How Commitment and Consistency Influences Behaviour

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The Power of Commitment & Consistency!

Why is commitment and consistency one of the most powerful and persuasive techniques? Why would people ignore long held opinions and follow a course of action against their own best interests? What drives blind commitment and consistency? To understand the answers to these questions we outline the evidence and examples of how to use commitment and consistency to improve your persuasiveness.

We have all heard stories of how people are often unwilling to intervene when they see a crime committed in broad daylight. Why would people put themselves at risk to assist a complete stranger? Well, in 1972 the psychologist Thomas Moriarty conducted a study to see if he could use a simple psychological weapon to persuade people to put themselves at risk of personal harm for a person they had never met before. The research involved the staging of a number of thefts on a New York City beach.

The Experiment

For the experiment a researcher would place a beach blanket within 5 feet of a randomly selected individual. After about two minutes on the blanket relaxing and listening to a portable radio the person would stand up and leave the blanket to walk down the beach. Within a few minutes a second researcher would walk by and grab the portable radio before trying to make a get-away.

In the control (i.e. no intervention was made) only four people out of twenty tried to prevent the theft. However, the number of people who were prepared to challenge the thief increased dramatically when the researcher asked the individual next to them to please “watch my things” before walking away. In this scenario nineteen out of twenty people challenged the thief.

The experiment confirms that people have a strong desire to appear consistent with commitments they have previously made. Indeed, in his book Influence, the psychologist Robert Cialdini argues that commitment and consistency is one of the most powerful weapons of social influence available to people wanting to change our behaviour.

Why is consistency so important to people?

Consistency is a highly desirable personality trait in our culture. When people don’t appear consistent they are often seen as indecisive and two-faced. The negative perception of inconsistency reinforces the belief that consistency is a valuable characteristic to portray.

However, Cialdini also noted that people sometimes act without thinking. They abandon strongly held beliefs in order to stubbornly follow a consistent path. He argues that a commitment can change our self-image and force us to act contrary to our own best interests.

“When it occurs unthinkingly, consistency can be disastrous. Nonetheless, even blind consistency has its attractions” – Robert Cialdini, Influence.

In this sense commitment and consistency can sometimes lead to undesirable behaviour. People strive to be consistent almost without regard for the consequence.

Why does consistency become a habit?

Due to our motivation to be consistent we will often automatically make decisions based upon achieving this consistency. This of course saves mental energy as it avoids complex decisions. But it can also shield us from the negative and unpleasant consequences of our actions.

“Sealed within the fortress walls of rigid consistency, we can be impervious to the sieges of reason.” – Robert Cialdini, Influence.

Commitment and consistency can result in some disastrous decisions when it leads to automatic behaviour. This occurs because people are so keen to be consistent. It is perceived to be a positive characteristic.

Why is commitment so important?

Psychologists believe that stubborn consistency is often the result of people making a public stand or commitment. Once such a commitment has been made people have a tendency to try to ensure consistency at all cost. Even though it may go against their inner beliefs.

Just look at how UK MPs have supported Brexit since the EU referendum. According to a poll by the Press Association over two thirds of MPs voted to remain in the EU in the referendum. But as the Prime Minister and many MPs made a public declaration to abide by the result. The vast majority of MPs voted to support the Bill to trigger Article 50 to take Britain out of the EU. This is despite the fact that only 52% of voters supported Brexit. Many MPs still believe Brexit will seriously harm the economy and the UK’s standing in the world. That is quite extraordinary behaviour and is a clear consequence of the power of commitment and consistency.

What kind of commitment?

The psychologist Steven J Sherman arranged for a sample of residents in Bloomington, Indiana, to be telephoned for a survey. Participants were asked to predict what they would say if they were asked to give up 3 hours of their time to collect money for the American Cancer Society.

Not wishing to appear selfish many said they would volunteer. This resulted in a 700% increase in the proportion of people volunteering when they were contacted a few days later by an operator from the American Cancer Society.

Another strategy used by charity call centres involves asking people about their current well-being. The operator asks something like “How are you feeling this evening?”. Once a person confirms publicly they are in good health it is much harder for the individual to refuse to help people where all is not well. The theory here is that people who have just indicated that they are doing well find it awkward to appear uncaring by not donating money to the needy in this context.

