As much as we love to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are perfectly rational and objective in our decision-making – the reality is that the human mind is fragile and terrible at being objective.
Cognitive and psychological biases are defined as repetitive paths and mistakes that our minds make when making a decision, evaluating, remembering or judging information. They are built-in our minds like our instincts through the process of evolution: we evolved to survive, not to make logical decisions. Thinking takes a lot of energy, so by having these biases put in place, we could conserve that energy.
Very few marketers consider themselves to be psychologists, however understanding marketing psychology can help your business persuade and influence more consumers. Knowing that people’s decisions are influenced by their own psychological biases, it would make sense that exploiting these would to lead to great marketing results. In fact, for decades now, marketers have been using psychological and cognitive biases in their campaigns to boost sales.
Not only will understanding the science behind cognitive bias help attract more clients, but it will also help yourself: even though we can’t get rid of cognitive biases, being aware of them will make you more self-aware. You will be better at recognizing your imperfections and irrational tendencies, which will result in you making better judgments and opinions.
Let’s get started looking into each of these biases and how they can apply to marketing. Keep in note that while the selected biases are notably useful, this is not by any means a complete list.
I. The Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias describes the tendency of our mind to interpret, search for and recall information that falls in line with the beliefs we already hold on by default. This a topic that was widely discussed around the 2016 election of Donald Trump, when people simply couldn’t understand how all the political predictions went wrong.
The effect of confirmation bias can definitely be seen through the “echo chambers” of social media, as social media creates communities that reinforce and amplify beliefs in closed systems. Algorithms, like the ones used by YouTube and Facebook, steer us towards content that reflects our own ideological preferences. Google does the same thing by learning your preferences, adjusting your search results while also taking into account all the other information it has on you, such as where you live. For example, in Ukraine, Crimea will be shown as Ukrainian territory, while for Russians it will be shown as Russian territory.
It’s much easier and less painful for your brain to just stick to what you already believethan to go through the whole thinking process again, question your beliefs and choose new ones. This is why often times, no matter how effectively we debate someone with established facts, the other person will still refuse to change their mind and stick to what they want to believe (take the growing flat-earth community for example).
How does this relate to marketing? If you want to effectively use this bias to your advantage, you must first put yourself in the shoes of your customers and figure out what their beliefs already are to begin with. The best way to do this nowadays is to check their social media, see what they follow and the articles they share on their pages.
Once you have figured out their beliefs, share information about your brand that is already aligned with what they assume to be true. By doing this effectively, you will win the loyalty of your customers, and in return, they will put more trust in what you have to offer.
II. Loss Aversion Bias
Just imagine I gave you the opportunity to work with me and make $1000 dollars in only 2 hours of work. Sounds like a pretty good deal, right?
However, there’s a catch to this. You have to show up at my office exactly at 5:00 AM tomorrow to get on the deal; if you are not by my office at this exact time, I will not accept you and you will miss out on making that a thousand bucks in 2 hours.
You are probably going to think to yourself: “Crap, I better get to work on time tomorrow…because if I don’t, I’m going to miss out on this amazing deal…I can’t risk this…”.
The Loss Aversion bias is what makes us more sensitive to losing more than we like winning. People tend to fear a loss twice as much as they are likely to welcome an equivalent gain. In the example above, you were more preoccupied with potentially losing $1000 than gaining $1000. The loss always strikes harder than the gain.
How Do Marketers Apply This?
E-commerce stores often tap into this fear response. How do you feel when you are searching online for a product you’ve long sought after, and you see phrases like “50% off for only 2 hours” or “only 1 hour left to order for next day delivery”? These phrases imply that if you don’t buy the product within 2 hours, you won’t get the 50% off deal, or that you will lose the next day delivery.
To take advantage of this bias, you need to use language that appeals to consumers’ desperate need to avoid loss at all costs. Reach out to users and present to them a timely offer based on a product they need on social media; to save yourself some time, use social listening software such as SproutSocial or BuzzSumo.
III. The Bandwagon Effect
“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” – C.S. Lewis.
Have you ever bought a pair of shoes because everyone around you was wearing them? Or started watching Game of Thrones, because it was too embarrassing to be the only person in the company to not know who Kit Harington was? Then you’ve unknowingly have been a victim of the bandwagon effect yourself.
Most people have heard of the expression “jumping on the bandwagon”, which is referring to this specific cognitive bias. Also called groupthink or herd behavior, the main idea is that the adoption of certain beliefs and trends increase the more people around you adopt them. It fulfills the desire for humans to be right and to feel included. It is present everywhere: politics, sports, fashion, marketing, you name it.
In this age of social media, the bandwagon effect has become so beneficial, that over these past couple years we have seen the emergence of new companies that artificially increase social signals: marketers can now buy fake Instagram followers, fake likes and fake reviews. The Twitter accounts of public figures such as Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber have been exposed as being largely padded with fakes.
The best way for marketers to exploit this bias is to show off testimonials from clients: if you have a lot of testimonials (authentic ones, of course), new clients will feel like everybody loves what you have to offer, and therefore are more likely to buy from you. Social proof can be one of the most powerful tools for your business.
IV. In-Group Favoritism
In-group bias is the tendency for one to favor the products or ideas of a group that they identify or align with. Here are examples of in-group bias:
- Reddit Groups: These days, there are subreddits on nearly all subjects. The best ones are selective about who can join and control what type of content can be shared (to avoid spam or offending members in the group). This creates a tight-knit ecosystem for people to connect and help each other out and powerful echo chambers.
- Politics: Nothing creates a “us vs. them” dynamic better than politics. While taking a stand on controversial issues may drive away some customers, it will attract others who agree with you. For example, for every limited edition bottles purchased, Stella Artois sends a month of clean water to women and their families in developing countries.
- Brand Rivalry: Some people love Mac, others PC. Some love Pepsi, others Coke (even though they are nearly the same). Some love Xbox, others PlayStation. These brands pour in millions of dollars in marketing into the community they have built in to maintain the loyalty of their customers, and also to try to steal them from their rival brand.
Few people realize how much influence our identity has on us on our purchasing decisions. Data shows that if you align with a specific sports team, you and everyone else that supports that team are more likely to buy similar products and use similar services.
How Marketers Can Find The Identity Markers Of Their Clients
Marketers should join a bunch of communities such as Reddit groups, Facebook groups, and forums where their ideal customers hang out to get a better sense of what they identify with. They can then cater to these customers by building their own online community.
V. The Certainty / Zero Risk Bias
Suspicious by nature, the human mind is more swayed by offers that seem to offer no risk or consequences, hence the appeal of money-back guarantees and risk-free trials. The more you can reassure customers and potential customers of all the limited risks that entail your offer, the more likely they are to think positively about your product and give it a go.
For example, if your chance of winning whatever prize rises from 90% to 95%, this won’t affect your behavior. However, if it rises from 95% to 100%, it definitely will (even though the difference is basically the same).
Marketers need to be fully aware of this cognitive bias, as it can make or break sales. You need to be 100% confident in your product, and let the consumer know that there is nothing to risk, by guaranteeing them a 100% money back guarantee if they choose to back out the deal.