Behavioral Science, Ethical Marketing, and the Pull of the Magic Middle


Nancy Harhut is Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of HBT Marketing. In this interview, she talks about the how her company utilizes behavioral science and marketing best practices to change how people make purchasing decisions. 

Social scientists and behavioral economists have found that people often make decisions by defaulting to “hardwired” behaviors, rather than by thinking things through. Although there are hundreds of behavioral science/decision science principles, HBT Marketing focuses on the “Human Behavior Triggers” that will effectively increase the likelihood that people will do what marketing clients want them to do. But, it is not just about organizational profitability. Nancy emphasizes that it is equally important that these “human behavior triggers” get people to make the decisions that are good for them.

Nancy discusses a powerful pricing strategy, which she calls the “gravitational pull of the magic middle.” If marketers have a low-priced price widget, they need to have a high-priced all-the-bells-and-whistles widget at a price they would rarely expect to get, and then place their ideal target price widget in the middle. Many people will look at the “economy-priced” widget as being of marginal utility . . . and if the high-priced widget is out of their range, they will target the middle-priced widget. Another principle: Social scientists have found that we place greater value on things that we already own. In elucidating this principle, Nancy provides an example of how strategic phrasing can be used to increase sales.

Nancy spoke at HubSpot’s Inbound 2019 conference on “5 Decision Science Secrets That Make It Easy to Get the Online Behavior You Want,” outlining 5 Human Behavior Triggers that she felt would be most useful for marketers:

  1. Availability bias: People will judge the likelihood of an event happening based on how readily they can recall a relevant example.
  2. Social proof: When people don’t know what to do, they look to others, particularly others like them, and follow their lead.
  3. The scarcity principle: If something is readily available, people may or may not be interested. If “supplies are limited,” people are more likely to buy, because they don’t want to miss the opportunity.
  4. Commitment and consistency: Once someone makes a decision, they tend to remain consistent with it when future opportunities arise.
  5. Choice architecture: The way choices are presented influences the decisions people make about those choices.

Nancy provides detailed illustrations of each of these principles. She recommends making it easy for people to do what you want them to do, but to never force them into a box. Allow them to “opt out.”

Nancy can be found on Twitter, @nharhut, on Facebook and LinkedIn at: Nancy Harhut, and on her company’s website at:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk. I am joined live and in person by Nancy Harhut. She is the Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of HBT Marketing based in Boston, Massachusetts. Welcome to the podcast, Nancy.

NANCY: Thank you very much, Rob. Glad to be here.

ROB: Very glad to have you here. Why don’t you start off by giving us an introduction to HBT Marketing? What is the firm, what are you great at?

NANCY: Thank you, good question. HBT actually stands for Human Behavior Triggers. That’s basically what we’re all about. What we do is we take what social scientists and behavioral economists have found about how people make decisions. We blend that with marketing best practices, and what that does is increases the likelihood that people will do what our clients want them to do.

What social scientists and behavioral economists have found is a lot of times we just have decision defaults that we rely on, so rather than consciously being in the moment and really thinking through something and weighing the pros and cons and deciding what to do, very often we just default to these hardwired behaviors.

As marketers, if we can get out ahead of that, if we know that that is what someone’s going to do, we can build it into the strategies and the creative executions to take advantage of it. That’s what our agency specializes in.

ROB: Got it. So you’re getting involved probably, in the best case, fairly early in a conversation, fairly early in a plan. You don’t sprinkle a little bit of HBT on top at the end of an engagement and hope it goes well, right? That’s not going to be adequate.

NANCY: That’s a great way of looking at it, yeah. It would be wonderful if we could just swoop in and sprinkle a little and everything would be great, but it’s much better if we engage upfront at the strategic level and then carry that out through the executional level.

ROB: Can you maybe dig a little deeper and give us an example of a client engagement where this HBT approach came into play and how it works, so we can all tie it to something concrete?

NANCY: Be a little more specific, absolutely. It’s an interesting thing to talk about. You’re like, what exactly does that mean? How does it manifest itself, right? Sure.

ROB: At first blush it sounds a little bit like you came out of a research department in a university with something amazing.

NANCY: It’s funny. A lot of the research we draw upon does come from academics and universities, and it’s applicable across the board. We’re using it for marketing, but if you start to follow this, you’ll see that there’s a lot of behavioral science and decision science that’s being applied in healthcare, in politics, in education. It’s really interesting. It’s all about how you get people to do what they should be doing or what would be better for them to do – or in the marketing case, what marketers want them to do.

