cognitive biases in marketing

TrustHacking – Using Cognitive Biases in Marketing

What if you had an instruction manual for the brain and could understand just exactly which reaction any given individual would perform given a specific call to action or message? How could that change your business’ marketing strategy? How could that change how you talk to your customers and clients?

Well good news.

You can.

While not as simple as having an instruction manual for the brain, it turns out that in general all people make decisions based on their own pre-programmed cognitive biases and mental models that are fairly similar from person to person all around the world. These cognitive biases are used to make decisions about every thing that we do, from how to interact with strangers in public to deciding which images we like in a given set; and are based on simple mental models that we construct which are partially based in evolution and partly a function of our experiences growing up. And guess what? In general, we do understand how these biases tend to work. Even better: We can use these cognitive biases in how we present a business or individual to influence the decisions that any given individual will make about us or our brand.

Want to learn how?

The first step in developing our new psychological marketing plan is to understand some of the most powerful cognitive biases that we know to be true in the majority of people. We are going to focus on just five of the concepts that seem to be the most consistently influential and discuss what they are, and how they work, before then giving you some ideas for how to employ each of them in your own business today that will start yielding results right away.

Ingroup bias

The In-Group Bias

The first principle is called the In-group Bias. This is the unconscious effect where we tend to like people who we PERCEIVE as being similar to us more than other people in any given sample. In other words, if you are young you will automatically have an increased chance of winning business with other young people vs an older individual (and vice versa). Another example of this can be seen when you go to any given networking event. Ever notice how it seems like people from the same industries all end up talking to one another by the end of the night? The developers talk to other developers, sales guys end up talking to other sales guys, etc. Rather than seeking out people who are different from us, we tend to seek out those we perceive as being the same. Whether it is for comfort, safety, or just a lack of things to talk about – it can be seen every where and it 100% can be exploited in marketing and advertising.

How Can You Use the In-Group Bias in Your Business?

The magic of all these cognitive biases is that they are all fairly easy to employ when given some deliberate thought as to how to use them. The in-group bias can and should be used in marketing imagery to prime your target client/customer before they really know a lot about you. Is your target client a millennial tech worker? Make sure that the images on your website either feature millennials or things that your target millennial would find interesting. If you yourself are a millennial, then make sure to have images of yourself on your website. If not, but your product or service is targeted at millennials, then try displaying a common interest instead. Perhaps your ideal client is a tech-savvy millennial and you are a Gen Xer, go try a VR headset at a store and take a photo wearing it. Take a casual-dress photo of you working on a computer instead of the stuffy suit and tie headshot. Get creative! One word of warning. however, do not by any means be disingenuous. In a post-2008 world the consumer tends to value transparency and honesty above all else. Portraying yourself as ‘hip and cool’ when you really aren’t will be found out pretty quickly once someone starts talking to you and that will cause more harm than had you just done nothing at all in the first place.

the mere-exposure effect

The Mere-Exposure Effect

Next is one of the most commonly used techniques that most people don’t even know they are using. It is called the Mere-Exposure Effect. This is where we tend to develop trust and affinity for things that we see as familiar. More simply- the more we see something, the more we believe it to be trustworthy- even if no other new information has been added. This is the effect that most on-air advertising uses to drill messages into the consumer’s minds. In that example, the on-air advertisers are really just trying to make a message stick through repetition, but the cognitive bias that is powering the likability and trust for those brands is the mere-exposure effect.

How Can You Use the Mere-Exposure Effect in Your Business?

This is an excellent tactic to employ in industries where a business-client relationship disproportionally relies on trust more than in other industries. A good example is Financial Advisors and Wealth Managers. Typical sales cycles can be up to 9-12 months due to the immense amount of trust and likability that must be built up before a client will entrust their financial lives to someone else. Utilizing the Mere-Exposure Effect, a financial professional can compress that sales cycle to just 3-6 months by building trust through repetition (among other strategies). One great strategy is to author several pieces of educational content that will position yourself as an authority in your field, and then use various channels such as LinkedIn and Facebook to distribute this content to the same audience many times. The readers become more and more familiar with your name or brand over time and their trust for you will begin to increase, even if they have never directly talked or interacted with you.

stanley milgram experiment

The Authority Heuristic

The Authority Heuristic is another bias that we can employ. If you dig deep in your memory to college sociology or psychology you may remember this one being discussed in relation to the Stanley Milgram experiments in which a man in a white lab coat told the subject to apply an electric shock to an unknown second individual in another room. For those who aren’t familiar, the study showed that despite the subject never actually being told that this man in the lab coat was in a position of authority, they would do as he said in more than 50% of the experiments simply due to his perceived authority. Now, obviously we aren’t going to do anything nefarious here, but knowing this means that it can be used in helping to build trust with your potential clients or customers through increasing your perceived authority through various strategies before they ever talk to you directly.

