Marketers Must Get In The Habit Of Behavior Design

The growing complexity of marketing to consumers hasn't been lost on CMOs.

But somewhere in the vast space between traditional methods, big data analytics, social listening, mobile apps, clickstream data, geolocation logs, and an array of other data points lies a basic truth: The purpose of every technology, solution, and approach is to forge strong, lasting relationships with customers so that they buy and use a product or service over and over again.

But it doesn't stop there. "You must find a way to trigger these behaviors and transform them into habits," Fogg told Within this construct, underlying attitudes and values take a back seat to actual behaviors. "It's different in a lot of ways than traditional thinking about marketing," he added.

The concept--behavior design--is attracting growing attention in the marketing arena. Tapping into peoples' habits, rather than attempting to fundamentally change the way they think and act, is its emerging focus.

As Marsha Lindsay, CEO at ad agency Lindsey, Stone & Briggs (LSB), explained to "Habit has a huge influence on how people behave and how they live their lives. It determines what people do, how they buy things, how they use products, Web sites and apps, and whether they continue to use them over time. Behavior design is a way to connect with them far more effectively."

At the heart of the idea is the realization that many products and services fail because they do not trigger the right action or reaction from a potential or existing customer. Despite extensive surveys, expensive focus groups, and sophisticated software and analytics, marketing too often stumbles. Abandonment rates for shopping cartshover around 67 percent. Consumers open 20 percent of mobile apps only once--and if they don't open an app at least once in a week, there's a 60 percent chance they won't use it again. Meanwhile, devices and tools go unused. For example, more than half of the consumers who have purchased wearable devices, such as a Nike Fuelband+ or Fitbit, no longer use it.

A Matter Of Habit Understanding the unconscious mind and entrenched habits is at the center of behavior design. Charles Duhigg raised awareness of this topic in his 2012 book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Among other things, Duhigg tells the story of how, by studying videos of people making their beds, Proctor & Gamble marketing specialists in the 1990s figured out how to transform a new product called Febreze, then on track to become a colossal failure, into a billion-dollar a year brand. The key? The people who most needed the odor-diffusing product had learned to live in stinky environments. But marketers identified a consistent habit: People took pride in completing a project--in this case, making their beds. P&G rebranded the product as a postcleaning reward.

According to a growing body of research, somewhere in the vicinity of 95 percent of purchasing decisions are habituated. Lindsay pointed out that the most successful products and marketing campaigns connect to existing behavior patterns and habits. For example, she cited KFC's repackaging of food containers to fit automobile cupholders as a perfect example of effective behavior design.

"It is remarkable that it took many years for a company to figure this out," she said. Likewise, Facebook has achieved remarkable success by delivering a constant stream of notifications that, in a sense, serve as rewards and condition a person to come back often.

Other companies, such as, Netflix, Starbucks, and Nest, have established themselves as leaders in the field. The common denominator is that these firms have identified the factors that lead to high customer retention, higher levels of loyalty, increased use or consumption, and a usability model that is easily etched into a person's daily habit through their Web sites, apps, and products. In fact, many of these companies rely on psychologists, usability experts, data scientists, and business analysts to garner a more comprehensive view and frame things in different--and distinctly nontraditional--ways.

A starting point for understanding behavior design is to recognize that "daily habits are powerful," Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab’s Fogg said. In fact, outstanding products, well-designed technology, and highly appealing advertisements are often not enough to overcome psychological barriers. Behavior design focuses on walking a consumer through a task in the simplest and most straightforward way possible, he added. A lot of behavior design revolves around understanding trigger points. These triggers can derive from an external source, such as an alert, alarm, or notification, or they might come from opening a refrigerator or driving past a fast food restaurant on the way to work in the morning.

Indeed, cues and rewards--and, in some cases, gamification--are integral components of behavior design. While a marketer can create a path, there's no guarantee that consumers will follow it to the end without the right prompts. The goal, LSB’s Lindsay said, is to use these mechanisms consistently so that people engage in the desired actions in a rote and unthinking way. Within this framework, Fogg said that marketers must focus on three basic components: knowing what behavior to trigger, understanding how to achieve the desired behavior, and testing solutions and iterating in order to perfect a solution and create the pathway for a habit.