At HBT, we work in a variety of media. We are online and offline, but I’ll give you one example. This was for an insurance client. This particular insurance client was selling life insurance to dentists. I know I’ve just lost your listeners right there. Life insurance, dentist, big snooze. But no, no, stay with us, because it’s very interesting. I promise it is actually interesting.

ROB: [laughs] Yeah, we have to find out why dentists have different life insurance needs now.

NANCY: [laughs] Actually, they do have slightly different ones, only because they’re bigger earners than the average occupation, and as a result they have more to insure. But this particular case was the American Dental Association offered a specific kind of life insurance to their association members as a benefit of being in the association.

What happened was dentists blocked the insurance. Okay, that’s great. Dentists, like most of us, if you make a life insurance buying decision, you’ve checked that box and you really don’t want to go back and revisit it because it’s boring if you’re a dentist – or even if you’re not. It’s just like, “Okay, I bought it, boom. I’m done.”

The truth of the matter is, we should all reevaluate on an every-few-year basis how much coverage we have because things change. We have children or we get raises or we have a mortgage or there are just more things to insure. So they were trying to get these dentists to buy more insurance. That’s the setup.

Here’s what we did, where the behavioral science comes in. We sent this chart, and on one end of the chart was zero dollars, which is the least possible insurance you could have. At the other end was $3 million, which was the most this company sold. Then we showed you, “Rob, you are here,” and we put a little mark on the chart. In every case, that mark was left of center, because the amount of insurance people were buying was generally less than $1.5 million.

There’s a behavioral science principle called the pull of the magnetic middle, which basically means as people, we don’t like to be out on the bleeding edge very often. We don’t like to be lagging behind. We gravitate towards the middle. We prefer to be in the middle.

By doing that, we weren’t hoping that people would automatically go and buy extra insurance to get to the $3 million mark, but we were hoping that they would go from where they were, left of center, to closer to the center – and that’s exactly what happened. They got a triple digit lift in response, and in this case, response was purchases of coverage.

ROB: That’s a real response.

NANCY: It was a real response, yeah.

ROB: It reminds me a lot of when we go to a home improvement store, a Home Depot sort of thing, and they’ve got the “Good, Better, and Best.” That magnetic middle. Some people are going to probably have an appeal to the best. They’re going to be like, “I want the best tool.” Some people are going to go cheap and buy the “Good.” But a lot of us are going to feel guilty about buying the “Good” one and we’re going to feel pulled to the middle.

NANCY: You’re absolutely right. It’s used in marketing a lot. Charity solicitations, they’ll often put the middle donation amount as the one that they’re hoping you’ll do. Some companies have even introduced a third, really high-end product. So you have your good and your better, and they’ll introduce the very best – not thinking they’re going to sell a lot of the very best, but knowing that it’ll get more sales of that middle option. It’s really very interesting. You’re absolutely right. We look and we just gravitate.

ROB: There’s all sorts of interesting psychology and science. You talk about the halo effect of that top end. Even the car companies do it. If you’re a whale and you want the biggest, best version of the Mercedes, you can get an AMG instead of the baseline. But most people just want you to know that’s there and be associated with it, and you’ll still feel good about your base or slightly upgraded model. Probably the psychology in car design as well.

NANCY: Yes, the whole idea that what you’re driving says something about you and projects your image. For some people it’s like, “I don’t necessarily have to have the top of the mark, but I’m just in the franchise and that says something.”

ROB: All around that, I think there are some ethical questions that you end up walking through. When you have this power, when you know how to do this, how and when do you use it and what are the limits of what you’re willing to do? Because we all draw limits. How do you think about where to set the boundary of what’s ethical or being used for good or being used for not good and making people feel bad?

NANCY: Really good question, and certainly one that I’ve been asked before. The answer comes down to being a responsible marketer, because you can use these decision defaults for good or for bad. You can exploit them or you can not.

As a responsible marketer, you can fool people for a while, but it’s ultimately going to come back to bite you. It’s going to start to erode your brand. It’s going to cost you customers. You may get that short-term win – you win the battle, but lose the war, or whatever the expression is.

So, I always say to my clients, you want to help people make the right decisions. You want to use these triggers or these nudges to get people to make the decisions that are good for them. But if you start to use them just for your own good because you want to drive up your profitability, it’s eventually going to hurt you, and we would recommend against it.

