How Social and Behavioral Sciences Drive Response

NPR’s recent piece, How Small Changes Can Yield Big Results For The Government, caught my attention yesterday.

Social and behavioral scientists at the White House conducted extensive tests and experiments to drive improved participation in several government programs. What’s fascinating for us marketers is that this really boils down to improving response rates to various email and direct mail campaigns. They were mining behavioral insights that could be applied in their communications. Their challenge may sound familiar to you: how to break down barriers to engagement.

We marketers constantly strive to establish, track and improve the performance of our campaigns and this piece offers several interesting findings that may well apply to other sectors outside of government. Among the findings based upon behavioral insights:

Response rates to direct mail increased 22% with these minor tweaks:

Clearly defined, called-out action steps. Think, “Step 1, Step 2, Step 3,” in large, bold or color type.

Putting important info in the “P.S.” Apparently this is the second spot that our eyes track.

Open rates for email surveys improved significantly when:

Sent around lunchtime on Tuesdays and Wednesdays

Varying the subject lines

More cost-effective operations may be achieved when:

A personal appointment time with a call center is included

A dialog box prompts workers to change their print settings to double-sided

The full Social and Behavioral Sciences Team annual report was just published and can be found here.

Although these findings may smack of best practices that we think we already know, they demonstrate the importance of understanding how people make decisions and act on them. And, if we are in the business of generating results, this should matter a great deal.





Self-Reporting Limitations and How to Mitigate

…or, “I often pick my nose in public!”

Most market research relies on subjects to tell the truth and respond to questions as honestly as possible. We set the stage by making the survey voluntary, encouraging different opinions in a focus group or letting participants know that there are no wrong answers.

But some questions are harder than others to answer honestly. When a respondent knows that his answer is “wrong” (morally, legally, ethically or socially), he may tend to offer the “right” answer instead. After all, there are no repercussions to him for answering in a normative way. Yet, as great interrogators might say, “We have ways of making you talk!”Right-vs.-Wrong

By its very nature, market research centers on self-reporting. There is evidence that the more personal the format, i.e. an in-person interview, the more likely subjects are to self-report falsely. We have witnessed increased truthfulness in online surveys, which are far less personal.

During the research phase of a past campaign, we asked subjects, over the phone, how often they brush their teeth. Nearly everyone knows that ‘twice a day’ is the right answer, and as a result, an overwhelming majority offered this answer. Interestingly, the survey population has a very high incidence of cavities. Brushing-TeethIf they truly brushed twice a day, they likely wouldn’t experience such a great degree of tooth decay. When we conducted an online survey of the same audience, we noticed significantly fewer ‘twice a day’ answers. The impersonal nature of an online survey allowed respondents to answer more truthfully than they did on the phone.

In another case, we probed into rampant abuse of handicapped parking spots. Here again, subjects knew full well that they were doing the wrong thing. In focus groups, these participants denied ever having parked illegally in a disabled parking spot.images

To get people to open up, we decided to try something new: the moderator admitted to having done it on occasion herself. Once this person in a position of authority confessed to her own counter-normative behavior, the subjects readily recounted their own incidents and motivations.

The most credible market research findings will always be based upon observational studies, especially where stigmatized or socially unacceptable behavior is concerned. But when more in-depth insights are required, consider research tactics that allow subjects to report freely, honestly and guiltlessly.

Three Ways to Test a Campaign

If you are like most marketers, you lose sleep thinking about the various ways your campaign could run amok, blow up or otherwise fail. Let’s face it, the list of reasons things could go wrong is nightmarishly long: wrong files delivered to media outlets, talent not showing up on time, legal team nixing the product name at the eleventh hour or the client accidentally ingesting drugs (yes, that really happened). There seems to be no shortage of new, innovative ways for the proverbial wheels to come off of your marketing machine.


Rest assured. You can control, to a great degree, the extent to which your campaign will resonate with your target using any of these three basic testing methods.

Focus Groups
Hold small, in-person focus groups–dyads or triads are best–with members of your target to hear feedback or to conduct A/B testing of potential campaign directions. Conduct at least three focus groups so that you can discard one; sometimes participants are just not very participatory. Ask questions such as: What is your first reaction to this? How likely are you to take the suggested action? How likely are you to talk about this campaign with a friend?

Online Testing
Conduct an online survey of 10 questions among the target audience. If you do not have emails for this audience (via client contacts, partners, friends or family), respondent panels can always be purchased online. Don’t be afraid to post images or links as part of the survey, but be sure to test it thoroughly. Take the survey in test mode several times and ask others to take it as well. Input different answers to make sure that all questions, branch logic and programming are working correctly. Don’t forget to delete your test “completes” before launching.

Non-Traditional Testing
Promotional events and tradeshows offer the perfect opportunity to test your campaign. Use your party, website launch or booth as the venue to solicit campaign feedback. In some cases, you may be able to test different messages or sales pitches. You’ll get more consistent, reliable results if you use documented, consistent questions or discussion points for each respondent.

