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Changing Consumer Behavior To Suit Your Business

Behavior change is inherently linked with material progress and innovation - but what happens when people behave in ways that are inconsistent with your business objectives? How do you proactively initiate change?

Editor’s Note: Increasingly MR is being called upon to deliver more value and prove it’s ROI. Ultimately that means that brands need to be able to trace the insights generated from the research process to changing consumer behavior. So, it’s no accident that some supplier organizations (mainly those with a more consultative approach) are beginning to build practice areas around behavior change. It’s a shift that I believe is firmly underway and those firms that can point to helping brands harness information to produce desired changes in their target populations will prosper, while those who only report information or inform the insight process will move further down the value chain. That doesn’t mean there won’t be aw market for them; far from it, the need for data driven decision support will only increase, but the much vaunted “seat at the table” will likely be out of reach for them,

Today’s post by Helen McDonald and Mark Yeomans of Incite tackles this issue straight on gives some great examples of how researchers can become true change agents. It’s good stuff. Enjoy!


By Helen Donald &  Mark Yeomans 

Behavior change is happening all around us; from user-friendly smart phones replacing “clunky” business phones, to coffee brands reframing quick refreshment into a rich, physical experience in dedicated shops.

Behavior change is inherently linked with material progress and innovation – but what happens when people behave in ways that are inconsistent with your business objectives? How do you proactively initiate change?

Put yourself in the shoes of a mobile phone manufacturer losing customers to a new iPhone – could you entice them to switch back, boosting sales and brand image in the process? Alternatively, imagine a pharmaceutical company looking to influence patients; how easy is it to have people adhering to treatment regimens? This will lead to better health outcomes, increased sales and less wastage, but how exactly is this executed?

It quickly becomes apparent that encouraging people to behave in a way that’s conducive to a business’ objectives is a complex task that should not be underestimated.

A preliminary scan of behavioral economic principles reveals how people are naturally wired to resist change and less willing to give up something in order to gain a benefit through a new behavior. In general, they like maintaining the status quo and avoiding perceived “loss.”

However, there is huge opportunity to unlock growth potential by creating a successful behavior change program. Brands just need to adopt the right approach to tackling this.

The following report acts as a guide to help navigate the behavior change journey, and explores the necessary components which will help companies understand and realize the business benefits of a well-executed program.

1.0 Getting started with behavior change

When faced with a variety of behavioral sciences like social cognition, psychology, and neuroscience it is easy to become overwhelmed. There is a plethora of facts, figures, case studies, jargon and theoretical frameworks which make it difficult to know where to begin, or how to customize the principles to real-life situations.

Before attempting to get to the “nitty gritty” of behavioral science, it is essential to contemplate the answers to three straightforward questions:

1.1. What behavior are you trying to change?

On the face of it, this seems a simple question. But consider how often consumer research briefs contain non-specific objectives such as “driving growth” or “exploring attitudes.” What we need to see is definitive focus such as “getting consumer A to use product B on occasion X.”

The first question therefore involves applying a behavioral lens to our problem; what is it we want consumers to do? Thinking about what consumers need to do in order for our objective to happen will ensure the big questions that underpin your insights clearly focus around this.

1.2. How are consumers behaving (and why)?

The market research industry excels at telling us how consumers are behaving, but where the industry sometimes falls down is explaining why consumers are behaving in this way. This is critical if we are to understand which levers to apply to change behavior.

Disciplines such as behavioral economics help us to codify and understand behaviors that may seem irrational, but the key to success here is asking the right questions to arrive at a deeper level of behavioral interpretation.

1.3. What creates the change?

Finally, it is critical to identify the behavioral interventions that are most likely to result in change. It is not enough to merely recognize the barriers to change; we need to reach the next level of insight in order to overcome these barriers to then create the change.

Considering these three questions provides an ideal start point, and ultimately equips us for the next step which is to develop the change program itself.

2.0 Designing the change program – a seven step approach

Contrary to the complex nature of behavior change for business, consumers seem to possess the ability to make it look simple. Nicotine addiction and compulsive eating are well known examples of people giving up behaviors – something marketers can learn from in order to create a systematic program for change, rather than relying on chance.

Extensive knowledge on the change process is available from both academic disciplines and real world experience and these can be extremely useful to commercial marketers. Synthesizing these lessons and adopting a pragmatic approach will help execute a change program successfully.

2.1. Map the route – change is a journey

Many programs fail because they do not take into account that behavior change is a journey, not an overnight process. A common mistake is not realizing how important it is to create the desire to change.