I’m not a big sports person. I’m going to come right out here and say this. I’m not. However, I liken it to being a pitcher in a baseball game. If you know that the batter who just came up is very likely to bunt, you’re going to adjust the way you pitch based on that information. If we know that people are more likely to choose the middle option, well okay, then have the middle option be the one that we serve up.

It can be that simple. But again, use the information responsibly.

ROB: Fair. Nancy, you are a co-founder of HBT, so how did HBT come together? How and why was the company originally formed?

NANCY: It’s funny; my co-founder, John Sisson, who’s here at the conference someplace, he and I worked together at a small agency called Wilde Agency. That was where we met and we worked together.

At Wilde, we actually spent a lot of time and effort adding behavioral science into our marketing for our clients. Clients were loving it. What they told us was they were getting something from us that they weren’t really finding with other agencies. We could see that there was a market. We began to test. We saw the results in market.

And then the parent company of the agency actually decided to pull out of the agency business and focus their efforts elsewhere, on their core, which was more production-oriented. We looked at each other, and it took us a while, but we said to ourselves, “There’s a need in the marketplace that’s not being filled. Why don’t we get together and see if we can start filling that need again?”

So we formed HBT Marketing, and we’ve never looked back. It’s been good.

ROB: The beginning, jumping off that cliff, how did that feel? Were you comfortable? Were there reasons you were comfortable with it? And when did you feel like it was definitely going to work?

NANCY: There’s a lot of questions in there. I am a risk-averse person, so for years, people would say to me, “When are you going to open your own agency?” I’m like, “Oh, no, that’s not me.” I worked at Digitas before Digitas was even Digitas. I’ve been at Mullen, I’ve been at Hill, I’ve been at some wonderful agencies, and I’ve been very happy there.

So people would say, “When are you going to do it?” and I’m like, “I don’t think that’s me. I’m really good at what I do, but I’m not really good at all the other things that I imagine one would have to do to run their own business. Let me just concentrate on what I’m good at.”

And then circumstances were such that my business partner and I got together. He was really the driving force and said, “Come on, let’s do this.” I thought, you know what? So many people have said, “When are you going to give it a try?” Maybe it’s time to give it a try.

Your analogy is good. It did feel like jumping off a cliff. But I thought, you know what? If not now, when? Having the comfort of a business partner was also something that calmed me down a little bit, because he’s very good at some of the things that I’m not as good at, so we complement each other in that respect. That made me feel a little bit safer.

As I said, we haven’t looked back. It’s been really good. We’re attracting clients, we’re doing some good work, we’re getting some good case studies. So far, so good.

ROB: That’s fantastic. You are out sharing some of what you know as well. We’re here at the Inbound Conference. Some people hear that and they think it’s a bunch of HubSpot stuff. This is not a HubSpot conversation, as we can tell. This is about some different aspects of marketing.

You’re here sharing some of that with the audience here. It’s so popular you’re doing an encore of it. They asked you to give it twice, because it’s compelling – the title makes you curious. The title of your talk is, “5 Decision Science Secrets That Make It Easy to Get the Online Behavior You Want.” I think this is a natural outworking of what HBT does as an agency, but when we get to the 5 secrets, what are the secrets that we’re looking for to get this behavior that we want?

NANCY: I could tell you, but… [laughs] No, I will tell you.

ROB: Then they wouldn’t be secrets.

NANCY: Then they wouldn’t be secrets, but no, I’m happy to share them with you. They’re all based on the idea of decision science or behavioral science, these automatic, instinctive, reflexive responses that we have. Social scientists and behavioral economists have found that humans have developed these automatic behaviors over the millennia as a way to conserve mental energy because we just couldn’t possibly, as people, weigh every bit of information before making a decision or we’d never get around to making any.

So we’ve developed these hardwired behaviors. We kind of cruise through life on autopilot. We encounter a certain situation, or what a researcher would call a stimulus, and we just default to these hardwired behaviors. There are many, many, many of them.

For today, at the conference, I was talking about five of them. Yesterday and then again today at the encore, I’ll be speaking about availability bias, social proof, the scarcity principle, commitment and consistency, and choice architecture. Those are the five I’m going to be discussing. There are many others, but these five are particularly applicable, I think, to digital marketers.

ROB: Right. What are some of the ways that those are most applicable in the digital marketing context? Taking it frame by frame on those, maybe one at a time.

NANCY: Yeah, absolutely. If you’re willing to go for the ride, I’m happy to go for it.

