, we break into their feeds with ads. Typically, we finish our messages with a call to action – we want them to do something (usually buy from us).
The immediate lesson isn’t to not interrupt people, it’s to not interrupt them in a way that makes them think. If they’re using System 1, don’t switch them to the harder work of System 2 (the slow, deep thinking process) because it means they’re concentrating harder, are more critical and less likely to buy.
For instance, if you’re selling winter tyres, don’t evoke images of the tyres saving people from accidents because you’re making people think of accidents. Better to go with lighter messages that don’t make people think critically, that don’t raise fears.
You’ll be thinking this is obvious, but in an age where marketers increasingly seek to shock people to get attention, it’s a timely lesson to learn.
Don’t overthink it
Our brains make choices faster than we realise. They make instant judgments. When asked to explain our choices, we post-rationalise them.
A good example of this is the performance improvement made by booking.com from a small, subtle change to its website. They switched black bullet points to green ticks. It led a significant uplift in conversion.
If you asked a typical customer, what made you go ahead and make your recent purchase, no one would say, “the green ticks really swayed me.” But they made an observable impact. Those ticks changed the choices people made.
The lesson here is not to over rationalise people’s choices. It is better to observe and optimise.
Test, test, test
Everyone doing anything digital will be testing and learning constantly. Dietvorst cannot endorse this enough. Don’t overthink through which pricing option or call to action will work best, run tests and see which does. Constantly improve performance through repeat and ongoing testing. And it doesn’t have to be the big things. The composition of an image, or the type of bullet point you use can lead to statistically significant uplifts in performance.
The trap many people fall into when they learn about things like heuristics and automatic preferences, is that they take this understanding of how our brains use shortcuts and then try to apply them as a general theory. Beyond understanding that our brains automatically make choices quickly and not rationally, nothing else should be taken for granted. Don’t a single observation and apply it generally out of context. Instead, test, test, test.
A note on ethics
Keeping people in flow, optimising to increase sales, testing and learning. None of that is controversial, but it does raise ethical questions. We know people don’t always make the best choices. If you’re in the business of selling something, even something relatively benign, I think we all have a responsibility to think about customer outcomes, not just selling more. So while optimising is important, there should be a parallel stream of work to protect and properly serve more vulnerable customers.