For example, before deodorants were widely used, the greatest barrier was not the absence of a good deodorant, but that people had no desire to use one and did not feel the need. Successful marketing involved activating that latent need for personal hygiene as a first step before the usage of the category became broadly prevalent.

2.2. Inspire the journey – use “moments of truth”

There are distinct events that might initiate people into the change journey, and some of these moments are life-stage based. Take pregnancy for example, which brings about many changes in a woman’s life. A smoking cessation campaign targeted at pregnant women is likely to be more successful because of a greater receptivity to becoming healthy.

Alternatively, such moments may occur more serendipitously. Catching a glimpse of the attractive user interface and design of a tablet computer could be enough to tempt someone to switch from their current laptop, or coming across a blog on the value of eco-tourism may influence future holiday plans are less-contrived “moments of truth.”

Marketers can either target the natural occurrence of events like pregnancy, or they can create inspiring “moments of truth” through different levers such as advertising, social media, and the retail environment to incite behavior change.

2.3. Focus on what really works

Many factors involve influencing people to move across the behavior change journey, but there are four which marketers must pay specific attention to:

Benefit of change: The new behavior must offer a distinct advantage over the old behavior. In social marketing situations, the benefit is often obvious, like weight loss to become healthier. But commercial marketers must work harder to establish why using their products would enhance the consumers’ lives as the benefits may seem less consequential to consumers.

Mitigation of losses: Consumers do not want to give up their old behavior because of the fear of loss. For instance, influencing Apple users to switch to an alternative brand might experience a lot of resistance from consumers concerned about losing all their music and videos on a new system.

Self-efficacy: Consumers need to be confident that they have the skills to make the change. For instance, a barrier to switch to a new operating system may be the effort required to learn an entirely new system.

Social norms: People are affected by what they think other people do. The likelihood of someone adopting a new behavior increases significantly when the social norm is in favor of that behavior. Conversely, it is very difficult to initiate a new behavior against the prevailing social norm.

2.4. Acknowledge emotions

Human beings are not rational in their evaluation of alternative behaviors and Behavioral Economics has made a huge contribution by shedding light on this. Acknowledging that these irrational quirks influence the way in which people respond to change is crucial. It is important to note, however, that these emotional biases not only present obstacles to change, they can also be used to encourage it.

The emotional biases of the irrational consumer

Loss aversions reign supreme

Behavioral Economics tells us that people strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains and this fear of loss can form a key barrier to behavior change. A prime example of loss aversion is a reluctance to switch mobile phone model for fear of the known functionality the consumer might lose in the process (even when the new model may provide significant benefits such as faster processing, lower cost, more apps, etc.).

No trigger, no hope

Another common trait of human behavior is the tendency to stick to what is known and what is easy, even when the change is something that is desired. In the absence of a strong trigger to change, people will undertake default behaviors. To counter-balance this tendency each stage of the behavior change journey must be made as easy as possible for the consumer to complete, with triggers communicated throughout.

Peer pressure

Human beings are often affected by what others do and it is important to understand the social context of any behavior change journey. The media and legislation may also play a role here with people often forming views of what is “acceptable” based on what they read, are told or are made to do.

Short-term fix over long-term gain

The choices we make are often influenced by our preference for instant gratification and default to options where “the prize is in sight,” valuing short-term benefits over long term gains. People attempting to give up smoking, for instance, may value the short term “benefits” of satisfying a craving vs. the longer term health benefits, which ultimately can lead to relapse.

Cueing up change

The choices we make can be deeply affected by the way that they are shown to us and it is possible to change behaviors by modifying the manner in which they are presented. The influence of framing should be taken into consideration when seeking to change behaviors, and we need to understand the best way to present the choices to our target group for maximum effect.

Blowing hot and cold

As a general rule, people act very differently when they are “in the moment” and the same is true for people moving along the change journey. A decision to cut down on caffeine, for instance, may be curtailed by the mere whiff of freshly ground coffee. This facet raises an interesting challenge for practitioners trying to influence change: how exactly do we ensure we retain a level of momentum when the state of mind varies wildly throughout the process?

Mental accounting

The tendency to artificially separate money into different accounts based on the source of the money or the intention that the person has for the money is referred to as “mental accounting.”

While a fashion fan, for instance, may not bat an eyelid at spending $150 on a t-shirt, they may be loath to part with $5 for a parking ticket.