Availability bias is the idea that people will judge the likelihood of an event happening based on how readily they can recall a relevant example. If you’re someone who doesn’t fly and you’re asked, “How safe is it to fly, Rob?”, you would think about news stories, social media stories that you’ve heard involving planes. You would think to yourself, most of them involve errors and crashes and casualties. “I don’t think it’s all that safe to fly,” based on that.

For marketers, people will judge the likelihood of an event happening – that event is people’s need for your product or service – based on how readily they can recall an example. So before you ask them to buy, first get them to think of a time in the past when having your product or service would’ve really come in handy, would’ve solved an issue for them. Or even imagine a time in the future when having it would really fit into their lifestyle or their work style. So that’s one good decision science secret to use.

One of the examples I give is some work we were doing for the Boston Globe. They wanted their subscribers to buy gift subscriptions of for people they knew. But instead of saying, “Hey, buy a gift subscription for someone you know!” or “Don’t you know someone who might like a gift subscription?”, they used some availability bias.

They said, “ is an incredible gift for . . .” They listed 10 different descriptors. We said your avid reader, your political junkie, your sports fan. What do you suppose happens when somebody reads that? They start to slot in the name of the person they know that matches that description, and then they come to the conclusion that they know 10 people that might like a gift subscription. So it’s a really good use of availability bias.

ROB: Right. When we start talking about sports teams, you’re tying into people’s emotions around those things and associating it with that Globe brand. And then the people, too. The people you’ve gone to these games with. It all ties together emotionally.

NANCY: And emotion is such a huge thing. Most of our decisions are made emotionally and then justified with rational reasons to ourselves and others.

ROB: We don’t want to admit that.

NANCY: We don’t like to admit it, exactly. We make the decisions for emotional reasons and then we justify them. We tell ourselves as well as other people, “I bought the BMW because of the engineering,” but really it’s because of what it’s going to say about me as I drive past my friends on the street. That emotion is there. So as marketers, we need to balance both of those.

ROB: So that’s availability bias.

NANCY: That’s availability bias. Social proof is this idea that when we’re not sure what to do, we look to others, particularly others like ourselves, and we follow their lead. If we’re not really sure what decision to make, we look to see what other people are doing. When marketers say “this is the most popular or the bestselling or the fastest growing,” those are all great examples of social proof.

Another great way to trigger social proof is to use a testimonial. In marketing, we know testimonials work. But there are a couple of ways to take a good testimonial and turn it into a great one. First is that you want to make sure the testimonial-giver is as close to the testimonial-receiver as possible. If you’re trying to convince entrepreneurs, have a testimonial from an entrepreneur. If you’re trying to convince families of young children, have a testimonial from a family with young children.

Second way is you start at that place of skepticism, because people aren’t sure – can I really trust the marketer? Is it as good as the marketer says it is? Is it any better than the other solutions I’m considering? While it’s great to have a testimonial that says “Acme is a wonderful company,” it’s even greater to have a testimonial that says, “I thought all software providers were the same, and then I tried Acme – head and shoulders above the rest.” When somebody reads that, they’re like, “That’s what I was wondering. I thought they were all the same. I guess they’re not.”

Great way to trigger social proof, with a really powerful testimonial.

ROB: It’s interesting how that has even evolved over time. I think that we’ve had some modes of social proof that are very blatant and ham-handed, and maybe we’re over those “9 out of 10 dentists recommend Winston cigarettes” or something like that. There’s new ways that we don’t even realize. I think it’s becoming more subtle.

If I understand you correctly, one example of this could even be we’ve had guests on who say they’ll publish something to Facebook for their client, and then they’ll wait until it has likes on it before they promote it as an ad, because they don’t want to put an ad in front of people that doesn’t have likes on it. But if it has some likes piled on – or they’ll even promote it in some other geography where they can get a lot of likes cheap and then divert the funding over to a U.S. audience. Is that a social proof?

NANCY: Absolutely. It’s a very smart application of it. You don’t want to put it out there if it looks like nobody’s liking it. It sends a message. If you put it out there and there are a lot of likes, it sends a very different message, the message that they want to send – that this is popular, that a lot of people are choosing it, that a lot of people are engaging or downloading.

ROB: That makes sense on social proof.

