How to boost marketing engagement with behavioral science triggers

Create marketing messages that trigger your customers’ decision-making shortcuts and increase the likelihood they engage and respond.

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You can spend a lot of money trying to increase the results of your marketing communications. But you don’t have to.

If you have a halfway decent marketing martech stack and follow the best practices for your channel, maximizing engagement and response becomes easier. Just add behavioral science into your messaging. It won’t cost you a dime — and the results can be instantaneous. Here’s how.

What exactly is behavioral science?

Behavioral science is the study of how people behave. More specifically, it’s the study of why they do what they do. 

One particularly interesting thing behavioral scientists have found is that quite often, people don’t make those well-thought-out, well-considered decisions we think they do. 

What humans do instead is conserve mental energy. We rely on decision defaults, which are reflexive, instinctive, hardwired behaviors. We encounter a certain situation and just respond — giving the matter little, if any, thought.

The great news for marketers is these automatic responses can be prompted or triggered. That’s right. When you include the right behavioral science principle in your marketing message, you can significantly increase the likelihood your target will automatically engage and respond. This is true for B2C and for B2B marketers.

Using the principle of reciprocity to drive revenue

Reciprocity is a behavioral science principle savvy marketers should know about. It is the fact that people feel a strong need to return favors — whether or not they initially asked for them.

When someone does something for us, we want to reciprocate. This response is ingrained in humans because it helped our early ancestors survive. People needed to work together. All these years later, we still feel we owe someone when they’ve done something for us.

A major financial services firm used this principle to reactivate members of their sales force — and drive considerable revenue. This company uses independent financial advisors to sell their funds. Eventually, some of these advisors stopped doing so.

Over the course of a year, the company tried to re-engage those financial advisors with little luck. So, they decided to try the principle of reciprocity and sent a gift to the lapsed advisors.

Now, you may find this idea counterintuitive. Why reward bad behavior, you may wonder? Wouldn’t the expense of a gift be better spent reinforcing the desired behavior?

Initially, you might think so. But wait until you hear how well this approach worked. Those advisors received an email from the firm’s wholesaler, informing them the wholesaler had picked out a gift especially for them, which would be arriving soon via the USPS.

Shortly after that, the advisors received a framed New Yorker cartoon with content that was relevant to their profession. Even better, the cartoon’s caption was personalized with the recipient’s name. The framed piece also included a short paragraph about the cartoonist. In the box with the framed, personalized cartoon was a short note from the wholesaler, saying they hoped to catch up and asking the advisor to either call or expect a call.

Can you imagine having this unique framed, personalized cartoon on your office wall or desk and not at least taking the call? Somehow, it wouldn’t feel right. Unsurprisingly, the financial services firm reconnected with many financial advisors — and tracked $68 million in incremental revenue to this campaign.

Dig deeper: 10 behavioral science principles for great digital creative

Simple labeling tactic delivers 65% lift over control

Another easy-to-apply behavioral science principle is labeling. Behavioral scientists have found that when you label someone as part of a group, they start to behave as a member of that group, even if they had not previously thought of themselves in that way.

In one experiment, researchers interviewed people in Chicago about an upcoming election. They asked about the candidates who were running, the questions on the ballot, and the person’s voting history, and they collected some demographic information.

Then, they randomly assigned people to one of two groups, having nothing to do with their answers. One group was told that they were the more politically active group. The researchers waited to see what would happen on the upcoming election day. They found 10% more of the people who had been told they were more politically active actually showed up at the polls to vote.

A company selling patient financing systems to dentists used labeling in their lead generation campaign. Their target, dentists and dental office managers, typically already had a patient financing system. Even worse, they believed all such systems were basically the same, which meant they were unlikely to want to switch.

However, the company’s lead generation messaging labeled the dentist as someone who cared about their patients. They went on to describe how patients would benefit from the company’s product. This generated a 65% lift over their control — which is the messaging that had previously performed better than anything else.

Dig deeper: How cognitive biases prevent you from connecting with your audience

The ‘magnetic middle’ generates a 459% increase in sales for a difficult-to-sell product

Selling life insurance is not easy. People don’t want to think about dying. And if you do manage to convince someone to buy a policy, they check that off their list and never care to revisit it again.

The truth, however, is that they should. Things change. Their income grows. The family grows, and responsibilities increase. As a result, they could probably benefit from having more coverage. But good luck getting enough of someone’s attention to even make that case. 

So, one insurer used the “magnetic middle” — the idea that generally speaking, people don’t like to be out on the bleeding edge, nor do they like to feel they’re lagging behind. Where they feel most comfortable is in the middle, where most people are.

This insurer included in their marketing message a graph. At the left end was $0, the least amount of insurance a person could have. And on the right end was $3 million, the most coverage this company sold. A mark on the graph showed the recipient where they fell. But the insurer did something really interesting. They sent this marketing message only to people whose current coverage amount placed them left of center on the graph.

Upon first encountering the marketing message, the recipient immediately sensed they were lagging behind. Before they even read a word, they saw the graph which delivered the message. Did the insurance company expect all those customers would immediately increase their coverage to the maximum of $3 million? No. But, they did hope it would motivate customers to add to their existing coverage, moving themselves closer to the middle point on that graph. And that is exactly what happened. The company beat its control by 459% — measured in direct sales.

Behavioral science added to marketing best practices can deliver the extra advantage marketers look for, triggering automatic, hardwired behaviors. After all, you’re sending marketing messages anyway. Why not send ones that are more likely to work?

Dig deeper: How marketers can use cognitive biases to influence customer decisions

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Nancy Harhut
Getting people to take action is what Nancy is all about. Her specialty is blending best-of-breed creative with behavioral science to prompt response. She and her teams have won over 200 international and national awards for marketing effectiveness. Along the way, she’s helped generate $68 million in incremental revenue for Nationwide, establish seven controls for the GM Card, and create one of H&R Block’s most successful campaigns. Recognized for her work in B2C, B2B, and nonprofit, Nancy’s been named one of the 10 Most Fascinating People in B2B Marketing, a Social Top 50 Email Marketing Leader, and a Top 40 Digital Strategist. A frequent speaker at marketing conferences, she’s shared her passion with audiences in London, Sydney, Moscow, Madrid, Stockholm, Sao Paulo, Berlin, and all over the US, including several return engagements at SXSW. Prior to cofounding HBT Marketing, Nancy held senior creative management positions with agencies within the IPG and Publicis networks. Kogan Page recently published her first book, Using Behavioral Science in Marketing, Drive customer action and loyalty by prompting instinctive responses – a Best Business Books finalist, and winner of the National Indie Excellence Award.

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