Personalised Nudges:The Science Of Influencing Your Customers

by our Head of Behavioural Science Patrick Fagan

If you were Alka-Seltzer, what would you do to double your sales?

Well, if you’ve ever used Alka-Seltzer, how many tablets did you put in the water? Chances are, it was two - when the directions specify you only need one.

The packaging, however, shows two fizzing tablets on the front, to subconsciously nudge buyers into assuming two tablets are required. This stroke of marketing inspiration was accompanied by an advertising jingle at the time of its release: “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is!”

Elsewhere, academic research has similarly shown that putting more Animal Crackers in the picture on the front of the box results in shoppers assuming there are almost twice as many crackers inside (and eating almost four times as many too!).

This science of nudging - that is, using environmental cues to subtly influence (i.e., nudge) behaviour - has proven itself highly valuable in consumer behaviour, and beyond. For example, people can be encouraged to vote by informing them that most of their neighbours vote, and they can be nudged into participating in smoking-cessation programs by implying only a limited number of spaces are available.

But nudging needs to evolve.

Specifically, behavioural interventions currently take a ‘one size fits all’ approach: nudges are typically designed for a single audience and distributed en masse. This neglects crucial nuances between individuals.

The authority nudge, for example, is well-established and well-known - perhaps most notably from Stanley Milgram’s finding that 48% of participants would administer what they thought was a fatal electric shock to someone if told to do so by an authority figure (rising to 65% if they donned a lab coat). In essence, we look to figures of authority to decide how to act. However, while authority is a hardwired bias universal to all, the manifestation of authority is not homogeneous: for instance, research suggests that while Americans look to high-power individuals as authority figures, the French look to social equals.

To put it another way, a doctor in a white lab coat might help sell toothpaste in the UK - but would probably leave consumers in Papua New Guinea nonplussed.

Indeed, studies have shown that the efficacy of nudges varies by to whom the nudge is sent. Taking agreeable (i.e., warm and trusting) people, for example, published research has shown that they: are risk-averse, responding better to safely-framed propositions that reduce potential loss; are influenced by messages which encourage perspective-taking; will be nudged by conformity appeals; and will be persuaded in particular by someone they like.

Furthermore, the most effective medium for the nudge is likely to change according to the recipient. To take the example of agreeableness again, these types of people talk in language which is positive and people-focused, and prefer content which is lighthearted and social like rom-coms.

To date, brands have been nudging everyone in the same way - when in fact, different types of people respond better to different types of nudges. Fortunately, big data allows us to understand individuals - for example, knowing from their call log how extraverted they are, or from their Tweets how happy they are - and nudge them in the most effective way. In essence, big data makes human intuition scalable: we all adjust how we talk depending on to whom we are talking, and now putting psychology into technology allows brands to do this too.

As a result, this type of personalised messaging, online, could lead to conversion rates up to twice as high.