Don’t Bludgeon Your Audience, Nudge

March 26th, 2014 by Sam
Courtesy of Clik/Hear

Courtesy of Clik/Hear

Last summer I was fortunate to attend a presentation at Portland’s Urban Airship by Rand Fishkin, CEO of MOZ. In his talk, hosted by SEMPDX, Fishkin spoke about “The Mighty Nudge,” a method of influencing behavior that is being leveraged by everyone from policy-makers to content marketers.

Similar to Gladwell’s Blink and Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Fishkin’s presentation was based on the book Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, which examines how people make decisions and how, as marketers and advertisers, the “nudge is mightier than the sword” when it comes to influencing behavior.

For example, Fishkin’s presentation showed how different messages about tax evasion in Minnesota—when tested—produced different reactions toward solving the same goal, which was to get more of the 7% of Minnesotans who were not paying their taxes to pay.


• When the message was “Tax dodging costs millions,” the main response from non-payers was “I won’t get caught.”
• When it was “Taxes go to really good works,” response was “Cry me a river; most people cheat on their taxes.”
• But when the message was “Actually, 93% of Minnesotans pay their taxes,” more non-payers paid!

Fishkin’s Marketing: Many Ways to Nudge

The Minnesota tax-dodger example introduced the first of twelve points Fishkin says marketers need to use to nudge (rather than bludgeon) their audiences.

1. Show Social Proof
Social proof is based on the human tendency to seek out kinship and commonalities with fellow human beings. Showing social proof sounds something like this: “They’re like you. They like us. You should too.”

The closer social proof gets to the audience you’re trying to reach, the more effective the social proof phenomenon. Telling Minnesotans about the effects of tax dodging had limited success. Giving them social proof that “most other Minnesotans pay their taxes” made the difference. The nudge was small, without explicit threat of punishment or offer of reward, but this was the message that had a positive measurable effect.

2. Play the Name Game
aspirational-namingChances are you’ve probably seen a pricing menu that read something like this: “Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum.” However, aspirational naming conventions—names that reflect who the audience actually is—have been shown to result in higher conversion rates at higher price points than generic naming conventions such as Bronze, Silver, etc. If you are a large company, you are more likely to identify with a plan titled “Enterprise” than one called “Platinum,” and therefore be more inclined to pick that plan as the appropriate option to fit your needs. Again, a subtle difference in naming can have a significant impact in behavior.

3. Limit Choice
Fewer choices lead to more actions. As marketers many of us are already familiar with the Paradox of Choice, yet we continue to paralyze our audiences with too many options: four pricing tiers where three would do, options for sharing to ten different social channels under the assumption that if the user doesn’t see the option that is an exact fit, she won’t act. In fact, the opposite is true: when the options are too many, choosing becomes more difficult and action less likely. Which brings us to number four:

4. Don’t Make Them Think

Courtesy of Kyle Rush

Courtesy of Kyle Rush

People like quick and easy, even if it means more steps. Back in 2012, the Obama campaign did some fascinating experiments with an eye towards optimizing their webpages. After many rounds of high-volume a/b testing, they were able to show that a donation form broken up into sequential steps outperformed a similar form that was presented all-at-once. As Kyle Rush, one of the members of the optimization team put it, “turns out you can get more users to the top of the mountain if you show them a gradual incline instead of a steep slope.”

5. Tap the Power of Reciprocation
Give and ye shall receive. This powerful nudge shows up in marketing, politics, and day-to-day life. It’s the principle driving the pay-what-you-want restaurants and digital “tip jars” across the Internet. If people feel they are getting free value, in many cases they will nevertheless feel an obligation to reciprocate, often generously.

6. Use Ego and Competition to Drive Participation
A little stroke of the ego can go a long way toward nudging users into action. Not surprising, considering the degree to which social activity on the web is about self-fulfillment. Sites like put this principle to work by showing users to what degree his or her social sharing resulted in action on the part of other users. Seeing the results of one’s actions, especially when presented in comparison to the results of others, is a powerful motivator and a great way to spread a message.

Fishkin went on to describe another six methods for marketing through nudges. The bottom line is that marketers are moving away from the bludgeoning tactics of the past and embracing the power of the nudge to move audiences. Tactics of begging for social shares, shouting slogans, and interrupting audiences are being replaced by subtle cues based in research and human psychology. Are you leveraging the power of the nudge?

You can  read more from Rand Fishkin at his blog.

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