Of course, all of this incorporates a broad and sometimes murky expanse of business and marketing. Laurence Vincent, chief branding officer at UTA Brand Studio, pointed out that behavior design touches numerous areas, from product design and packaging to nomenclature and advertising. For example, Starbucks uses specific language for beverages sizes--Tall, Grande, and Venti--to reduce errors while reinforcing the brand.

"The hallmark of effective behavior design is that you are solving a marketing or operational challenge,” he told “You're not just introducing something for aesthetics or a cool factor. It actually changes the way people do things--and the way they behave."

Intelligent Designs No single path to results exists within the behavior design space. Stacey Sarris, an independent usability designer, said that an initiative must start with a simple question: What problem can I solve for a consumer? Before a company can introduce an effective Web site or an app, before it can design a product or redesign packaging and marketing, there's a deep and abiding need to understand consumers, behavior, and trigger points.

"A starting point is to identify what makes a person feel good about what they are doing. What makes them enjoy the product and want to come back for more?" she told

A problem with traditional marketing, Lindsay pointed out, is that it is heavily focused on responses, opinions, and words. "Unfortunately, people are not good observers of their behavior, so it is difficult to ask them questions and receive accurate information," she stated. "They are often on autopilot, and they are not even aware of what they are doing or why they are doing something."

This ranges from how a person puts on his or her shoes and ties the laces to which route an individual takes to work and whether they speed or tailgate along the way. "If you ask people to answer questions in surveys and focus groups, they are unable to codify the thinking and answer in a meaningful way,” Lindsay said. “They cannot put these concepts into words."

Behavior design, on the other hand, may require analytics expertise in order to dissect data and identify patterns surrounding habits and rituals. An organization starting from scratch may want to develop ethnographies and expand from there. "The culture is the starting point for everything else that follows," Lindsay explained.

Yet it also is important to examine relationships that revolve around key variables, such as geographic location, time of day, what evokes a positive emotional response, and what types of stimuli activate habits. Only then is it possible to train consumers to achieve a desired response. "The process is very similar to what it takes to train a dog," Lindsay said.

Also critical, however, is the business must ensure it has framed marketing, promotions, and other endeavors correctly--and that behavior design is leading to the correct set of behaviors. Lindsay argues that some industries--insurance is a prime example--habitualize the wrong behaviors.

"A lot of these companies spend a great deal of time and money training consumers to shop around and find the lowest price. They discourage loyalty and diminish their brand," she said, while others, including cable TV companies, provide better prices and incentives to new customers than long-time and loyal customers. "This causes them to pause and reconsider alternative brands."

Fogg said that CMOs and others in marketing must radically rethink habit--particularly as digital technologies take hold and tools emerge for understanding habits and behavior in far more granular ways. There's a need to dial back focus groups and surveys and reel in guesswork and intuition.

"A lot of the assumed wisdom and traditional ways of marketing are wrong or no longer practical," he explained. "It's important to start with a blank slate, map out behavior, and examine things in a far more systematic way. Marketing executives must focus directly on behavior and use it as the basis for making decisions."

Ultimately, identifying and choosing the right target behaviors takes a good deal of work to, Fogg added. There's a need to conduct constant testing and ongoing analysis--and work in fast and iterative ways in order to systematically arrive at an answer. There's also a need to engage in behavior sequencing--identifying a number of scenarios--and then test them quickly to understand what has the biggest impact and produces the best results.

"If something does not work, you move onto the next thing," he said. "It is not guesswork in the sense of hiring an agency and developing lots of insights. Behavior design is a way to systematically explore options and validate results until you identify the factors that drive the desired behavior."

Achieving success requires CMOs to "unlearn some of the traditional approaches to marketing," Fogg concluded. "If you are looking to create habits in people, it's not about getting them to do the same thing for two weeks or 21 days. The idea is to make it easy for people to do what they already want to do. It's about the strength and immediacy of the emotion when people engage in an activity or behavior. That's what ultimately makes something successful and keeps a person engaged and loyal over the long run. The one that makes it easiest wins."

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