NANCY: That’s social proof. What else? I’ll be talking about the scarcity principle. What social scientists have found there is if something is readily available, we may or may interested. not be But just let somebody know that that something is only available to some people, or it’s only available in limited quantities or for a limited time, and that can change everything. It’s like a switch flips in us and it makes us want it and want it badly.

So any time we can leverage some form of scarcity, either urgency or exclusivity, it’s a very good thing. In fact, World Data ran a study, and they found – I think the numbers are pretty close, if I’m not exactly correct on this – a 24% to 36% lift in opening rates in your emails if you have some form of scarcity in the subject line.

ROB: Interesting. I wonder, because you do see this tactic widely deployed, sometimes better than others – is there any sign that we can get fatigued on this tactic? Because this one sounds like one of those that if everything’s scarce, then nothing’s scarce kind of thing. Is anything shifting in that, or in how people are executing this to make it still be effective?

NANCY: Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. If you’re going to have a “today only” sale every day, people are going to catch on pretty quickly, and then they’re going to start ignoring you. It’s just not going to work. So it comes back to using this responsibly.

The other thing is, as I said, we’re cruising through life on autopilot. Not every decision we make is an automatic decision. There are times when we’ve got our thinking caps on, when we’re in the moment, when we’re carefully considering things, but there are a lot of times when we are just cruising along. Those are the times when these little nudges or prompts or triggers will work.

If you think, “Oh my goodness, if I don’t do this now, I’m going to lose my opportunity,” that’s when people will do it. I don’t know if you were able to catch Dan Pink’s Spotlight Session a little bit earlier today.

ROB: I did not earlier, no.

NANCY: He talked about many fascinating things, but one of the things he mentioned was that when we can see the end in sight, we get energized. He talked about some research where people were given a coupon that they could use, and it expired in either 2 weeks or 2 months. More people redeemed the coupon when it was going to expire in 2 weeks than when it was going to expire in 2 months because there was that sense of urgency.

Again, we’re just hardwired. We’re not really doing a lot of thinking and analysis. We’re just hardwired to respond. It’s like, “If I’m going to lose out, I don’t want to lose out.”

ROB: Right, and it also has to align with a behavior – this is where you were talking about how we’re hardwired and how we want to do these things. You can create some urgency. There’s some behavior you can’t create.

Our fantasy football league, we drafted this local sports bar chain, and they give you a draft kit. In the draft kit, you could see a behavior that they wanted from you last year. They gave you a $5 off coupon for each week of the NFL season. You had to keep track of which week the coupon was and whether you were even going to go to that place that weekend. It’s like, I understand you want me to come here every week, but that’s not really going to happen. That’s a behavior that you can’t pinch me into. There’s urgency there; this coupon is only this week.

NANCY: Right. On the one hand they were using urgency. But I think they were maybe misusing it, is maybe the better term, because they added so much friction to that process that you as the customer, or the potential customer, were like, “I don’t want to keep track of all this. This is way too hard. I’m not even sure I want to go, but even if I did, I’ve got to figure out what coupon is active during which particular week.” There’s just a lot going on there that requires a lot of effort.

One of the other things that social scientists talk about is making it easy for people to do what you want them to do. And the converse, making it hard for them to do what you don’t want them to do.

Here was a case, I think, where they weren’t particularly making it easy for you to do what they wanted you to do, despite the fact that they’ve got the urgency. They got that part right, but…

ROB: Yeah, they’re giving you stuff, there’s urgency, but it’s still a decision I’m not going to make. So that is the urgency principle.

NANCY: That was the urgency principle, yeah, which is one half of scarcity. We’ve talked about the availability bias, we’ve talked about social proof, scarcity principle. The fourth one I think was commitment and consistency.

What social scientists have found is once somebody makes a decision, they like to remain consistent with it when future opportunities arise, and they generally do so without giving the matter at hand a lot of thought – giving it little, if any, thought.

What that means for us as marketers is if you can get someone to say “yes” once, you’re much more likely to get them to say “yes” a second or third or fourth time. Particularly true if your first ask is relatively small and if the answer is somehow public. So if you can get somebody to go on record as saying, “This would be a great product for our company. You’re giving away a free trial; please choose us because it’s ideal for us.”

Maybe you get the free trial, maybe you don’t. But now you’ve gone on record as saying, “It’s perfect for our company,” so when the buying decision comes along, when you do have to decide to purchase something, you may very well go in that direction because you’ve already gone on record as saying, “Yes, they’re really good for me.” You’ve already taken that first small step of saying, “Please consider us for the free trial.”

