It’s always a fascinating experience to get an insight into what really motivates people to do things. In a marketing context, that insight is potentially worth millions of course – if we know what makes people tick, then we can sell to them better. The truth is often delightful and surprising however, and sometimes it’s very useful to be reminded that we’re interacting with human beings, not ‘consumers’.

I was reminded of this as I watched a very interesting programme the other day. It featured a number of experimental observations about people’s behaviour in various circumstances. Government departments wanted to see if a different approach – a ‘nudge’ rather than a hard sell – would change the results significantly, as people have become increasingly immune to what standard marketing does to encourage us to buy something, choose a side or change our actions.

The Nudge Theory

The programme presented 3 examples, all filmed in Stockholm. The first showed a wide concrete staircase next to a single size escalator, both leading up to a street level exit from an underground station. Even though people know they should use the stairs for health reasons, the vast majority filmed took the easy escalator route. So experimenters covered the concrete stairs in white and on one half placed black strips to make it look like a piano keyboard all the way to the top. They fitted wires underneath and when anyone walked on the steps a note would sound. It made a huge difference – it was fun and engaging. More importantly, even after it was removed, more people were observed using the stairs.

The second clip was a bottle bank on a pavement which they modified to look like an arcade game: lights flashed and noises sounded when a bottle was inserted. There was a huge uptake in the number of bottles deposited rather than just thrown in the rubbish bin. Who knew it, people like having fun!

The final experiment involved speeding drivers, as penalty fines seemed not to have the desired traffic calming effect. They placed cameras in a built up area and recorded the car registrations of all drivers that went by under the speed limit. Those recorded under the limit automatically had their registration number entered into a lottery draw. This again resulted in hugely positive feedback as they observed better awareness, even when the camera was removed.

Small changes create big results

The nudge theory has been put into practice by a UK-based behavioural insights team working with government departments. They were tasked with getting more people to sign up as an organ donor on the DVLA site and knew they needed to challenge the conventional approach as it wasn’t working. The DVLA site already suggests visitors may wish to join, but they wanted a different tone to encourage more people to take part so they split test a number of options:

  • The first simply said: millions of people join and register.
  • The second said: 3 people die every day needing an organ.
  • The final one said: if you needed an organ transplant would you have one? If so please help others.

The impact of the final option was an increase of 1% in new registrations. Now that sounds tiny, until you look at the figures: a 1% increase meant an extra 100,000 people joined that year. Small change, but highly effective.

There are many more examples emerging of this more human, subtle methodology working. From school children encouraged to walk to school by turning it into a game (with points and prizes gained for reaching certain way points) to dieters proving far less likely to pick up an unhealthy muffin when it’s placed in front of a mirror (so they can see themselves pick it up!), these clever approaches take the time to tap into what makes us tick – rather than just categorising people by marketing type or trend.

To reference the old idiom, perhaps people don’t need the carrot or the stick – maybe they just need a gentle nudge?