Start small to aim big!

There is also the foot-in-the-door technique which means that by starting with a small request we can often get compliance later on for a much larger request. This can work in two ways.

Firstly it establishes a commitment to a cause which means we are more willing comply with much larger additional requests. Secondly it can change our self-image from a prospect to a customer or a citizen to a supporter of a cause. This latter effect can result in people agreeing to requests that are only remotely connected to the original small favour they complied with.

Deeds are more influential than words!

To understand a person’s attitudes and beliefs we tend to observe their behaviour. Psychologists have discovered that we also look at our own behaviour to guide our feelings and attitudes. Our deeds are much more influential than words when it comes to our inner beliefs. And writing our thoughts on paper is one way of showing our commitment to a cause.

Writing our ideas on paper is more effective than a verbal commitment. Research indicates that the greater the effort we put into a commitment, the more effective it is at influencing our attitudes and behaviour.

Furthermore, a written commitment also acts as physical evidence of our support for a cause. It reduces the likelihood that we might forget or deny the act. It may also persuade other people as we have a natural tendency to believe that written statements accurately reflect the beliefs of the person who made them.

Strategies for conversion:

This is one reason why salespeople will often ask prospects to complete sales agreements. It is one way of getting them to make a small commitment to the purchase. Many organisations also get staff to set their own sales targets and commit to them by writing them down on paper.

Image of testimonials from winkbingo.com and Google Analytics

Testimonial competitions are another approach to benefit from the commitment phenomena. When having a chance of winning people know they have to be complementary about the product or service. What they don’t realise is that such glowing statements help change their own attitudes towards the product as they begin to believe what they have written.

“We are truest to our decisions if we have bound ourselves to them publicly” – Robert Cialdini, Influence

People can be extremely stubborn with their commitment. Even in situations where accuracy rather than consistency should be the priority. Indeed, research involving the criminal justice system found that hung juries were significantly more common if jurors had to initially indicate their position with a physical show of hands rather than a secret ballot. The act of publicly sharing their initial opinion appeared to make them more reluctant to change their decision later on.

This can be good when trying to encourage people to give up a harmful habit such as smoking, over-eating or gambling. Many weight reduction programs understand that a person’s private commitment is not strong enough to withstand the many temptations that we come across every day. For this reason such programs ask clients to write down their weight targets and share them publicly with other members and family/friends.

Can a commitment change self-mage?

Studies suggest that commitments have most impact upon a person’s self-image and behaviour when they are in public.

Psychologists found that people are most likely to take ownership of behaviour if they feel they decided to undertake the action without any outside pressure. This means that using a large incentive, such as a cash prize, can be counter-productive. The individual may not accept inner responsibility for the act. Thus for people to take ownership of an act it is best to keep any incentives as small as possible.

Here is a summary of the main approaches to obtaining commitment and consistency:

Commitment and Consistency for conversion rate optimisation:

As Cialdini points out, commitment is key. Get visitors to commit to something small, such as giving their email address for access to a white paper or your website. This increases the likelihood that they will perceive themselves as customers. Once they see themselves as customers this increases the chance they may purchase products or services from you.

Ask a simple question:

Lifehack.org is a leading wellbeing and lifestyle blog that publishes tips on how to improve many aspects of your life. When I was researching one of my posts I landed on the site and came across a great example of how to use a small commitment to improve sign-ups.

After about 10 seconds on the site a pop-up is displayed which asks a seemingly innocuous question about self-improvement. “try something different today. Don’t stay stuck. Do better.” If you click on the “I agree” CTA you are then immediately served an email capture form with the heading “We think so, too!”

Example of how to ask a question to get commitment for improving blog sign-ups

Because you have just agreed that you would like to try something different you feel almost compelled to sign-up to act consistently with how you replied to the first pop-up. This is a really clever way of using the psychology of commitment to improve sign-up rates.

Become a customer for free!

Commitment and consistency is one reason why free trials or offers can be very powerful tools of persuasion.

Whilst working for an insurance company we offered prospects the opportunity to sign-up for a year’s free accidental death cover in return for providing their email address and name and address. Due to the low level of cover and the fact that the probability of an accident causing death are quite small this cost the company relatively little money.

