Dr Helena Rubinstein, head of behavioural science at Innovia Technology and lecturer in psychology at the University of Cambridge, has spent her career finding answers to the age-old question, ‘how do I get my customers to buy from me?’ Mary-Anne Baldwin reveals her thoughts.
Helena Rubinstein started her career in advertising, running an international brand consultancy where she saw first-hand that customers don’t always buy or act in the way the research says they will. She’s since made it her mission to understand why.
With a doctorate in social psychology from the University of Cambridge, Helena is now working with the behavioural science team at Innovia Technology. There she uses her knowledge of human behaviour to design intuitive, customer-friendly products and processes for its clients.
Helena spoke at the recent B2B Marketing Leaders Forum 2019, where she revealed both some of her knowledge on behavioural triggers and shared some actionable advice for marketers.
What is behavioural science?
“Behavioural science is derived from psychology, anthropology, sociology and economics. In the last few years it’s come to provenance in the commercial world, although it’s been around in academia for many years,” Helena explains.
“There is growing mainstream interest in this area now, especially since the social psychologist Daniel Kahneman challenged the classical economists’ assumption that human decision making was rational.
“Essentially it means putting the customer at the heart of all product development, sales and marketing,” she adds. “If businesses are run by people, for people, then understanding people should be a necessity.”
This clearly speaks to today’s marketing ethos, but as many have found out, it isn’t so easy to put into practise. The key is in understanding how people think. Behavioural science theorises that we respond in line with our mental models, which hold the beliefs, assumptions, theories and preferences we have about ourselves and the world around us. Rather than laboriously calculating the myriad logical risks, pros and cons to very decision, we use heuristics (a mental shortcut), which allows us to sift through these conceptual models and find an answer we’re comfortable with.
“You need to do this to be able to function in life without stopping to consider every decision you make, but the process does make people prone to a number of cognitive biases,” Helena clarifies.
By understanding mental models – i.e. the architecture of choices that surround each decision – influencers can ‘nudge’ buyers into different, predictable behaviours. When done ethically (as we’ll examine later) this can be done without closing down the buyer’s other options, coercing them, or giving a hard push with economic incentives.
How to influence outcomes
“To be a behavioural scientist is like being a detective, asking why it is that people don’t do as they say,” says Helena. This question is at the centre of Helena’s career, and it’s led to uncovering some insightful findings. For example, her extensive understanding of customer research has allowed Helena to unpick the common ills behind a marketer’s research and why its customers didn’t act as predicted.
- Your research is based on poor-quality data.
- You’ve been treating data as though it’s insight.
- You’ve failed to recognise the factors that drive behaviour.
- Your research is biased and has been conducted with the intent of proving an existing hypothesis.
Your data is wrong and it hasn’t been paired with insight
A common fault behind a marketer’s approach to gathering customer intel is that they wrongly treat data as insight. The right approach will interpret data through the lens of social, emotional and cultural drivers. “Companies often have lots of data – much of that information could be used to work out what is driving behaviour, however it’s often not,” says Helena.
Furthermore, marketers often rely on traditional research methods, such as sample groups and questionnaires. These compile data showing what people say they will do, rather than what really drives their behaviour. In short, it shows you their thoughts, but not their actions.
The human brain is just not as reliable as we may like. We change our minds, and also our memories. “We regularly rewrite our memories to tell stories that better suit our self-image. Even the type of questioning can alter the information people will reveal. Asking someone how healthily they eat, compared to asking them how much junk food they eat, will produce widely different answers because of how you have prompted them. Although this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask people about their experiences, it does highlight the need to be very careful with our questioning, and to try to ensure that we prioritise observing behaviour in real-time, rather than relying on people’s memories or intentions,” says Helena.
You’ve failed to recognise the factors that drive behaviour
Many marketers are unaware of, or falsely informed on, the areas they need to influence in order to drive change.
“There is confusion over what a behaviour is,” says Helena. “Often we confuse the outcome of a behaviour with the behaviour itself.” For example, increased sales is not a behaviour, but the outcome of one. If you want to boost sales, you must find the behavioural trigger, or ‘determinant’ behind it . This seems obvious but is confused surprisingly often.
The route to, and cause of, customer behaviour
The table above shows examples of the route to, and cause of, customer behaviour. Determinants are the factors that influence behaviour, you need to understand what these are, and which are really important in influencing behaviour. The outcome is the effect of the behaviour to both the customer and the company.
The three behavioural triggers
According to Helena, all behaviours are driven by three key factors: motivation, capability and opportunity. “In trying to understand what is driving behaviour, you should ask whether the customer has the capability, motivation and opportunity to change it,” she confirms. “If you wish to influence an outcome you must tackle one, two, or all three of these areas together.”
This applies to both the psychological or physical capacity to carry out a behaviour.
- Physical capability: Skill, strength
- Psychological capability: Knowledge, memory, skill
The external physical or social factors that can prompt or inhibit a behaviour.
- Physical opportunities: Time, financial resources, access
- Social opportunities: Social and cultural norms
The unconscious and conscious processes that push people into action.
- Automatic motivations: Emotions, impulses and habits
- Reflective motivations: Evaluations, plans, and beliefs
Putting the three triggers into action
Imagining a scenario in which you need to convince customers to substitute an old product for a new and improved, but more expensive one, Helena proposes that you address the following areas. It should be noted that these are hypothetical issues, the key is to find those relevant to your own customers.
- Knowledge: Do customers know the new products’ benefits?
- Skills: Do customers have the ability to use the product optimally? Do they need support or training?
- Social Influences: Do all (or the majority of the) key stakeholders see the merit in the new product?
- Environmental context: Does the customer’ workspace and resource support the use of the product?
- Emotion: How do the end users feel about the introduction of a product?
- Beliefs: Are there biases to the product, such as preference for another brand or the belief its cost doesn’t match its value?
The ethical guidelines
Cambridge Analytica’s incredible influence on political voting has clearly demonstrated the power of behavioural science – and also the extent to which such tools can be used to ill effect. As we’ve seen with the company’s demise, use of this power without the right governance is both hugely detrimental to the public and to the business itself.
Customers are now highly sensitive to hidden consent and their data rights – they recoil at the prospect of having their autonomy of choice taken from them.
But as Helena says: “Nudges do not have to be covert, and consent does not have to be hidden. We can use science and evidence to make better choices, and to design products and services that actually satisfy consumer needs.
“There are many activities that can be improved by the application of behavioural science – early stage innovation, developing new – potentially radical communication strategies, rethinking customer experiences, voice of the consumer programmes, or asking employees to work differently,” she adds.
There is currently no formal regulation on behavioural economics, which is in part why Helena and her team at Innovia have created the following guidelines on best practice.
Helen’s ethical code to behavioural science
- Behavioural interventions built on untruths are unacceptable.
- Nudges that make it difficult for people to choose otherwise are unethical: people must have the freedom to choose differently.
- Behavioural interventions should be scrutinised for unintended, as well as intended, consequences.
- Consent should not be hidden: interventions should be transparent wherever possible.
- Practitioners should be comfortable to defend their approach, methods and motives in public.