The human mind is a delicate thing. We like to think that we’re logical, reasonable, and objective in our decision-making — even when we’re strongly affected by our own personal feelings — but the truth is, we’re bad at being objective.
There are a number of cognitive biases — flaws in the way we perceive our environments or make judgments — that affect nearly all of us, and there are so many of them, Wikipedia has an article dedicated solely to listing them all.
Take the perspective of an opportunist for a moment. If cognitive biases affect the way people make decisions, and marketing is all about influencing consumer decisions, it stands to reason that exploiting certain cognitive biases would lead to better marketing results.
Does that seem manipulative? Perhaps. But marketers have already been using cognitive biases to their advantage for decades — they’ve just been using less precise terminology and looser concepts to drive their work. Now that marketing is drawing more power from technology, marketers are looking to cognitive biases for inspiration in new campaigns, angles, and strategies.
As we pave the way for new trends and tactics, I suspect these eight cognitive biases will be at the center of our new ideas:
1. Loss aversion. Loss aversion is a bias that makes us more sensitive to the prospect of loss than we are to an equivalent probability of gain. For example, if you lose $100, you will experience a feeling of loss more powerful than the feeling of gain you would feel in finding $100. This bias is also responsible for people putting a higher value on things they already own than identical things they don’t own. Marketers can take advantage of this by using language that appeals to consumers’ desperate need to avoid loss at all costs, and high valuation of current possessions. One way to do this is through social media, by identifying and reaching out to users at the moment they need something with a timely offer. You can use social listening software, such as Socedo, SproutSocial, or BuzzSumo, to automate this process.
2. Anchoring. Anchoring is a simple bias that inspires the mind to latch on to key numbers or concepts it’s exposed to, and then use them as jumping-off points for future valuations, calculations, and assumptions. For example, when exposed to two different numbers unrelated to price or objects — let’s say 10 vs. 100 — people exposed to the higher number will tend to estimate the value of objects higher. Marketers can exploit this in new, innovative ways by exposing customers to unreal concepts (such as overpriced services) so the real product or service seems more reasonable by comparison.
3. The bandwagon effect. The bandwagon effect is something we see every day — it’s the tendency for people to fall in line with an idea, an action, or a belief just because there are so many other people already buying into it. It’s an effect that encourages popularity by virtue of already-existing popularity. Marketers in the future can take advantage of this by showing off more powerful demonstrations of social proof, such as illustrating your company’s growth trajectory or compiling user testimonials.
4. Framing and priming. Similar to the anchoring effect, users are subtly influenced by words or phrases they’ve seen before. For example, being exposed to words like “hero” or “classy” will make them see a stranger in a more positive light than if they were exposed to words like “villain” or “rude.” Subtle cues — from words to design choices — will matter even more in the near future, when user experiences and attention spans continue to get shorter.
5. In-group favoritism. In-group favoritism is the tendency for people to prioritize products or ideas that are popular with a group they’ve aligned themselves with. Apple was notorious for breeding an “us vs. them” inclusive mentality among its customers with its marketing campaigns, and thanks to social bubbles and echo chambers, this effect is only growing more powerful. Marketers and publishers have immense sway in creating or catering to these identity markers.
6. Confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency for us to seek out or increase our perceived value of information that already falls in line with our beliefs. It’s another reason why our social media echo chambers have gotten so strong — but of course, the savvy marketer can already see opportunities here. Give your customers information they already suspect to be true, and you’ll win their loyalty.
7. Salience. Salience is our tendency to focus on the most unique or compelling characteristics of something we’re sensing; for example, when seeing a man’s face with an exceptionally large nose, a person will be able to describe that nose, but not much else. Designers and marketers will need to work together to create these tiny sensory signatures throughout their marketing efforts, whether that’s a specific animation style within your app, or a tonal quality to your ad copy. All other features become secondary — it’s a way to play to your strengths.
8. Zero-risk bias. Zero-risk bias is our tendency to strongly favor offers that seem to have no risks or consequences associated with them — in fact, it could be seen as an extension of our loss aversion bias. In any case, this bias is responsible for why money-back guarantees and risk-free trial offers are so appealing to consumers. The more you can reassure your customers of limited risks, the better you’ll be able to persuade them — especially in the future, when technologies become more diverse and more scrutinized by technophobes.
It’s hard to tell exactly how these cognitive biases can or will be exploited, but they already exist and in some ways, they’re already being taken advantage of. Don’t think of this as a way to “trick” or manipulate your audience; instead, think of it as a deeper foray into the psychology behind consumer purchasing decisions. As you wait with me to see how these biases work their way into the trends of the future, start using them now to generate better results for your brand.