However, we managed to sign up many thousands of new customers from the campaign. We could then target them with other products that they were now more likely to buy as they were no longer prospects, but customers.

Ask for a review!

To achieve a high rating and a positive review of the user experience only target loyal customers. Make sure you then email these users to thank them for their efforts and confirm that their review will be publicly available for all users to see.

Run competitions for slogans, strap lines and testimonials with a promise to display the best ones on your website. Once people have written a positive statement about your brand they are more likely to become a brand advocate and will be a positive influence on other potential customers.

Offer a dream for commitment and consistency!

JohnChow.com offers advice on how to monetise your blog site. On the homepage there is a great heading in the form of a question – “Do You Dare to Dream?” The very prominent single call to action offers you the chance to download John Chow’s free eBook and “achieve your freedom”. This is a form of commitment as the heading is asking visitors a question and the eBook is a possible solution.

Once you click on the CTA you are served a very simple form asking you to enter your name and email address. As visitors have clicked on the CTA which promises “achieve your freedom” they are likely to feel compelled to complete the form to be consistent with their previous commitment.

In addition, as they will now perceive themselves as customers this should increase the likelihood that they will be prepared to buy one of John Chow’s services at some point in the future.

Image of JohnChow.com's email capture form
Source: JohnChow.com

Commitment and Consistency for consistency’s sake!

Digital marketers can also fall into the trap of commitment and consistency. Brand guidelines create a strong commitment that most people feel obliged to adhere to. However, applying consistency without thought can harm the user experience and reduce conversion.

I often come across copy that is low contrast and unreadable or the CTA is not prominent because designers have blindly followed brand guidelines. Brand guidelines should not be used as excuse not to think about the design and how it appears to the user. Because brand guidelines cover the whole site there are often instances where they just don’t make sense because guidelines are just that. They should guide, but not be applied automatically without thought. Otherwise conversion will suffer due to designers being influenced by commitment and consistency.

Example

Below is an example from partycasino.com which uses a grey font on a black background. The contrast is really poor and the use of pink for hyperlinks is especially distracting.

Image of partycasino.com homepage where the colour pink is used for links
Source: partycasino.com

Displaying identical navigation elements in the header across the whole site can result in redundant and distracting navigation tabs on certain pages (e.g. Join Now link shown on a sign-up form). This can also lead to situations where certain navigation elements (e.g. an Options tab) only have one menu item on some pages because of the site structure.

Consistency in design is seen as beneficial because the user becomes accustomed to what to expect from a site. However, this begs the question should we never surprise visitors? The answer to this depends on the context, purpose and quality of the surprise. What is the cost of not surprising visitors compared to the benefits of delivering something unexpected?

Consistency is only one of a number of design principles and sometimes they conflict with one another. If we want to optimise conversion this may sometimes mean making compromises with consistency to give priority to more important elements of the user experience. Avoid being overly influenced by commitment and consistency as this can reduce conversions.

Conclusion:

Commitment and consistency is a powerful force in social influence that can be employed to nudge users towards desired actions. Remember commitment is the main driver of consistency and it is one of the few persuasive weapons that can also change a person’s self-image. Consistency is such a strong motivator that it can even create habits that will sustain long-term behavioural change. Use it with care and also avoid falling into the trap of consistency for consistency’s sake when making design decisions.

The Bandwagon Effect and Why People Follow the Crowd

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What is the Bandwagon Effect?

The bandwagon effect is a psychological tendency where the adoption of ideas, products or behaviour increases with the uptake (or perceived uptake) by others. This means the propensity of people taking up the phenomenon rises as more people decide or appear to follow the trend (i.e. jump on the bandwagon). The bandwagon effect is part of a group of cognitive biases or logical errors. They enable the human brain to make decisions more quickly. However, cognitive biases can result in people making mistakes and suboptimal decisions.

1. Examples of the bandwagon effect include:

Music

  • Songs and groups become more popular as more people follow and listen to them. Sometimes a particular sound or style becomes popular as the “next big thing” and artists who are associated with the trend will benefit.

Elections

Gaming

  • Similar to pop music, published charts of sales of individual games can have a huge impact on the popularity of games. In July 2016, Pokemon Go, a new smartphone app incorporating virtual reality become a global phenomena. As the app was released in one country or region at time it also benefited from the scarcity heuristic.

