Behavioural science, influencer marketing and research scepticism

At last week’s CXcellence conference, Professor Paul Dolan off the telly, questioned the effectiveness of an awful lot of what marketers do. The worrying thing was that lots of the evidence-based slander was irresistible – he’s an academic after all, with titles and experiments. While on the surface much of his speech was damning, there was also a lot of constructive insight to be gleaned – questioning what we do can’t be a bad thing. 

One of the highlights for me was finding out that, basically, we’re all unaware that we’re out of control. Because we have to make thousands of decisions every day, our brains habitually make most of them up for us; it works something like autopilot. By definition people are unaware of this, therefore no amount of market research can ever get to the reasoning of an unconscious brain. 

That’s why, in surveys, we’re not finding out about the experience itself, we’re taking on someone’s interpretation of what they experienced; a narrative. And many experiments (such as herd mentality) have proven the poorness of a human being's recall – we naturally fabricate, elaborate and embellish. 

Even when we do get the data, for the most part marketers can’t change peoples’ minds – if someone believes something to be true, they’ll find evidence that reinforces their belief. In turn, if you find evidence to contradict that belief, they’ll use all their mental dexterity to convince themselves your evidence isn’t true. For example, if someone is naturally aligned to the politics of Donald Trump, they’re more likely to source their news from Fox which will reinforce their bias, than the New York Times, which might question it. 

On the surface, this may seem bleak for marketers, but the innate lack of volition can be played to. Dolan (pictured above) provided an example: in a recent experiment, people were found to be more honest when questioned in rooms with brighter lights and more creative under darker lights – though no-one would admit or accept it prior to the experiment. I’m aware how reductive this sounds, but if we broaden it out to make the point that behaviour is influenced by external factors, it’s much easier to accept.

I’m not suggesting marketers change the colour of an email header for different segments of their mailing list, but by guiding the design of customer touchpoints, the principles of behavioural science offer a simple route to improved customer satisfaction.

The talk closed with a Q&A, in which Paul was questioned about influencers in marketing, and why they’re important, his response was unnecessarily good. Like most theories, it started with an anecdote about a teenage mother. 

As an attempt to tackle high rates of teenage pregnancy, the British government carried out an initiative which involved young mothers speaking at schools to warn pupils of the challenges of young parenthood. The idea being that it would sufficiently deter youngsters and therefore lower the rates. They found a good candidate who arrived on time, delivered a terrific speech, and the job was done. Unfortunately, it had the reverse effect. In seeing this conscientious and charismatic young women speak with authority, the pupils recognised a role model as opposed to a deterrent. The rates remained the same. 

The upshot for marketers is that people care little about the message and more about the messenger. So, with Paul’s logic, your marketing stories could be worthy of Dickens’ himself, but if the teller isn’t Dickens, people will care considerably less. The morale of the story is to leverage advocacy where possible, the more recognisable and influential the better.  

But take this all with a pinch of salt, you can prove anything with facts.