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Small Steps to Big Changes: How Behavioral Economics Is Changing Marketing

By: John Kenny, EVP, head of planning, Chicago

The Ad Council faces no easy challenges: trying to prevent teen bullying, encourage financial literacy, fight childhood obesity and much more. These are some of the biggest, hardest issues faced by American society. So how should marketers approach these problems? Start small.
Yes, start small.
It goes against everything we feel we should do. When faced with these big problems our first instinct is to make a big commitment to big change. These problems offend us; they undermine who we think we really are as a society, and we believe we can do better. So it feels good to declare the end goal we aspire to and commit ourselves to radical change.
But increasingly specialists in the world of behavior change are seeing that effective, long term change is undermined by starting big. Richard Thaler, one of the leading thinkers of behavioral economics, characterizes the whole field of behavioral science as being driven in large part by the need to make the change you want easier. BJ Fogg, founder of Stanford University “Persuasive Technology Lab” says the secret to long term behavior change is starting with what he calls “tiny steps.”
A major argument for maximizing ease and starting small is the fact that people are busy and distracted. No one is looking for a new to-do item, and new behaviors involve new choices. So even when people are motivated to change, small barriers can fundamentally shift behavior.
Perception is Key.
Given these barriers, how can we achieve successful behavior change? The key is minimizing the perception of change by showing how your proposal builds on what people are already doing. In Brazil, a soccer club increased organ donation rates by 54 percent not because their fans become more concerned with the needs of patients, but because the soccer club told their rabid fans that donating their organs would ensure their hearts would keep beating for their team, even after their death!
Second, is ruthlessly minimizing the number of steps to positive change. In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake the American Red Cross was able to raise $32 million by replacing the multiple steps of waiting to go to a computer, typing in and entering payment information. Instead, people sent a simple text message that even removed deciding how much to donate, by making the default donation $10, so that people wouldn’t have to struggle with the decision of how much to give. The Red Cross told them that $10 was enough to make a difference without making themselves feel miserly.
Third, is making change fun. In Taiwan, city authorities responded to an excess of dog poop on their streets, by offering people who picked up after a dog a lottery ticket. The small change of winning big, trumped alternate attempts to change behavior by appealing to civic pride, resulting in a 50 percent drop in dog waste over six months.
The lesson for marketers is clear. In all of these cases, significant shifts in behavior change occurred not because people changed their beliefs through rational persuasion. Instead, big changes occurred precisely because they felt like no change at all, they involved minimal effort or the effort was perceived as fun.
Once people start something and they achieve success momentum, they are more likely to continue to change, because they get invested in the progress they have already made and feel a sense of ownership. However getting to this point requires a first step, and increasingly we are learning how that step is best made as easy and as tiny as possible.
Originally printed on theAdLibbing blog of the Advertising Council, August 5, 2013.