This issue we hop on the tour bus with the author of one of our favorite recent marketing reads, Richard Shotton, the writer of The Choice Factory, a best-selling book on using behavioral science in marketing. We find out what inspired this former media planner to write and set up his own consultancy.

You are an author and founder of a consultancy, tell us about your current gig

Last year I wrote The Choice Factory, a book about applying behavioral science to marketing. I was frustrated that there were lots of books describing psychological experiments but few applying those findings to commercial problems.

The book received some good press – it won a BBH poll of 5,000 marketers to find the best book ever written on advertising – and brands began to contact me asking if I could apply the findings from the book to their challenges or to run some training for them.

Those requests prompted me to quit my job at an agency and set up a company that advises brands on how to use behavioral science to solve their marketing problems.

The company, named Astroten after a famous psychology experiment, has been active for 9 months and in that time, I’ve worked on a wide variety of projects. Everything from redesigning websites and loyalty schemes to tweaking call center scripts or ads. All through a behavioral science lens.

My argument is that if you’re trying to influence people then findings from psychology can make those communications even more powerful.

What led you to focus on behavioural science?

I first realized how useful behavioral science could be for marketers. It was while working as a media planner on the NHS Give Blood account in 2004 that I chanced across the story of Kitty Genovese.

The story is a famous one. Late one night in 1964 Genovese was murdered outside her apartment by Winston Moseley. The attack shocked the city as supposedly it was witnessed by 37 people – none of whom intervened. The press couldn’t understand how a defenseless person could be killed, despite the presence of so many witnesses?

However, two psychologists, Latane and Darley, wondered if the papers had jumped to the wrong interpretation. Perhaps no one intervened because there were so many witnesses?

They spent the next few years running experiments, which proved that the more people you ask for help, the less likely any individual is to come to your aid. They called this diffusion of responsibility the ‘bystander effect’.

Reading about those experiments, I thought, “Bloody hell, this is exactly the problem we’re facing on the blood account. We’re asking everyone to donate and not enough people are doing so.” So, I suggested to the strategist at the creative agency – the wonderful Charlie Snow – that we tweak the ad copy from “Blood stocks in England are low, please donate” to “Blood stocks are low in Birmingham (or wherever you were) – please donate”.

Two weeks later, we got the campaign results back and the response rate had jumped by 10%. That was a revelation to me. I’d spent four years in the industry and no-one had ever mentioned this huge body of psychological evidence, compiled by some of the greatest scientists in the world, that could help us solve client problems.

That was the moment that I became fascinated by the topic. I began to think that it was remiss not to apply psychological findings at work.

You’ve worked with some amazing brands, what’s the number one thing you’ve learned on that journey?

Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned is the value of being a specialist. My focus – applying behavioral science to marketing – is still a reasonably niche area. There are lots of marketing agencies and some behavioral science specialists, but few people who combine the two.

Being distinctive makes negotiating much easier. Compare it to media and ad agencies, most of whom offer a service comparable to their competitors. That lack of distinctiveness leads to their product becoming a commodity and in turn a relentless, downward pressure on their fees.

You founded your company last year – any bumps in the road?

Definitely! I was probably a little too informal at first. I agreed to a lot of work on a handshake rather than spending time drafting up formal contracts.

That certainly saved time but eventually, it caught up with me. In one case, I agreed to a project over the phone and when it came to settling up I was paid half of what I was expecting. I’m sure it was an honest mistake, but an expensive one, nonetheless.

It’s a hard balance. I certainly don’t want to be weighed down with unnecessary bureaucracy as that just adds to overheads, but I’ve learned to get everything in writing, even if it’s just an e-mail.

You’ve done something that a lot of us aspire to do, you’ve written a book, what’s your tip for anyone considering it?

I would strongly recommend writing a book if there’s a topic you’re passionate about. I wouldn’t have been able to start up Astroten without having written The Choice Factory.