Demographics and Dive Bars

When the Colorado Department of Transportation saw that motorcycle fatalities were on the rise, they knew something had to be done. Accident data pointed to the fact that many fatalities might have been avoided if the riders had been wearing helmets. And yet we are in a state where helmets are not required by law! Our job was to create a campaign that would encourage motorcycle riders to wear safety gear, including helmets.

First stop, our target audience. Motorcycle riders are already a small group, but we needed to know more in order to pinpoint our message. Which riders are most at risk? Who needs to hear our message most? The fatality data revealed an interesting tidbit: older, male, weekend riders were actually much more at risk than other groups.

Using this data, we dug up more demographic and psychographic information on our target. How? By stopping in to the local biker bar, of course. We bellied up to discover that these weekend warriors are affluent, hate being told what to do, and feel strongly that other drivers on the road are the biggest danger they face. According to our target, “cagers” (another name for four-wheeled car drivers) don’t check their mirrors, do a thousand other things behind the wheel, and generally do not pay much attention to the road. Notably, those who do wear safety gear or helmets claimed that the main reason was to protect themselves from these unpredictable, irresponsible drivers.

In fact, drivers were not found to be at fault in the majority of motorcycle fatalities from that period. We could try to convince our target they were wrong, but they probably wouldn’t listen. In behavior change communications, we know the importance of meeting people where they are. We needed to use this insight to connect with these bikers and drive action.

Next stop, campaign concept. Because our target doesn’t want to be scolded (who does?), we determined a peer spokesperson would be most effective. Our new friends from the watering hole proved to be excellent and credible talent for the photo shoot. By showcasing real, relatable riders, we could use social norming to promote more protective gear. Lastly, to make our message resonate, we would evoke the same rationale that other riders use.

Last stop, campaign launch. People were impressed with our striking, real-life photography, but not all drivers were thrilled with their portrayal and shared their grievances online. We seized this controversy as the perfect opportunity to chime in and share more important safety information with a broader public, extending the life of the campaign far beyond what paid media alone could offer.

The campaign won several awards and accolades, but most importantly, motorcycle fatalities have decreased by 25%. Who said advertising isn’t saving lives?

Getting from What to Why

Increasingly, advertisers are realizing the need to shift gears to attract and cultivate relationships with a new breed of consumer: the digital native. One client recently lamented, “We have always been a manufacturing company who made a great product. It used to be that we advertised the product to the right people and that was enough.” Not so anymore.

Our world is crowded and complex, with more people, brands and communication channels than ever before. Today’s consumers, and especially younger generations (think millennials), are looking to connect on their own terms. They’ve basically rejected the traditional product pitch and posed a new challenge instead: “Tell me who you are, what you stand for and why I should care,” they say. “Then, I’ll decide whether or not I choose you.”

The Internet has created the perfect platform to house, collect and prune these choices, hence the notion of buzzed-about “curated experiences.” Marketers especially must remember that the vast majority of consumers will soon be digital natives who were born and raised online. Given the enormous array of choices, this generation has decided to get very personal. “If the product, company or brand doesn’t fit my image of myself, if we are not likeminded, then I’m out.”

Here are a few brands creating killer emotional connections:


This LOL funny spot shows personality, quirkiness, something unglamorous, with a real people feel. Oh and, it manages to show the “what” along the way.


TOMS shoes are not only stylish and comfortable, the company also prides itself on its commitment to giving back. TOMS encourages a strong emotional connection with its socially conscious (and strategically brilliant) One for One campaign.

Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation

The why here is simply put: because cavities can spread from baby to adult teeth. The why – of supreme importance in behavior change campaigns – becomes a more consultative way to remind parents of the what – avoiding sugary drinks like juice.

In a world of what, consumers may buy once and immediately lose their bond with the brand. With an emotional connection, advertisers gain customers for life, raving fans who will promote them, connect on social media and beat down the door for the next product.

Hello World!

Hi there and welcome to View from the Robin’s Nest!

My passion for market research–and especially the application of it–comes from a quarter century in marketing, advertising and other communications disciplines. Beginning in medical market research, my work experience has spanned many industries from enterprise software to financial services, outdoor/sports, entertainment and beyond. It’s all brought me to this point in my career: being an agency principal and proud market research geek. These days, the team at the agency and I work on everything from children’s oral health to cycling accessories to the safe public use of legal marijuana.

In this blog, I explore and share the myriad ways market research affects the strategies companies and brands put into place.

So why should you care? Companies often overlook this step of building their brand or campaign. It can be hard for CMOs to sell and CEOs often think they already know their audience. This blog is here to show you that without market research, you don’t.

It’s fascinating to see how often market research can be an extremely important driver of change or at least provide the sign posts that point to new directions.

Here’s to looking at market research from a bird’s eye view.