Screen for capture of Pokemon Horsea

Source: Pokemon Go iOS app

Drinks

  • Where drinks become part of the fashion of socialising, such as vodka. Brands can benefit from the bandwagon effect when popularity is all that counts.

Stock Market Bubbles

  • Stock market and asset bubbles occur when people stop using their own judgement and rely on the wisdom of the crowd. People wrongly assume that other investors must have knowledge they don’t. They seek to avoid regret (which they might feel if they don’t follow the crowd).

Fashion

  • Sales of clothes, shoes and other fashion items are highly responsive to their popularity. People love to buy clothes that are the latest style to demonstrate that they are keeping up with the latest trends.

2. What causes the bandwagon effect?

The bandwagon effect demonstrates the importance of social influence and implicit motivations on human behaviour. This includes the power of social-norms, customs, traditions, and a desire to conform and belong to groups that are integral to our social networks. Some of the factors that contribute to the bandwagon effect include:

Herd Instinct: 

As social creatures our herd instinct is a strong motivator

When people consciously or unconsciously copy the behaviour of the majority of people, this is referred to as our herd instinct. For example, people may purchase a brand due to its popularity within their peer group. Not because they compared the features and consider it to be the best product. Why spend time evaluating all the options when you can copy the choices made by others you trust?

Our herd instinct is an important driver of the bandwagon effect as it is an automatic impulse or tendency to act in a group. Customs, traditions, expectations, social status, roles and a wish to be liked can all result in a desire to conform to group behaviour.

Loss Aversion: 

People that are loss averse, are more concerned about a loss than a gain of the same size. This is partly because of the fear of missing out. Regret is a powerful and deeply unpleasant emotion. When everyone else appears to be doing something we can become anxious that we are missing out on something valuable. Our loss aversion motivates us to join in.

Groupthink: 

The bandwagon effect is a form of groupthink, where the pressure to conform and support the in-group is very strong. Following a trend or fad is also seen as supportive to the group decision. It can be used to dismiss anyone who questions it.

A Need to Belong: 

People are “super social apes” as marketing expert Mark Earls points on his book Herd. We have a strong desire to belong to groups of people we admire or want to be associated with. We also don’t want to be the odd one out or to be excluded from our social networks because we don’t conform to social norms, customs or traditions.

People like to be Right: 

Some psychologists believe that the bandwagon effect may be an evolutionary strategy for reducing the risk of making a poor decision. Being part of a large crowd can certainly provide protection in dangerous environments. Merchants also risk losing reputational capital if they sell sub-standard goods or services to a member of a large group. People understand this and so assume that they are less likely to be ripped-off if they buy from a well-known supplier who is known to other members of their social network.

Using our social network to identify what everyone else appears to be choosing seems a good short-cut to make the right decision. We assume other people may know something we don’t and that ‘everyone else can’t be wrong’.

3. The Downside to the Bandwagon Effect:

The bandwagon effect can be relatively harmless when it influences what music we listen to, the clothes we wear, the colours we use to decorate our house and the gadgets we buy. Often the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ can help us make relatively good decisions. However, it can be dangerous if we completely suspend judgement in areas like investments, health, politics and business.

  • In the UK many people were influenced by misleading and incorrect information about how leaving the EU would allow the country to ‘take back control’ of sovereignty and allow the government to give an extra £350m a week to the NHS. Voters were told they could keep the same benefits of EU membership without having to pay for it. People in the UK now face losing rights guaranteed under freedom of movement, increased barriers to trade with their closest and most important trading partner, and years of difficult negotiations with the EU. None of the benefits they were told would come from leaving the EU have so far materialised.Boris Johnson Brexit bus lie
  • Misleading research from the anti-vaccination movement has resulted in a significant fall in the proportion of parents getting their children immunized against dangerous childhood diseases. In the UK, the decline in the proportion of children being vaccinated with the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine contributed to the World Health Organisation. Thus withdrawing the UK’s measles free status after it had 231 cases in the first quarter of 2019.

