Brands need realistic expectations of what content can and can’t do. They need to know how to use content in different customer situations to support changes their customers may want to make. There are four categories of persuasive content that brands need to use.
The variable effectiveness of content
Often we hear someone talk about creating content to “change the behavior” of customers — and we immediately take notice. We wonder: what can content do for me that I’m not now doing? Can I use content to get customers to behave the way I want them to? Perhaps there is note of skepticism: is content meant to support manipulation? Hard-nosed observers might ask: if content isn’t changing the behavior of customers, what’s the point?
Bold claims are sometimes made for the talismanic power of content, but equally impressive are the notable failures of content to produce change. People spend billions of dollars each year on self help media ($10 billion in the U.S. alone), but surveys show levels of happiness unchanged. This example may not seem pertinent, but chances are your content is promising some level of happiness as a reward for a customer making a change. The critical question is: what kind of change is realistic to expect from content? When can content support change, and when can it not?
Whose goals does the content support?
The topic of change is tied to goals. Brands want customers to buy their products and services, to recommend the brand to others, and to use self service when customers have issues. They create content to support these business goals. For content to be successful for the brand, it needs to deliver a predefined outcome.
The goals of customers may be different from the outcomes the brand seeks, especially when change is involved. When looking at doing something new, the customer will often be cautious. She may have limited goals, be unsure of her goals, or have no intention to take immediate action. If the brand is seeking an outcome that exceeds the intention of the customer, the brand is trying to change the customer’s behavior, rather than simply helping the customer change her behavior on her own terms.
It is useful to separate customer behavioral change into three categories, depending on which party is most active in the process. In ascending order of effort to realize, these are:
- customer-initiated behavioral change
- customer-ambivalent, brand-assisted behavioral change
- brand-initiated behavioral change
What counts as change?
Changing behavior is not a casual thing; it is a big deal. Sweeping claims that content changes behavior deserve scrutiny. Marketing professionals sometimes suggest that people have changed their behavior when in fact these people are doing the same things they always do — but with their own brand instead of someone else’s. Real change involves an enduring transition from one state to another and will generally entail something that’s ongoing. Behavior is not simply any action or decision, but a habitual action, and/or an action that can be predicted given certain conditions.
Changing customer behavior requires getting them to take actions they don’t normally take, and would not be expected to take, unless they change the basis for how they act. A brand hasn’t changed a customer behavior simply because they try your product when they routinely try different products. But if a customer tries your product when previously loyal to another product, then they have changed their behavior, albeit only in a small way. It is small because it may not be lasting. That change could be reversed, or could evolve into a new behavior where the customer is not loyal to any brand. If the individual becomes a loyal customer of your brand, then a more significant behavioral change has happened.
Why changing behavior is hard
“People hate change. They love consistency,” notes Chris Nodder in his book Evil by Design. “The posh name for this is status quo bias: the tendency to like things to stay relatively the same, and to perceive any change from the current situation as a loss. Loss aversion leads people to overestimate potential losses from a change and underestimate the potential gains. They also tend to overvalue their current situation (the endowment effect).”
The importance of customer buy-in
Change can be hard work: people will change only if they are motivated and able to change. People need to feel they have bought into the idea of making a change. Because of the personal effort and commitment involved, any less-than-truthful content that urges people to change their routine will be problematic. Deception can sometimes appear to work in the short term, but it will backfire in the long term. People get angry when they feel misled.
Some content professionals have questioned content marketing practices that offer non-promotional content to get email addresses or other personal details, and then later use this information for overt sales. One copywriter summed up the conflict: “With permission marketing, you get the audience’s permission to give them content, but not really to market to them. However, your basic agenda is still to sell. So eventually you have to come clean and start pushing benefits. Hence content marketing is a sort of cognitive bait-and-switch, and ‘a lie’ in the sense that it obscures or omits its own motive. It is based in bad faith or deception in a way that ‘traditional’ advertising isn’t.” Lesson: be honest about what customers have bought into. Even if the initiator of a change is the brand and not the customer, the customer needs to feel they are in control of making the change, to be willing to adopt it.
Customers buy into change when they are ready. The role of content is to support their readiness. People are ready when “triggered to do something they want to do and are able to do,” according to BJ Fogg, a leading researcher in the field of persuasive design. Fogg highlights two key aspects content needs to address: motivation, and understanding. His framework parallels a prominent theory in communications science called the elaboration likelihood model. According to that model, people process information through two routes: a central route involving active evaluation of information, and a peripheral one, involving impressions and cues from the environment. When motivation is low, people are less likely to actively evaluate messages, so it is important to appeal to peripheral factors like emotional aspects, to engage with them.
How customers vary in readiness
Customer readiness depends on how familiar the substance of the content seems, and how motivated the individual is. Customers must desire the change (have motivation) and know how much effort is required (feel comfortable with what’s involved)
The notion of familiarity captures whether someone believes they understand and is able to do something. When changing behavior, the new behavior may be similar enough to other experiences that the individual has little trouble imagining what’s involved. The parallels customers draw will not necessarily be accurate: they may understate the adaptation required, or overstate it, of course. But when a task seems unfamiliar, people are inclined to not pay attention, and even fear it. All content needs to make actions feel familiar to their target audience, incorporating frames of reference each segment uses to understand things. To the extent that an absence of familiarity creates a gap in attention, the content must also provide emotional cues to help the audience relate to the content.
We can divide readiness into four categories. Customers may be more or less familiar with the change you are promoting, and be more or less motivated to embrace that change. By thinking about the interaction of these two factors, we can build a simple matrix of persuasion categories to guide what general kinds of content are most appropriate in different situations.
