3 Behavioral Principles to Help Boost Marketing Effectiveness


By Diane Streleckis - Spurring people to act can feel like a daunting task for marketing communication professionals. But a dash of understanding about human behavior can make the task easier.

Award-winning marketing consultant and author Nancy Harhut noted that behavioral principles affect decisions people make in response to everything—and that goes for marketing. “They impact what we choose to read, who we choose to trust, who we buy from,” she said.

As she likes to say, “It’s the right message, to the right person, in the right time, in the right way.” Doing so means, “serving up the messages using the words or phrases or frames that are most likely to get people to notice the message, understand the message, remember the message, and respond to the message.”

Three key behavior areas for marketers to know

Nancy shared three top behavioral principles marketers can keep in mind to develop messages that spur people to act. (For 22 more principles, plus tips on how to apply them, check out Nancy’s book, "Using Behavioral Science in Marketing: Drive Customer Action and Loyalty by Prompting Instinctive Responses".)

Get more marketing behavioral tips from Nancy at IABC Philadelphia’s December 15 virtual event

Social proof

“Social proof is where people, when they’re uncertain about a decision, look to others and follow their lead,” Nancy explained.

“Most marketers use social proof very well. We talk about the number of years our organization has been in business, the number of customers we’ve served, our most popular or fastest-growing products—all these things are indicators of social proof.”

Two things in particular for marketers to keep in mind about social proof:

  • Punch up testimonials: To make testimonials even more powerful, Nancy suggested marketers use a little skepticism in the set-up.

“We think we have to find the most positive ones where people are 100% in love with (the product or organization we’re marketing). The people reading these testimonials are probably wondering, ‘Is it as good as they say it is? Is it going to be worth my time and effort? Is it better than the other thing I was looking at or what I’ve got?’”

A better testimonial is one that starts with the sentiment of one of those questions, Nancy noted. For example, for a bank, “You could find a testimonial that says, ‘I thought all banks were the same, no difference between the one on this corner and the one on the opposite corner. There’s all the same. But then I had to switch banks and that Acme Bank, they were just unbelievable.’”

  • Beware the backfire: You want to encourage people to act, Nancy stressed, not give them social proof to put off their action. She drew on insurance, a product people often wait longer than they should to buy, as an example.

“If I open my marketing pitch with a message about how people often wait too long to buy, that communicates to people that they’re in good company.” That’s social proof that works against their best interests—and your goal.

Automatic compliance triggers

“People are more likely to do what we ask if we give them a reason why,” Nancy said. “It doesn’t even have to be a really good reason.”

The word “because” is what’s called an automatic compliance trigger, according to research. Nancy cited a study by Harvard professor Ellen Langer that showed when people used the word because and provided a reason (because I have some copies to make), they moved to the front of the line, in this case for a copy machine, 93% of the time (over 60% when someone asked without giving a reason).

Autonomy bias

Another behavior trait Nancy recommended marketers keep in mind is autonomy bias. “We all have a deep-seated need to be in control of ourselves and our environment,” she said. Choices provide that.

However, overloading people with too many choices can stop them from making decisions, Nancy cautioned. “Giving them two or three choices is a good way to prompt decisions,” she said.

She suggested structuring a marketing message this way, “Talk about what you want them to do. Ask them to do it. Then follow it up with a reminder that they’re free to choose.”

Something as simple as pre-clicking a box opting someone into something, a concept called choice architecture, is a way marketers can affect behavior while still giving people a sense of control.

Cheap at any price—it can even be free

“It’s worth your while (for marketing and communication professionals) to look into behavioral science,” Nancy stressed. “There’s not a lot of change to the way you’re working. You don’t have to spend extra money. You don’t have to hire new people. You don’t have to revamp your tech stack.”

The most important thing, she noted, is that the time you spend learning about behaviors is “not a huge investment, but the payoff can be quite large. You’re sending the communications anyway, so why not make sure they’re as effective as they can be?”

Register to hear Nancy share more marketing behavioral tips at IABC Philadelphia’s virtual event, at Noon Eastern on December 15