Marketing Psychology: 10 Research Studies on Consumer Behavior

The secret to more sales is as simple as understanding consumer behavior.

We are all different, but in many instances our brains are prone to react in a similar manner.

Understanding these subtleties in the human mind can help your business find creative ways to ethically move more buyers towards saying “Yes!” to your products or services.

Below are 10 studies that reveal such insights into the minds of your customers.

Converting More Customers

Convert more customers infographic

1. Setting Minimums to Break Through Analysis Paralysis

We all know the small things make a big difference when it comes to copywriting.

Interesting research by Robert Cialdini examined the donation process of the American Cancer Society, and how a minute change delivered drastically different results.

It also reveals why it’s important to analyze why people say “no”, rather than always looking at why they say “yes.” Researchers tested the phrase used to end door-to-door donation requests, splitting the test between two different varieties:

  1. “Would you be willing to help by giving a donation? Every penny will help.”
  2. “Would you be willing to help by giving a donation?”

Subtle difference, right? The wording may be subtle, but the results were drastic.

People who were asked the second line were almost twice as likely to donate.

The researchers concluded:

People may ask themselves if they have “enough” to donate and whether it will make a difference.

By clarifying that “even a penny” could make a difference, the second line makes request more approachable for those interested in donating.

2. Better Brand Engagement by Labeling Customers

You might think I’m referring to brand labels, but far from it. I’m telling you to label your customers!

Sounds like bad advice, right? WRONG! If you’re looking to increase customer retention and build brand loyalty, you better listen up.

Research has shown us that people like being labeled, and they are more inclined to participate in the group’s message if they feel included. The study examined the voting patterns of adults to see if labeling them had any effect on their turnout at the polls.

After being casually questioned about their regular voting patterns, half of the participants were told that they were much more likely to vote since they had been deemed by the researchers to be more politically active. (This wasn’t actually true, these people were selected at random)

The other half of the participants weren’t told anything, they were just asked to describe their voting patterns. Despite this random selection, the group that was told they were “politically active” had a 15% higher actual turnout than the other group!

Our brain seeks to maintain a sense of consistency (even if it’s artificial), and this is why the foot-in-the-door technique works so well even on
prepared minds.

Keep this in mind if you find yourself afraid to label customers: labels can be associated with a positive trait as well.

3. Learn to Sell to the 3 Types of Buyers

No matter what industry you operate in, you are going to have to deal with the 3 types of buyers out there, defined by the ‘pain’ they experience when purchasing something.

Neuroscientists have literally defined human spending patterns as a process of “spend ‘til it hurts!” Understanding these different levels of pain points is essential to maximizing your potential sales.

Guess which group is the hardest to sell to? Since they take up nearly a quarter of your potential customers, you should learn some of the smart techniques to minimize buying pain for your tightwad customers.

Fortunately, the secret boils down to utilizing well written copy that appeals to their apprehensive nature. According to some remarkable neuroimaging studies, minimizing buying pain for “tightwads” (and everybody else) can be accomplished successfully by incorporating the following strategies…

I. Re-framing value

If you see a product that costs $1,000 per year, you’d definitely approach with a little caution, right? Right. That’s because $1,000/year isn’t peanuts. To make matters worse, it seems like a huge amount of money for conservative spenders.

What if the product was instead just $84 per month instead? Not bad, right? The thing is, $84/month is the same as $1000/year.

While this re-framing method is effective for buyers of all types, it is most effective when targeting conservative spenders. If you’re offering something that has a recurring cost or that can be broken down into smaller increments, be sure to investigate how you can utilize this information in your pricing model.

II. Reduce pain points with bundling

Neuroeconomics expert George Loewenstein has noted that all customers (especially conservative spenders) prefer to complete their purchase in one easy, effective swoop rather than purchase multiple accessories separately.

He cites our willingness to upgrade car packages all at once, but points out how difficult it often is for the brain to justify each individual upgrade  (“Yes, I will pay extra for navigation… and heated seats… and…”, etc).