There are interesting ways to use commitment and consistency to get that cascade of yeses going, and it’s something marketers should plug into. Your first “yes” can be “follow us on Facebook,” and then you can upgrade to progress along to “download this content” and then “subscribe to our weekly email feed.”

ROB: Some of these things – probably we’ve been deploying them in marketing without knowing what to call them. Some of the principles you’re talking about, we may have figured out they work before we knew why. We’re here at this HubSpot Inbound Conference, and lots of people here are using HubSpot for lead forms. This lead form is combining – sometimes there’s an urgency. “First 50 people will get this thing free.” There’s commitment, because you’re saying, “I want this” and you’re typing in your name and your email address. “I guess you need my email address to send met his thing,” so it all makes sense. You’re able to justify it.

And then probably, once you’ve given somebody something free, there’s probably a reciprocity element in there as well. That may have been the thing we understood first out of that whole thing. Give somebody something and you’ll be glad you did.

NANCY: I think you raise a good point. Some of these principles are principles that we’re using, and it just provides the explanation as to why they’re so effective. We might have intuitively thought this is going to work. More often than not, we tested our way as marketers into some of these. But now we understand why they work and we have a better understanding of when to deploy them.

As you start to follow the decision science research and the behavioral science literature, you also start to see new things pop up and you start to think about new ways to use them. Like the magnetic middle was interesting to me because I had never thought about applying it to marketing.

I recently read about something known as the endowment effect. Basically, social scientists have found that we place greater value on things that we already own. If there’s something that we want to acquire, obviously we value it because we want to acquire it. But once we acquire it, we place even more value on it. That got me thinking about how to frame marketing messages in a very different way.

And then I found this example that I wish I had done. I didn’t. I’m not sure who did. I wish I had done it. It was for a mail order wine company called Lot18. They wanted me to buy a bottle of wine by midnight tomorrow. But instead of saying, “Nancy, buy a bottle of wine by midnight tomorrow because we’ve got a sale going on and the sale is over then,” or “Buy a bottle of wine and we’re going to give you $15 off when you do,” they said to me, “Nancy, you have $15 of unused credit in your account that expires at midnight tomorrow.”

By telling me that that money was already in my account, it activated the endowment effect. Now I wasn’t thinking about it as, “If I buy a bottle of wine, you’ll give me $15 bucks.” I was thinking about it as, “I already have $15 bucks that I can use to spend on this bottle of wine.” I was like, what a great example of the endowment effect.

ROB: I can see how that would absolutely get you down that path of buying a bottle of wine.

To your point about some of the language around it, I think it helps to have a vocabulary to talk about these tactics, because once you have the vocabulary, then you can start building up strategies and reasons to use it or not versus just having an emotional discussion of ideas. Or “I did this and it worked.” Well, why? How does that work and how can you amp that up or down? Having the vocabulary of these principles around it helps us discuss it better.

NANCY: Yes, it absolutely does. It starts to give you a framework, because there are certain things – “We did this and it worked, so let’s see if we can transport it over here.” If you don’t really have the understanding as to the mechanics and why it might’ve worked, it’s a little bit harder.

But if you have the words to talk about it and the vocabulary, you can start to create a framework, and then you can start to think about, this is my target market and this is the action we’re trying to get them to take. Here are my hypotheses as to why they may not want to do that, and now here are some of the behavioral science principles that might overcome the reluctance to act. So now I understand how to put this together as a plan, and I’m going in with a smart test plan and a higher likelihood of success.

ROB: Let’s get to number five.

NANCY: Number five, yes. Choice architecture. This I found very interesting. Simply explained, what social scientists have found is the way choices are presented influences the decisions that we make about them. A lot of times I think people figure when we make a choice, it’s based on our personal preferences or maybe some research we’ve done or perhaps our past experiences.

All of those things are true, but it turns out that there are other factors at play that very often we’re not even aware of, and one of those is actually how choices are presented. For example, one of my friends was running the Boston Marathon. She was running on behalf of a charity, so I pledged her $100 bucks. My confirmation screen comes up, and my total is $104.52, something like that.

What they did is they automatically added in the credit card processing fee, and there was an orange “Edit” button, so I could click it and say, “No, I said $100, that’s all I want you to charge me.” But there was also a very large “Donate Now” button. I hit the orange “Donate Now” button. It was like, fine. It was just as easy to pay the $104 and some-odd cents, even though I had only intended to do $100.

