The Choice Factory – practical exploitation of behavioural biases for marcomms professionals

The Choice Factory

I wrote briefly about this book in my first ever LinkedIn post on #WorldBookDay but thought that I’d write something of a little more substance. Here goes, my first book report since some time in school 20+ years ago…

For those not in the know, I thought a little intro to behavioural science and behavioural economics might be a handy place to start…

Behavioural science, put simply, is the study of human and animal behaviour. “Behavioral sciences abstract empirical data to investigate the decision processes and communication strategies within and between organisms in a social system. This involves fields like psychology, social neuroscience ethology, and cognitive science.” [See Wikipedia for more – Behavioural sciences].

In the marketing context we’re only really interested in human study and seeking to generalise about behaviour as it relates to buying decisions, and this is where behavioural economics comes in. “Behavioural Economics studies the effects of psychological, social, cognitive, and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals…” [See Wikipedia for more – Behavioural economics]

Basically, we’re interested in: why do we make the decisions we make when we buy stuff? And I hope everyone can see the value to marketing in knowing more about this.

Traditional economists for a long time modelled humans as automatons making entirely rational decisions. Unfortunately for traditional economists, we make irrational decisions all the time through short cuts (heuristics) hard-wired in the brain. It’s by tapping into these hard-wired subconscious cognitive biases through our communications that marketing professionals can improve the effectiveness of our communications and gain a competitive advantage.

This is where Richard Shotton’s excellent book comes in. The Choice Factory takes a look at some of the fascinating findings from behavioural science and economics, and how they can be applied to marketing communications to make the marketing more effective. I’ve read only a little on behavioural science and economics but this really is much more accessible and practical than the others I’ve read. As well as citing the scientific experiments, Shotton provides plenty of real life examples of effective marketing uses.

The author, Shotton, is Deputy Head of Evidence at Manning Gottlieb OMD advertising agency, “the most awarded media agency in the history of the IPA Effectiveness awards.” (according to Amazon’s author profile). After graduating from Oxford University he started his career as a media planner working on accounts such as Coke, 118 118 and, before moving into research. [Why do I put this in? I think establishing the authority of the author is important in a time when there’s a lot of self-professed “gurus” and fake news out there.]

Shotton’s epiphany surrounding behavioural biases came in the back of black cab in 2005 reading an article about the academic studies of two psychologists exploring why so many bystanders witnessed a gruesome murder in New York. He realised that the ‘bystander effect’ was a problem he was trying to overcome in a brief his company had been given by the NHS Give Blood campaign. The ‘bystander effect’ is that it’s less likely for an individual to intervene when there’s a broad appeal for help. Shotton suggested that, rather than advertise to the entire UK, the NHS target towns and cities with specific campaigns mentioning their town. So, rather than “Give blood, supplies are low”, something more like “give blood, supplies in Basildon are low”. It resulted in a 10% improvement in the cost per donation.

In the Choice Factory Shotton explores 25 biases, which is by no means an exhaustive list of all known biases but what’s great is that for each bias he includes some practical guidance on how to apply what we know of the bias to our communications to harness a positive effect. It’s this leap to practical application that I think sets this book apart from some of the other books I’ve read or looked into on behavioral science and economics.

It’s a subject area that’s probably still seen as quackery by some, but it’s based on well-designed scientific experiments by some of the most respected scientists including Nobel Laureates like Daniel Kahneman, Herbert Simon and Robert Shiller.

The Choice Factory is the culmination of everything Shotton has learnt in 12 years of testing biases to determine how they can be used by brands, but he finishes his book by encouraging us not just to take his word for it but to go run our own experiments. He also challenges us to “maintain a healthy scepticism about the explanations we hear”, to be “wary of anecdotes when explaining behaviour” and warns that “we often mistake the interest and excitement of a story for the truth.” A refreshing approach and some sage advice.

I really can’t recommend this book enough to anyone in the marketing communications field, as it says on the back cover “before you can influence decisions, you need to understand what drives them”.

If you want to gain a competitive advantage whilst other marketers still base their communications and decisions on marketing theory based on anecdotes or tradition this is definitely a book you should take a look at. You’ll learn about targeting context not just audiences, the use of social proof but how to avoid negative social proof, and how admitting a flaw may make your brand more appealing.

Buy it here on amazon. Other retailers may be available, I haven’t looked.

And if you’re not following Richard on twitter, you should, you can find him here @rshotton or on LinkedIn – Richard Shotton.


I’m on twitter too if you wanted to follow and interact – @AndyHooperMkt

Originally posted on LinkedIn. 11/03/2018.

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