2.5. Keep people on course by enabling practice

From learning theory to hobbies, practicing is vital to learning a new behavior and preventing relapse. Enabling people to practice the behavior and providing support to help them carries significant influence in reinforcing the change. This may for example, translate into clear actions once a consumer considers a new behavior when buying a new product. At this stage it is helpful to facilitate frequent product experiences in-store and provide proactive support provided by trained personnel.

2.6. Customize the program

Segmenting consumers based on their barriers and drivers for change is crucial to a behavior change program. Consider the behavior change challenge of switching a Mac user to a PC user.

For a certain segment, the barrier might be a very emotional one, with the users identifying strongly with the brand. Yet, for another segment the barrier might be the perceived user-friendly design, meaning the interventions required for the two segments would be completely different.

2.7. Implement for impact – use a portfolio of actions

Finally, behavior change programs need to include a variety of actions – communication, empowerment, diffusion, rewards, disincentives and environment design. Programs focused on a single lens, for instance on communication, are less likely to succeed. Integrating multiple elements into a single campaign enables a much greater chance of success.

3.0 Measure behavior, change success

After all the rigor and planning that goes into a behavior change program, it’s tempting to assume that the hard work is complete, allowing you to simply sit back and watch the interventions take effect. Unlike conventional research, once the program is launched to consumers, rather than ending, the behavior change journey moves to a new stage of engagement and response where further planning will be needed.

One of the central tenets of behavior change is that it’s impossible to predict human behavior. While a behavior change program brings us closer to devising interventions which prompt change, this simply cannot be 100% guaranteed. It is crucial to continue to push for deeper direction after the initial intervention and a test and learn approach is the only way to accurately measure progress.

Test and learn

Behavioral Economists are strong proponents of this measurement technique which involves piloting an intervention amongst a small group of target consumers to measure its efficacy.

A prominent example is the UK Government’s controversial “nudge unit,” who recently undertook a pilot study in partnership with Jobcentre Plus with the aim of getting people back to work. This involved six randomized, controlled trials the results of which were very promising; job seekers in the treatment group emerged as 15-20% more likely than those in the control group to be off benefits 13 weeks after signing on. As a result of this apparent success, the interventions are now being rolled out across the region.

While this pilot scheme is a great example of how well-planned interventions can deliver real results, it can be argued that “testing and learning” approach still needs to broadened in order to truly demonstrate the worth of a particular intervention.

Broaden the search

Measurement initiatives should not simply record the success of the intervention in promoting the desired end behavior, and merely conclude that “xx% of people began to demonstrate the desired behavior.” These initiatives should also take into account how successful interventions have been in prompting behaviors along the change journey.

Take the change from “consideration” to “intention” for example – an intervention able to overcome intermediate barriers which lead to a desired behavior is arguably just as valuable as an intervention that leads to the behavior itself. This is especially poignant if the majority are stuck at the initial “consideration” stage.

Exercise routines are a ubiquitous example of this. While the end goal for many may be to go running three times a week, the interventions employed to reach this point will not necessarily impact directly on this behavior – but they will contribute towards this final outcome. By purchasing running shoes it enables people to go running, which ultimately sets an incentive to exercise that moves from the “consideration” to “intent” stage.

Dig deep

While measuring the success of each intervention across a broad number of factors is essential, the evaluation needs to go beyond basic quantitative measures. If we only track success in hard figures, we lose the opportunity to understand why particular interventions are working – or, more importantly – missing the mark.

This is where testing the biases and heuristics expected from consumers facing intervention comes into play. It is also important to ensure that interventions, while having a positive impact on behavior, do not have a negative impact on the consumers’ emotional well-being. The best way of doing this is through techniques such as observation, immersion and in-depth questioning, all of which go beyond the behaviors displayed to get to the heart of the emotional and less-rational motivators behind these behaviors.

4.0 Conclusion

There is huge opportunity to unlock commercial growth potential by creating a successful behavior change program, if companies can adopt the right approach. However, the task of encouraging people to behave in a way that’s conducive to a business’s objectives is not to be underestimated.

Consumers are programed to resist change and a multitude of emotional biases present a huge challenge to marketers trying to alter behavior. But while there is an undoubted tendency to maintain the status quo, approaching behavior change in a strategic, end-to-end manner will ensure that these barriers can be overcome.

It is essential to test for interventions resulting in the desired behaviors through pilot schemes before investing significantly and rolling them out. Ensuring that the pilot schemes define success, not just in terms of superficial quantitative measures, but also through deeper, emotional diagnostics is also vital to the overall behavior change program.

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Incite Marketing Planning

Guest blogger, Incite Marketing Planning