But then another friend of mine was riding in the Pan-Mass Challenge, so I pledged him $100 bucks. Confirmation screen comes up and it was a little box that said “Check here if you would also like to cover the $4 credit card processing fee.” I know you and your listeners are going to say, “Boy, she’s not very nice,” but in the first case I paid it, and in the second case I didn’t.

There’s no good reason for that. They were both very good causes. The only reason was as people, we have a tendency not to opt in or opt out. We opt to do nothing at all. We go with the default. In the first case, the default was pay it. I’ve already bundled it in; just hit the “Donate Now” button. In the second case, they wanted me to check that box. It required a little extra effort, a little extra mental energy. The default was to just hit the “Pay Now” for the flat $100 that I was pledging, and I went with the default.

ROB: This is one of those areas where I think perhaps it can be most tempting to go to the dark side a little bit, to the point where we are getting a vocabulary around the misuse of this in terms of dark patterns, in terms of when you take somebody down a path that you’re not really proud of at the end, but it sure does get the person to do what you want them to do.

NANCY: You’re absolutely right about that. You can start to use it for very nefarious purposes, and you don’t want to do that.

One of the things that I always counsel my clients about is make it easy for people to do what you want them to do, but never force them into a box. Always give them the option to say “No, that’s not what I want to do,” to undo or to change or to say “No, I understand you’d like me to do this, but I’m not going to do it.”

Some companies silently add in these things, and you never notice that down in the legal copy was something that was signing you up, or you automatically are served this option, but there’s no way out of it. You’re trying, like “How do I X out? How do I say no?” and it just isn’t there. That’s I think what’s earning us a bad rap.

Absolutely, if you’re a responsible marketer, you do not want to do this. It will maybe give you a short-term bump in profitability, but is going to erode your brand. In the industry, it’s just a bad thing to do.

ROB: It’s a thin and interesting line. If you look at someplace like Amazon’s checkout process, I think it’s normally thought of as a positive, but it’s a thin line where they take everything out of the checkout process that you could possibly click on other than the “Next” button. They take away the header. You can’t click and keep shopping once you get into the checkout process. There are no links at the top, there’s no links at the bottom except for I think maybe a support contact.

They’re going to get you through the checkout, and if you’re not going to check out, you’re going to hit the back button or close the tab. It’s helping people do what they probably usually want to do. They probably get more sales, and it doesn’t seem super sketchy to me. Some people might disagree, I guess.

NANCY: I’d have to look into that more. I suppose if you’re the one who placed the items in the cart and now you’re trying to, as expediently as possible, check out, maybe it’s fine. But on the other hand, we do have a tendency to second-guess ourselves, to change our minds. Good customer service would certainly allow us to make those kinds of changes.

But next time I order something, I’m going to have to really pay attention now that you’ve brought this up. I’m going to have to think it through.

ROB: Those are five really good tactics and strategies to think about. I assume – do you talk about more of these if we are following along with you or HBT online? Where should people find you?

NANCY: Absolutely. If they follow me on Twitter, I’m just @nharhut. I’m also on Facebook, Nancy Harhut. I’m on LinkedIn, Nancy Harhut. You can visit us at We’re all over the idea of marketing best practices plus behavioral science.

As you said, these were five. There are dozens, hundreds really, of behavioral science/decision science principles out there. We’re always trying to pull in the ones that are going to be the most applicable and most beneficial for marketing clients so that they can increase the likelihood that people will do what they want them to do.

I should add that there is no silver bullet. There is nothing that’s going to make someone do what they don’t want to do. But this just helps stack the deck in your favor, helps nudge people in the right direction.

ROB: Sure. If there’s a dollar bill lying on the ground, you want to pick it up. That’s what a lot of this is. As you mentioned, if you know that giving people three choices, the middle choice is going to be effective, why would you not? Why would you do four or two if you thought three would be more effective? Why would you leave that opportunity to serve somebody well lying on the ground?

NANCY: Absolutely. The other choices are there, though. You aren’t just giving them one. If you’ve got three, people can opt for the low end, least expensive, fewer bells and whistles, or the high end. But if you’re really hoping to go for that middle one, that’s the one you put in the center spot.

ROB: This is fascinating stuff, Nancy. Thank you for coming by and sharing with our audience. Hope the next round of the talk goes super well, too.

NANCY: Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure and an honor to be here. Really appreciate you inviting me.

ROB: Take care.

NANCY: You too.

ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email, or visit us on the web at

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