Four categories of persuasive content
A change is customer-initiated when customers have both motivation and familiarity with proposed changes. Content for such customers should focus on supporting the their intention and understanding. Even though the individual clearly wants to make a change, there can be confounding factors. Inertia is a big concern — it is easiest to stick with what one has been doing all along. Another factor is competition: other brands are probably addressing this customer segment, and their content may be more compelling. The content should reinforce the benefits, provide an encouraging tone, build anticipation, and betray no ambiguities or confusion that could interfere with the flow toward action.
Change can involve multiple steps or interactions over time, so content must communicate clearly at each step and provide sufficient context and follow up. After the individual adopts the new behavior, reinforce messages and spark dialog by seeking feedback from them. Consider fine-tuning the presentation of choices (making sure their aren’t too many), and make the calls-to-action clear and compelling, answering the question of “why do this now and not later.” Do not assume people are ready to go through a process involving change when they aren’t fully ready. Customer motivation or understanding may be qualified, so provide content for them to explore that addresses concerns they may have.
When a customer segment believes they understand what’s involved, but still isn’t motivated enough to change what they are currently doing, their outlook falls in the category of customer-ambivalent, brand-assisted change. The task is to sweeten the appeal of the change.
Customers may be ambivalent because their normal behavior has become part of their identity, and so changing behavior feels emotionally uncomfortable. They may hold on to stereotypes, such as “I’m not the kind of person who would do this,” even when they have an interest in something new, and understand what they would need to do.
The content should appeal more to peripheral cues, rather than rational ones. The attention individuals offer is driven by their internal state. When people don’t feel emotionally or spiritually connected to the content, they don’t pay attention to it. Getting the emotional dimension right is key to involvement. Know what content makes them feel good about themselves (aspiration based), and bad about themselves (fear based). Content will feature the benefits and urgency of a change on a personal level, and nurture a feeling of ownership of an outcome. Content will play up individual identity, and belongingness to a group. It may spotlight the individual’s status or the judgment of peers, as either motivational carrot or stick. The content will stress the benefits of the journey, and the reward at the end. Sweetened content promotes “a new you” theme.
Nudge and reframe
Nudging and reframing are common with brand-initiated change, and can be used with customer-initiated changes that are difficult to accomplish. These approaches work for people who may be ok with the general notion of a change (they aren’t attached emotionally to the current situation), but who are less sure about the practicality of doing so.
There is some debate about whether someone’s attitude needs to change in order for someone’s behavior to change. In general the answer is yes, but it may be possible to get behavior to change first if it does not seem too taxing. If individuals try something, and find it doesn’t create hardship, their views may change as a result. But if there views don’t naturally change, and they need to think as they apply effort to maintain the change, then the change won’t stick.
A nudge strategy is often relevant for brand-initiated change, when there’s an asymmetry in the motivations of the brand and the individual. A brand may be able to successfully nudge someone to do something the person is indifferent about, if the brand simplifies the message to one key action. The brand should decide what is the minimal action necessary from the individual that gives the brand value, and then focus content on supporting the accomplishment of that action. The change required may be largely unnoticed by the individual, but it can be significant for the brand.
The brand reframes what action is needed for the change, making it less daunting. People have trouble estimating the future effort and consequences of a change, so content that realistically suggests the effort will be minimal, or will only requires small steps, will make the task seem more familiar. Paradoxically, some content that nudges (such as asking for an organ donation) is intentionally impersonal, designed to seem like no big deal, particularly when the wider implications of the change might seem too emotionally charged. The strategy in such cases is to get people to change actions, not to persuade them to change their beliefs. Sometimes a greater good appeal can be effective to encourage someone to go along with an action without undue evalution,.
While minimizing the change involved works in some cases, in other cases the customer needs to be actively involved. Another type of reframing seeks to make the change less intimidating by likening it to something the audience is already familiar with that they like. The goal is to neutralize the fear of the unknown.
Campaigns exist to support brand-initiated change. The brand assumes responsibility for maintaining the initiative. For example, brands have campaigned for many decades to change our personal health and grooming habits, often successfully.
The marketing campaign is supposedly dying a slow death. Widespread evidence suggests that people resist conventional marketing campaigns, and inoculate themselves against their messages. Campaigns are ineffective in getting people to do things they don’t want to do, but they have a role in cases where people lack sufficient motivation and ability to do things they are tempted to try. People in this category can be overcome by inertia. The goal is not to convert people hostile to an idea, but to speak to people who like an idea in the abstract, and make it possible for them to actually act on that idea.
Campaigns provide content to support people throughout a long change process. The format recognizes that when people have to summon willpower to make changes, it drains their energy, so the content should energize rather than make demands. One way such content can energize audiences is by offering recognition and a sense of belonging to a shared community. A campaign might promote behavioral change through the use of advergaming, such as the America’s Army recruiting game. Public health campaigns sometimes use soap operas to simultaneously entertain (motivate) and educate. Successful campaigns appeal to an audience in a way that enables them to form a lasting relationship with the brand. Campaigns address the most difficult type of change, requiring long periods, and will be successful with only a fraction of an audience segment.
By knowing the motivation and knowledge your customers have, brands can tailor content in a way that increases the likelihood that customers can make changes successfully. The four categories of persuasive content are only a starting point for thinking about change. There are a range of tactics appropriate to each category, and brands are wise to evaluate these options in detail. They may need to plan for the likelihood that a customer will graduate from one category of readiness to another. Continual analysis and testing are crucial to successful outcomes.
— Michael Andrews