These individual purchases create individual pain points, whereas a bundled purchase creates only one pain point, even if the price is much greater.

Loewenstein’s research shows why many customers are willing to pay more for complete bundles rather than chasing down individual products and accessories: not only is it less of a hassle, but it also results in fewer purchase pain points.

III. Sweat the small stuff

One of the silliest conversion bumps ever is a study done by Carnegie Mellon University, revealing the impact of a single word on conversion rates.

Researchers changed the description of an overnight shipping charge on a free DVD trial offer from “a $5 fee” to “a small $5 fee” and increased the response rate among tightwads by 20 percent!

Has the word “small” ever felt so big? With a single word bumping up conversion rates by that amount, it’s safe to say that when crafting copy for conservative spenders, the devil is in the details.

4. Admit to Shortcomings to Highlight Strengths

Is it ever a good idea to admit to your faults? After all, people don’t want the “real” you, right?

Research from social psychologist Fiona Lee suggests that admitting shortcomings is a great way to simultaneously highlight your strengths.

The study aimed to measure the effects of admitting to missteps and faults, and how these would affect stock prices.

Lee and her colleagues had experimenters read one of two fictitious company reports.

(Both reports listed reasons why the company had performed poorly last year)

  • The first report placed emphasis on strategic decisions.
  • The second placed emphasis on external events.

The test subjects viewed the first company far more favorably than the second.

Admitting to shortcomings in areas like strategic thinking showcased that the company was still in control, despite their faults.

Interestingly, Lee found (after examining hundreds of these types of statements, over 14 real companies) that the companies who admitted to their strategic faults also had higher stock prices the following year.

When blaming external forces (even if they happened to be true), companies gave skeptics a reason to view them as not having the ability to fix the problem, in addition to the fact that they may just be making excuses.

5. Implement Urgency the Right Way

Creating a sense of urgency in your copy is one of the oldest tricks in the book… and still one of the smartest.

To top it off, Cialdini notes “scarcity” as one of the 6 pillars of influence and it’s easy to see why: great demand leads to great sales.

The following research explains why urgency can completely backfire on you and ruin your meticulously written sales copy.

How can this be? More importantly, how can you prevent it from happening to you?

The research comes to us from a classic study by Howard Leventhal where he analyzed the effects of handing out tetanus brochures to subjects.

Leventhal conducted the study by handing out 2 different pamphlets, both sparing no detail on the horrid effects that the tetanus disease can have on the body.

Those who had the second pamphlet (with the sparse follow-up info) were much more likely to take-action: the rate that they followed through to get vaccinated was superior to the first group by nearly 25%. The results were clear:

Invoking urgency only had a noticeable effect when follow-up instructions were given.

Those who received the follow-up info were also more engaged with the pamphlet as a whole, being able to recall much more specific information from the packet than other participants.

Why? Even though the follow-up information provided in the second pamphlet wasn’t at all comprehensive, Leventhal was able to show that our minds are susceptible to blocking out information that evokes a sense of urgency if there aren’t any instructions on what to do next.

6. Appeal to the Need for Immediate Satisfaction

There are few things our brains love more than immediate stimulation.

As a matter of fact, research has shown that instant gratification is such a powerful force that an ability to control against it is a great indicator of achieving success.

In terms of your customers, you’re actually looking to do the opposite:

Customers feel instant gratification when they’re rewarded by doing business with you.

Several Magnetic Resonance Imaging  (MRI) studies, including one on nicotine addiction, have shown that our frontal cortex is highly active when we think about “waiting” for something.

On the other hand, our mid-brain is the one that lights up when we think about receiving something right away (and that’s the one we want to fire up!).

Researchers have noted that the key to words like instantly, immediately, and fast allow us to envision our problem being solved right away.

Whatever pain point we are seeking to fix by purchasing something becomes far becomes more enticing if we know our dilemma will be solved instantly.

7. Don’t Be Afraid to Make an Enemy

In the business world, meaningful connections are paramount to your success. After all, who you know is often as important as what you know.