How Can You Use the Authority Heuristic in Your Business?

These kinds of tactics are often attempted when you see things like celebrity endorsements in advertising, unfortunately for those brands, they are just wasting money as it has been shown that celebrity endorsements actually negatively impact sales as consumers are more likely to remember the celebrity than the brand. A more effective way to use this bias is to use experts in a field who are not celebrities, but do carry weight through their credentials. Another option that is better suited for most businesses is to position yourself as the authority. Begin to create content that shows you know what you are talking about and educates the reader on various subjects that are directly relevant to them. It doesn’t take a massive volume of work either – just a handful of articles can be used to create a multi-month content schedule that will start to build your client funnel.

the bandwagon effect

The Bandwagon Effect

The Bandwagon Effect really needs no introduction, but as a quick refresher: the bandwagon effect is when an individual places their trust in something based on the perception that many other people have already placed their trust in it first. This one is big in quickly building trust and fortunately for us- it is easy for us to create through today’s social media and social proof tools that can be employed on your website.

How Can You Use the Bandwagon Effect in Your Business?

This one is likely going to be one that you are already using, or will be the first thing that you implement. Things like social share counters, comments on posts, testimonials/reviews, and ‘Recent sale’ software all can drastically increase your sales and trust by many hundreds of percentage points if employed correctly. My favorite share tool is one called Sumo which will show how many times someone has shared your content and on which channels. It even has an option to hide the share counts until a certain threshold is reached so that no one will know if a particular piece of content has done poorly. Another tool that I recently learned about is called Proof. They allow a site to install a few lines of code (It’s not hard) and then a small popup will appear in the bottom of your site any time a customer or client checks out by displaying a face, location, and name of the buyer. This is the ultimate social proof and they claim to have seen increases of over 300% for some of their users. Finally, using things like testimonials and reviews are among the most powerful social influencers. No reviews? Try asking past clients or project members from other endeavors to give you some reviews that might relate. Class projects from school or volunteer efforts are great places to get reviews on things like your work ethic, teamwork, and other highly valued skills that translate across industries.

the pratfall effect

The Pratfall Effect

The Pratfall Effect is a particularly fun cognitive bias as it involves being ok with imperfection. Essentially, the pratfall effect says that poking fun at yourself or making a mistake will actually increase your likability so long as the viewer continues to perceive you as being competent at your service. So for instance, if you are a restaurant and known for making amazing food, then the chef making a typo in a social media post will likely increase his or her likability since that clearly has no bearing on their ability to cook great food. Or if a financial advisor stumbles during a live presentation and then jokes about it, the crowd knows that this has nothing to do with managing a portfolio so they will actually like that person for for it. Bushra Azhar of The Persuasion Revolution is a master of artfully poking fun at herself in ways that make her much more likable and endearing without compromising her ability to command attention when speaking about her subject matter (Persuasion). Check out her interview on Mixergy for a great example of this in action.

How Can You Use the Pratfall Effect in Your Business?

Like in the examples above, this can be used just about everywhere. For me personally, rather than using it as an explicit strategy I use it as permission to not be perfect. I am a type A and hate having mistakes in my webinars or marketing campaigns. But rather than driving myself crazy doing 50 takes on a webinar, I just remember this and say that it’s ok to make fun of myself a bit or get tongue tied here or there as long as it doesn’t lower anyone’s perception of me as a marketing expert. This can be intentionally crafted by playful teasing of yourself when introducing yourself, or in your content creation. Just make sure that you don’t go overboard, you want to make sure that you still come off as a professional rather than a comedian (Unless you are one!).

So there we have it! Five of the most powerful cognitive biases that you can use in your business’ marketing efforts today. Some are more common than others, but all are pretty dang effective just about anywhere in the world. We all like to think that we are unique and individual, but when in comes to persuasion and influence, we all function pretty much the same. Surprisingly, not many marketers out there really focus on these concepts and the ones who do tend to have amazing results. So go ahead and give them a try in your business and let me know how you fare! But do be careful- these can be incredibly powerful, so please make sure that you only use your newfound persuasion and influence powers for good, ok?

Let me know in the comments how you do with implementing these strategies into your marketing!