Optimizing Audience Engagement with Behavioral Science

December 19, 2012 by Ryan Reynolds

When it comes to branding, design and marketing, behavioral science is big business. While the field's rise from academic obscurity to practical ubiquity has been remarkable, it’s not surprising. Anyone who's studied marketing and design understands that while subtle distinctions from one communication to another may seem insignificant at the micro level, they can have profound effects when scaled to the macro market. 

So what exactly are behavioral sciences, and more important why should you care? The textbook answer is that behavioral sciences use empirical data to investigate how organisms react to stimuli within the context of a social system. In other words, behavioral science means brushing aside our rationalizations about how people think to predict how they will act, and testing how they act to better understand how they truly think. 

While the field is still young, behavioral sciences have been turning many of our longest-held assumptions on their head—and we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg for the potential applications. Of course, quantitative disciplines like acquisition marketing aren't a stretch—they've been practicing empirical techniques from behavioral sciences for years. And thanks to the internet, we are now blessed with troves of customer data and instant feedback that can be tapped to help us understand and influence how people act by designing better experiences, interfaces and messaging—both online and in the real world.

Perhaps one of the most successful recent applications of behavioral science was in President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign. Not surprising, as a prominent consortium of behavioral psychologists, or COBS, advised the campaign. Combining insights from behavioral science, the campaign applied an acquisition strategy that would make any digital marketer proud.

Of the $690 million that the Obama campaign raised online, most of it came from fund-raising emails. Using multi-variate testing on elements such as the subject, copy, and the donate button, the campaign was surprised to find that emails with a casual overall tone and less polished design elements outperformed other solicitations.

Behavioral science also informed voter turnout strategies. Applying research showing that people are more likely to repeat an action they've made in the past, volunteers targeted messaging to "nudge" potential voters with appeals such as "We know you've voted in the past…will you make a commitment now to vote again?" Additionally, by making voters aware that their neighbors had committed to voting, the Obama campaign strengthened engagement by applying peer awareness, and increasing voter commitment.

Perhaps most impressively, even the Obama campaign's messaging strategy was informed by behavioral science. Dealing with negative ads is, unfortunately, a reality that every political campaign has to contend with. According to COBS research, denying negative ads has a diminishing effect—while it may help dispel the negative in the short term, it tends to reinforce a general association in the long term. So rather than denying a negative with a statement such as "President Obama is not a muslim," the campaign found success by focusing on the positive corollary, "President Obama is a christian." Simple, but effective.

The benefits of behavioral science are standard practice in acquisition marketing, but it’s easy to see how these strategies might apply to non-profits and advocacy organizations which depend on audience engagement. From the public sector to the private sector, from health to wealth and everywhere in-between, subtle cues—or nudges, to borrow the term—have the potential to transform our world. And the takeaway is this: organizations that take this to heart, who work to understand their audiences a little more deeply, who craft their brand experiences just a little more thoughtfully, should outperform their peers. And while at first the margin may seem insignificant, don't be fooled; victory is achieved one battle at a time.

Check back next week, as I’ll be providing 6 ways you can apply practical takeaways from the behavioral sciences to optimize and strengthen your brand—and it’s connection to your audience.

About Ryan Reynolds

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