My first tip would be to start writing articles. In the two years before the book was published, I wrote nearly 200 articles for trade journals, like Campaign and Marketing Week. That was great practice and eventually, it gave me a body of work to share with a publisher.

During that period, I read a lot of advice on writing. The most useful came from a Dave Trott article. http://davetrott.co.uk/2016/07/storytelling-v-verbosity/ He quotes Steven Pressfield’s three-part approach to stories: hook, build, payoff.

I began using that format. For the hook, I would begin the blog with an interesting anecdote about a psychological insight. For the second section, the build, I would outline the academic evidence that proves the anecdote’s broader relevance. Then the final, and most important part, the pay-off. Here I would focus on the practical implications, now you know this what you should do differently.

Here’s an example where I tried to apply it: https://www.marketingweek.com/2018/01/22/richard-shotton-peak-end-rule/

One of the things I took away from your book is the conflict marketing has between the evidence of behavioural science and jumping on the marketing hamster wheel and doing the same things we’ve always done, because that’s safe. What advice would you give for anyone reading your book and wanting to change this tune?

There are a couple of ideas from behavioral science that are often described as risky. One such idea is the pratfall effect, the idea that we find brands who admit a flaw more appealing.

The bias was discovered in 1966 by Harvard University psychologist Elliot Aronson. His findings have been replicated by other academics, in real-world settings, and in a few high-profile ads (think Guinness “Good things come to those who wait” or the VW “Ugly is only skin deep” campaign).

(You can read more about the evidence here: https://qz.com/work/1206328/why-admitting-weakness-makes-people-like-you-more/)

Despite this welter of evidence, it’s a tactic rarely adopted by advertisers. The rarity is explained by the principal-agent problem, a theory first suggested by Stephen Ross, Professor of Finance at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He suggested that there is a divergence between the interest of the principal in a company, the shareholders, and the agent, the staff.

What is in the interest of the brand, the principal, is not in the interest of the marketing manager, the agent. If the campaign flops you’ll be in trouble. Imagine explaining to your CEO as sales dive that the key message of your campaign was that the brand was expensive. Unless the CEO is a believer in behavioral science then it might be the end of your career.

So, my advice is to ensure that your whole company believes in behavioral science. If you can do that it means a whole range of tactics will be available to you that your competitors, for selfish personal reasons, will shy away from.

That’s a huge opportunity, as not only will you be harnessing evidence-based insights into human nature you’ll also be behaving in a distinctive manner. And if there’s one thing we know about marketing it’s that what is distinctive is memorable.

How do you see the development of behavioural science in marketing?

There’s a growing interest in behavioral science among marketers but I think that will only increase. After all, there are three compelling reasons why brands should take note.

First, it’s the study of decision-making. Pretty relevant to marketing. After all, changing consumer decisions is at the heart of what you do, whether that’s persuading shoppers to switch to your brand, buy it more often, or pay a premium for it. All of it involves changing decisions.

Second, behavioral science is more than relevant, it’s also robust. It’s based on the experiments of leading scientists, such as the Nobel Laureates, Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler and Herbert Simon. Better to base marketing decisions on their experiments than the opinion of the most eloquent person in the board room.

Third, behavioral science has identified such a breadth of biases that whatever your client’s communication challenge, there’s a relevant bias to solve it.

What’s next for you?

I’m just putting the finishing touches on a digital training course. It will introduce participants to a simple framework for applying behavioral science to marketing. I’ve collaborated with the guys at 42courses.com to create it as they have got a brilliant track record of creating simple and fun remote training.

That should be ready within the next week or so!  

Thanks Richard!


Richard is the author of The Choice Factory, a best-selling book on how to apply findings from behavioral science to advertising. The Choice Factory topped a global poll organized by ad agency by BBH to find the best book ever written on advertising.

Richard started his career as a media planner 19 years ago, working on accounts such as Coke, Lexus andcomparethemarket.com, before founding Astroten, a consultancy specializing in applying behavioral science to business problems.

He tweets about the latest social psychology findings from the handle @rshotton.

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