Behavior Problems... and Solutions

Bob Hogan is director, consumer services, at Triple Threat Communications
Bob Hogan is director, consumer services, at Triple Threat Communications

After many years in marketing communications, I recently made an important discovery: I don't really care anymore what my target audiences think. Nor do I really care what they say. I care only about one thing: what they do.

We are in the business of driving customer behaviors. Conventional wisdom says that in order to do that, we have to influence thought. But behavioral scientists know that 95% of the time people's behaviors emerge from the instinctive, emotional part of their brains. Only 5% of the time do they come from the cognitive, thinking part.

For example, there is no thought involved when you are checking out at the supermarket register and you reach for the candy bar or gossip magazine on the way out. Your instinctive brain has been activated; you are on autopilot. Your brain has shortcut all cognitive analysis and reasoning, and your hand is reaching reflexively for the source of the stimulus.

So why do we in marketing communications spend the vast majority of our efforts trying to influence that remaining five percent—the cognitive, reasoning part of behavior origin?

This is especially puzzling in light of a growing alternative approach. It's called “behavior design” and it is beginning to make its way into pharma. Behavior design is just what you would think it is: designing customer communications programs to drive specific behaviors (e.g. fill scripts as written). It has already been embraced by such new-order mainstreamers as Amazon, Facebook, Instagram and others.

You know that message you probably first saw on Amazon that said something like, “People who bought book X also bought book Y”? That is behavior design at work. It relies on a phenomenom known as “social norming” to get you to look at and buy other books. And it works… not because you have to sit there and think about what it all means, but because most of us instantly, reflexively act to check out the other book. It's one of the instinctual human behaviors we engage in because we are hard-wired to do so.

For a recent assignment I worked on in the acute-care category, the prevailing sense was that patients surviving a life-threatening event needed immediate and thorough “patient ed” materials about what happened to them. But applying a behavioral science lens to this revealed what should have been obvious: patients coming out of emergency treatment were in survival mode. They were in no state of mind to receive and process educational information. Neither were their caregivers. So we focused on just giving them the tools and facts they needed to get their medications. The education could come later.

Bringing behavior design fully into mainstream pharma communications will take some time. This is primarily because our research infrastructure is built to support traditional, “motivational” messaging. True behavioral research will present some challenges in our highly regulated environment. And then there is our built-in inertia. It's easier to default to the un-reality of standard research: focus groups, individual depth interviews, dyads, triads, ad nauseads. We are willing to rely on the self-reported attitudes, preferences, likes and dislikes, of these staged derbies, even though we suspect they are not true indicators of what people will actually do in their personal or professional lives.

But as we speak, there are companies already on the case. They are developing ways to measure and project real behaviors with methods that go far beyond stated intent. They are taking pages out of social scientists' research handbook to conduct studies that look and feel more like true experiments than random opinion-fests. Stay tuned.

Bob Hogan is director, consumer services, at Triple Threat Communications