Stock Markets and the Pandemic

  • Stock market crashes are very damaging to most people even if they don’t directly hold any shares. A crash can damage confidence in the economy and create uncertainty which may delay or stop investment and recruitment. Most stock market crashes are caused by asset bubbles resulting from investors suspending judgement and following the crowd. In these circumstances the bandwagon effect can be very damaging to the health and security of millions of workers who rely on the value of stocks and shares for their pension or as a savings vehicle.
  • During the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020, a conspiracy theory emerged which blamed the roll-out of the 5G telecommunications technology for the spread of the virus. It was claimed that 5G degrades the immune system and the risks were being covered up by the global telecommunications industry. As the theory spread mobile phone masts were set alight across European countries and telecommunication engineers were abused. This threatened important communication networks during a global health crisis. Scientists pointed out that COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets and you cannot transmit droplets through 5G waves. Furthermore, a number of countries hardest hit by COVID-19 have no 5G masts (e.g. Iran).

4. Does The Bandwagon Effect Support Influencer Marketing?

The bandwagon effect doesn’t appear to involve specific ‘influencers’ as part of the way it works. Indeed, Mark Earls points out that there are a number of styles of decision making. Not all decisions are primarily directed by social influence.

Even when social influence is important it is often undirected, so the role of “influencers” is less clear or manageable. The evidence suggests that ideas and behaviour do not spread through influencers, but rather through our large and complex social networks.

5. The bandwagon effect & conversion optimisation:

Developing a compelling purpose-led value proposition and encouraging people to interact with other people about your brand are important first steps in improving conversions. It is not what you say about your brand that matters, it’s what your customers and staff say that determines what your brand stands for.

Define a clear brand purpose and align your businesses and employee behaviour with what is important to your customers. If you can do this you are more likely to motivate visitors to interact and share your brand with others.

Image of Lean Cuisine ad "#Weigh this" which benefited from the bandwagon effect

Lean Cuisine manufactures low fat food for people who want to be careful about their calorie intake. Rather than focusing on the obvious weight control benefit of their brand they recognised that people do not necessarily buy their product because they want to lose weight.

A strong implicit motivation to purchase Lean Cuisine is that customers want to feel good about themselves for being careful about what they eat. To reflect this core brand purpose they created an ad “#WeighThis” which shows people talking about what they are most proud of in life. The YouTube ad went viral because it communicated this core purpose in such an emotional and inspiring way.

Celebrity Endorsement

Image of cristiano ronaldo playing poker

Image Source: PokerStars.com

Evidence of social proof can help online conversion optimisation. This includes customer testimonials, celebrity testimonials, number of customers, product rating and reviews, social media likes and shares, awards and brand logos of well-known customers or partners. Indeed, a lack of social proof is often a key reason for poor online conversion rates. Visitors are reassured when they perceive that a site is popular and trusted by lots of customers.

Social Proof A/B Test

Example of A/B testing customer numbers for social proof

In the above A/B test example, the only difference between the two variants is the number of monthly players from all players on the left (i.e. total number of players for all rooms throughout the whole month) to the number of unique players (i.e. only counting each player once in a month) on the right. This dramatically reduced the number of active players that could be quoted underneath the call to action button. Variant B displays the lower number of unique monthly players reduced registration conversion on the landing page by 5%.

Conclusion:

The bandwagon effect demonstrates that social influence is one of the most important drivers of behaviour. However, influencer marketing is only one aspect of this. People copy behaviour for a number of reasons and in a number of different ways. Not all decisions are strongly shaped by social influence and so other marketing strategies may be better suited to your market.

It is essential to establish a strong and compelling value proposition. People love to associate themselves with people and brands that epitomise their own values and behaviour. A purpose-led proposition can help this process and can encourage customers to interact with your brand. This can facilitate the sharing of your idea or product through social networks.

Having clear evidence of social proof on your site or app should also be a priority. It provides reassurance to visitors that you are a popular and trusted brand. Use online experiments to validate the implementation of social proof as it is particular sensitive to how and where it is communicated.

Avoid simply copying trends and fads in website design as these are often not based upon evidence or experimentation. This form of the bandwagon effect has resulted in designers using the hamburger icon and using auto-play which have proven to only harm conversions. Before implementing new ideas on your website try to test the impact first with an A/B test.

Related posts:

Innovation

Word of Mouth

Herd instinct

Does Social Influence Drive Most Consumer Behaviour?

