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Have you ever wondered why you laugh harder when others are around? Why medicine seems to work better the more expensive it is? Or why you might be more likely to conserve energy if you see your neighbors doing so too? As humans, we don’t always make decisions rationally by evaluating information and weighing up pros and cons. In fact, only 5% of our decisions are rational. Instead, we lean on mental shortcuts (heuristics) to quickly predict outcomes and make decisions.

These shortcuts are extremely helpful in reducing the wear and tear on our brains, but they’re also prone to bias, and we don’t often know our true motivations. The good news is that we’re predictably irrational. So connecting with your audience means first understanding the patterns in their decision making using behavioral science.

While many governments, semi-governments and policymakers are beginning to understand the positive impact behavioral science can have on campaigns, it’s not enough to just understand the science. By combining behavioral insights with creative craftsmanship – something we call persuasive creativity – and then leveraging digital ecosystems to optimize content, we can execute extremely compelling campaigns that drive desired behavior.

First, some insight into how it’s done

The first step in influencing and directing behavior is understanding the target audience: what’s their current behavior and what’s the desired behavior? What are pain points and gains? What are factors that may be influencing them in maintaining their behavior? And then you must make changing easy. Here’s how:

Behavior = Motivation x Ability x Triggers

Motivation: Powerful motivators can be fear, pain, fun, social acceptance, scarcity or hunger.

Ability: People must be able to execute the new behavior. For example, if you want to encourage people to eat healthier you have to understand why they are not: is it because of limited time, money or routine?

Triggers: Signals help people remember to act.

Many times, people want to act a certain way because it fits their belief of who they are (or feel they should be), but they end up behaving in a way that actually conflicts with their beliefs. Once we understand why people act the way they do, we can come up with creative interventions to counter that behavior and steer them toward our desired behavior. And then we can amplify the narrative across all touchpoints and platforms to reach them.

Meet Brexit

Goals: awareness, recruitment, behavior change

Over a nearly four-year span, Brexit brought uncertainty to both citizens of the UK and business owners throughout the EU. In 2019, nearly 75% of Dutch small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) entrepreneurs were not prepared – and the Dutch government wanted to give them a wake-up call. So how to raise awareness, create urgency, inform and then recruit people to prepare for Brexit when no one knew what it would look like?

Meet Brexit Monster. He’s big. He’s blue. He’s clumsy. And he gets in the way of business. The furry, larger-than-life character was created to shine a light on the need for Brexit preparedness. Not only did he (and his cause) make headlines, people loved him. But the key to campaign success was in understanding the target audience: a strong optimism bias had entrepreneurs underestimating the consequences of Brexit, they tended to take their cues from their peers (not the government), and the overload of Brexit news left them not knowing where to start. So the campaign sought to create urgency and awareness, set a positive social norm for entrepreneurs, and deliver knowledge and tools to counteract information overload – all through a fun, lighthearted approach.

Results: It resonated so well that just a single tweet from the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok earned 2.7 impressions with zero media budget. More importantly, entrepreneurs who were preparing for Brexit rose from 18% to 80-85%.

Do you see what we see?

Goals: awareness, recruitment

In 2018, Rijkswaterstaat (the Department of Waterways and Public Works in the Netherlands) started the biggest maintenance project in its history – the restoration of more than 100 bridges, tunnels and locks (‘infrastructure masterpieces’ as they are called at Rijkswaterstaat). The challenge of the massive undertaking was clear: convincing skilled technicians with a wide range of career options to choose Rijkswaterstaat.

To stand out from the clutter, the Rijkswaterstaat team needed to appeal to technicians’ pride in their craftsmanship and convey to them that they are understood. ‘Disrupt and reframe’ is an effective persuasion technique in which disruption (in this case, unconventional information) is used to ‘confuse’ people and get their attention, making it more likely they’ll comply with a subsequent proposal.

So technicians were invited to The Rijkswaterstaat Audiotour to view museum masterpieces through the eyes of Rijkswaterstaat. Stunning painted masterpieces featuring the beautiful bridges, tunnels and locks of the Netherlands were accompanied by the message: ‘Do you see what we see? If you do, then you’re cut from the same cloth as Rijkswaterstaat, and we want you.’ The tour ended with a very special painting – The Stone Bridge by Rembrandt modified to show maintenance on the bridge. An adjoining sign read: ‘Do you want to participate in preserving the artworks of Rijkswaterstaat for the future?’

Results: 1.5m views, 64% view rate, all 650 vacancies filled

Sign the pledge

Goals: awareness, recruitment

In the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria it’s crucial that every doctor, surgeon, nurse and veterinarian appreciates the urgent situation and knows precisely what they can do to curb resistance. That’s why the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports challenged healthcare professionals to commit their signatures to an antibiotics pledge in a unique way: placing their own hand on to a large petri dish to create a personalized, colorful, bacteria-laden ‘handtekening’ signifying their commitment to the fight against antibiotic resistance. All participants received their own handtekening in a framed petri dish to put on the wall of their practice – a novel reminder of the pledge they’ve taken.

Placing the antibiotics pledge at the center of a campaign that prompted many healthcare professionals to openly speak out against antibiotic resistance not only communicated a strong social norm but also fostered commitment – a powerful tool in counteracting people’s lack of willpower. When our behavior is not aligned with our attitudes it makes us uncomfortable, so we adjust behavior to maintain a positive self-image.

Results: Thousands of professionals pledged their dedication. Quadrillions of bacteria (and counting) were donated. And opinion leaders and professionals in the field joined forces on the topic.

Time to fuel change

The time for governments to show up with information and intuitive experiences at speed has never been so urgent. Long gone are the days when reaching an audience was as simple as running a television ad. Today’s policymakers and governments must understand their target audiences, find the right approach to influence behavior and connect with people in a consumer-centric way to bring about change. The combination of behavioral science, creative storytelling, a deep knowledge of digital ecosystems and integrated data science to optimize content and media is necessary to reach today’s target groups and effectively fuel change.

Oscar Hamming, business director at Media.Monks.