Networking is certainly important, but that being said, you still need an enemy.

Why? When could this ever be a good thing? Turns out, it’s a great thing if you’re looking to achieve a cult-like addiction to your brand.

In a highly controversial study entitled Social categorization and intergroup behaviour, social psychologist Henri Tajifel began his research trying to define just how human beings were able to commit acts of mass hatred and discrimination.

In the tests, subjects were asked to choose between  two objects or people that they had no relation or connection with: one example asked participants to pick  between two painters with meaningless differences. They were later divided into groups by these choices.

Tajifel found that he could create groups of people that would show loyalty to their supposed “in-group” and outright discriminate against outsiders… all with the most trivial of distinctions.

Despite these trivialities, when it came time to dole out REAL rewards, subjects had a huge bias towards those peers in their in-group and discriminated against handing out rewards to the so-called “other guys”.

Sounds an awful lot like big companies going toe-to-toe, doesn’t it? Like the Mac vs. PC commercials or Miller Lite taking potshots at so-called unmanly light beers.

Creating a unique selling proposition is as much about defining who your ideal customers are not as it is about defining who they are.

8. Stand for Something that Customers Support

Above I talked about the importance of exclusion, but what about including those ideal customers?

People do care about being included with a brand’s message, but only when they share the same values. In fact, for those who’ve stated that they have a strong relationship with a single brand, over 64% said it was because they had “shared values” with the company in question.

Does your brand stand for something? According to findings from the CEB, people don’t seem to be very loyal to companies at all.

They are loyal to what the company stands for.

One great example is Tom’s Shoes, a brand that many would claim shows the “real deal” when it comes to making legitimate stands about their beliefs and company ideals outside of their business of selling shoes.

In a particular example, Tom’s sends a pair of shoes to those in need for every shoe sold, and important aspect for their rabidly loyal customer base. One doesn’t create a similar loyal customer base by “tacking on” a stance just for marketing’s sake.

9. Create Persuasive Arguments via Devil’s Advocate

Are you familiar with how the term devil’s advocate came to exist? It’s actually from an old process the Catholic church used to conduct when canonizing someone into sainthood.

A lawyer of sorts was instructed to be the devil’s advocate for those being inducted as a saint, and their job was to find reasons and arguments that showcased why this person should not become a saint, in order to create a more objective canonization process.

The marketing world has an important lesson to learn from this process. According to research by social psychologist Charlan Nemeth (and his colleagues), the role of devil’s advocate certainly plays a part in persuasion, but it is not one of creating true dissent!

What they found was that TRUE dissenters did have a meaningful impact when trying to persuade a majority group to different perspective.

When people are confronted with someone who truly appears to oppose their position, they begin to try to understand their point-of-view.

Those playing devil’s advocate? They actually increase the resolve of the original majority.

The researchers found that this was because group members did not take the critiques from the devil’s advocate as seriously, and since the group  was now bringing up (and subsequently dismissing) possible alternatives or flaws, they were much more confident in their original stance.

For marketers, this offers a much less scandalous opportunity: playing devil’s advocate to your own products potential shortcomings. This can actually enhance your persuasive efforts as people see their concerns addressed before they buy.

10. Keep Customers on Their Toes

What’s the number #1 thing that creates loyal customers? No surprise, it’s the social construct of reciprocity. Better yet, there is an even more powerful form available for businesses owners to use: the act of creating surprise reciprocity.

In a study by psychologist Norbert Schwarz, he found that as little as 10 cents was enough to change the outlooks of participants who found the money by surprise, creating a more positive view of their day due to this small high-point.

While this study was conducted in 1987, the implications remain the same: it doesn’t take much to start the process of reciprocity, even the smallest of favors allow goodwill to be “bought” with customers, increasing loyalty and retention. In a later interview, Schwarz would succinctly sum up this recurring phenomenon as such:

“It’s not the value of what you find. It’s that something positive happened to you.”

In another famous study from Influence, Dr. Robert Cialdini noted that subjects were prone to rate others as much more likable when they had simply bought them a can of soda.