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Can most of the things we buy really be the result of the behaviour and opinions of other people, whether openly or through covert imitation? This challenges conventional thinking about how people make decisions and common assumptions that most market research is based upon. However, many of these are false assumptions so isn’t it about time we looked at the data and came up with a model of human decision making that doesn’t neglect social influence?

The Power of the Herd:

In the book I’ll Have What She’s Having by Mark Earls, Alex Bentley and Michael O’Brien the authors assert that social learning (imitating other people) is the engine for the spread of culture, behaviour and new ideas. The basic premise is nothing new. ‘Herd behaviour’ was first popularised a hundred years ago by Wilfred Trotter in his book Instincts of the Herd in peace and war (1914).

Social influence and our herd instinct determines consumer behaviour more than we realise

However, more recently the economists Thaler and Sunstein suggested that social influence is important. Most people learn from others and it is one of the most effective ways to nudge behaviour.

They noted that in Jonestown an entire population committed suicide due the power of social influence. That teenage girls are more likely to become pregnant if they see other teenagers having children. But also obesity, academic effort of students, broadcasting fads and the behaviour of US federal judges have all been found to be heavily influenced by their peers.

Is it a co-incidence that we buy so many of the same brands as our parents and have adopted some of their behaviours’ and phrases? Some of these preferences change as a result of friends, partners, colleagues, and others in our social networks. But by who? Our personal belief system is also the result of interactions with other people. We largely rely on people we respect and trust (see authority) rather than actively seeking experiences to form our beliefs.

Super Social Humans:

Source: FreeImages.comEarls and his co-authors suggest that our tendency to copy results from humans being the most social of all primates. Living in groups we possess superior cognitive abilities that allow us to copy behaviour and ideas. These characteristics have enabled humans to adapt and survive in changing social landscapes. We only have to look at how people now use smart phones to see how quickly humans find new ways to interact and exploit opportunities that didn’t exist just 20 years ago.

That is not to say that people automatically follow each others like lemmings. Humans do of course innovate. Earls and co assert that ideas spread through a small amount of individual learning (innovation), and then social learning by the vast majority of people. Sales and motivation consultant Cavett Robert confirmed the same observation:

“Since 95 percent of the people are imitators and only 5 percent initiators. People are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.” Cavett Robert

Interactions and Conformity:

Further, Earls and his co-authors point out that even if an idea or behaviour is intrinsically appealing, unless the knowledge of, motivation for, or acceptance spread through our interactions with others it will not get very far. Indeed, social norms emerge and change in our cultures as a result of behaviour spreading through conformity.

No one sets out what these norms should be. But people from a particular culture will generally agree on social norms without having to confer with each other. We learn what the norms are through our interactions with other people. Further, as Robert Cialdini and other social scientists have found social proof and norms can be a powerful way to persuade people to behave in a certain way.

  • Too much choice!
Image of brands on a supermarket shelf

The psychologist Barry Schwartz points out that as the number of choices we have continues to rise. People have no alternative but to rely on second-hand information rather than personal experience. His concern was about global telecommunications and how these networks copy and distribute the same stories. Even if a story is false the danger is that the more people hear it, the more they assume it is true.

“When you hear the same story everywhere you look and listen, you assume it must be true.” Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Revised Edition

In our modern societies copying is likely to be the most effective strategy for most decisions. We neither have the time or capacity to process so many choices. Schwartz visited a US consumer electronics store as part of the research for his book The Paradox of Choice. He estimated that the individual components in the store would enable one to create 6,512,000 different stereo systems. Perhaps it’s not surprising the iPod became so popular!

Market Patterns:

Earls and is his co-authors point out that patterns in market data are the best guide as to whether decisions are heavily subject to social influence. If people largely make decisions independently of each other, and use some kind of rational cost-benefit selection process, we would expect to see a normal distribution (short-tail) of brands. This is most likely to occur where there are relatively few similar products to choose from.

Furthermore, brand loyalty would not to be correlated with brand size and advertising would be as effective at attracting new customers as it is with existing buyers. Markets would be more stable as people wouldn’t follow trends. Sudden and massive cascades (e.g. the switch to digital cameras) wouldn’t occur as peoples’ preferences would not change until they had decided for themselves that a new product would better meet their needs. This indicates social influence is active all around us.

More Market Patterns:

In reality many markets are characterized by long-tail distribution that marketers recognize by the 80:20 rule. Andrew Ehrenberg’s work in social and market research identified that short-tail distribution can exist in static and non-segmented markets. This means there is no turnover of products. But in many of today’s highly segmented markets we can see countless products come and go during a year.

Ehrenberg’s work confirmed the double jeopardy law that small brand’s suffer from both fewer buyers and also less loyal customers compared to large brands. He also found that price elasticity declines in magnitude as a brand’s share rises. Why should this be if we are not subject to social influence from others? His work indicated that most promotions only have a short-term impact on sales and almost all buyers during promotions are repeat purchases rather than new customers. He concluded that most advertising simply raises awareness of a brand but rarely seems to persuade. Indeed, one of his key conclusions is that most FMCG markets lack any real brand loyalty. Purchasing patterns are from habit and availability than any emotional attachment to a brand.

Directed Copying:

Image of photocopying machine
Source: FreeImages.com

Earls and his co-authors make an important distinction between two kinds of social influence that humans use to learn from. These are crucial for marketers as they influence the dynamics of the social landscape and how markets change over time.

When we have a choice between many apparently equivalent options we often find copying the behaviour or decisions of a particular person preferable to trying to evaluate all the different options ourselves. Directed copying occurs where people copy in an advantageous direction. This may involve copying successful people, members of our family, people who are similar, or celebrities. When we copy people or groups that we wish to identify with this may lead to social diffusion within the confines of the group.

Undirected Copying:

Image of a large crowd of people
Source: FreeImages.com

Undirected copying occurs where we copy people, probably subconsciously, with little if any knowledge of the person we are imitating. This often happens where there are not just a huge number of similar options to choose from. But there are also too many people or groups of people to copy from. Further, people appear as equally uninformed as you and are probably copying other people themselves.

Undirected copying is particularly useful for all those thousands of little choices that we hardly given any thought to and so it is largely an unconscious process. However, it is a model that can be used at the population level. This is because even if individually we have specific reasons for copying someone else, there are likely to be so many and varied reasons for copying that we can consider it undirected.

Undirected copying is probably the norm in many situations and may help predict rates of change. It acts like the interactions of cascade models and is characterized by continual flux, unpredictability and long tail distributions. The latter reflects the fact that only a small percentage of new ideas ever becoming popular as most fail. This is why we see a turnover of ideas, as the most popular ones are more likely to be used again.

Some Implications of Social Influence:

  • Directed copying can explain variations in the normal ebb and flow that results from undirected copying. This could be from a cultural or media event (e.g. the Olympics or a motion picture release) as well the adoption by a celebrity. Celebrity endorsements don’t have the same impact, as it is not genuine behaviour.
  • When an idea is better than the rest, copying kicks in. It increases its popularity until something else comes along. Copying is from the quality of ideas. The more people in the population, the better the ideas.
  • The nature of copying among populations can be influenced by their interconnections. Large, interconnected networks of people where there are relatively few similar products tend to favour directed copying. In such networks the behaviour of individuals is greatly influenced by those upstream. If we hope that people will select on the basis of quality (i.e. the follow the copy if better rule) then this kind of network is more likely to benefit a superior idea. This is similar to the early adopters marketing model where innovators generate new ideas that are picked up by early adopters and then copied by others.

More Implications of Social Influence:

  • Undirected copying produces unpredictable landscapes where probabilities are the best guide to picking winners. In financial markets for instance a balanced portfolio has more chance of selecting a winner than trying to pick individual stocks.
  • The success or failure of an idea is often unpredictable and largely random. What determines success at any one moment is how popular it is.
  • Conventional marketing and market research thinking significantly underestimates the power of social influence in determining many of the things people buy and the behaviours we adopt. Further, emotional brand loyalty may be a lot less prevalent than many marketers believe it is. Behaviour mainly drives attitudes to brands, but what influences behaviour? I suggest that it may be time to believe the math, not the myth.
Further reading:
I'll Have What She's Having: Mapping Social Behavior (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life)

I’ll Have What She’s Having: Mapping Social Behavior (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life)

The Contribution of Andrew Ehrenberg to Social and Marketing Research by John A Bound.

Featured image from Adrienn on Pexels