How to use research methodology to solve behavioural problems

How to use research methodology to solve behavioural problems

Here, Senior Communications Consultant Susan Coburn talks about introducing Behavioural Science to communications for some of the biggest consumer finance organisations in the UK, and how she refined a research approach that uses behavioural science to get results for our clients and their customers.

I’d always been fascinated by the power of words and sought a vocational application for my love of languages, so it was a natural choice to study Business Studies with International Marketing and French at university in Bristol. This led to digital marketing work at a leading financial services company and later at a major UK bank, where I learnt the impact a carefully crafted strapline has on the effectiveness of a campaign - but I didn’t really understand why. A subtle difference in a headline or layout could see a challenger pack generate more sales than the control pack, even though the offer was identical. But testing in a live environment was costly if the new design didn’t perform better, so I started researching our communications much earlier in the process.


And so the research began…

The insights were astonishing – a campaign to attract Schools’ Business Accounts led with the features of the account. We thought they were compelling, but the teachers in our research groups were just not interested. When we changed tactics and introduced incentives for the kids instead, the impact was phenomenal and the resulting campaign saw new accounts more than double in target.

Another campaign needed to communicate complex changes. Our research showed there are people who love a chart or table and others who are “table blind”. But when you explain the changes in a short letter and put the table on the back page, everyone understands them better. There are many more examples of how the findings from our research were crucial in developing our communications – one was replacing the word “sell” with “transfer” which made such a huge difference to how people responded, it potentially saved us millions of pounds.


…Which led to the application of behavioural science

Nevertheless, I was still unclear what was behind peoples’ responses. Then I looked into behavioural science and understood why seemingly small differences have such big effects on how people behave. I put my entire team through behavioural science training and applied the key pillars of “System 1 and System 2 brain” and unlocking biases, to all our communications. The result was communications that were compelling, well understood and helped people make the right decision for their individual circumstances. When you get your research right the insights are extremely compelling. And once you apply these insights the results speak for themselves. Whether it’s increased responses, higher sales figures, or fewer complaints – you soon have facts at your disposal that are very persuasive for any Marketing Director or CEO.


…And bore fruit with a 2015 Nudge Award win

We knew we had an issue with our Savings Maturity communications. Most people took no action when they received their pack, so their account changed to one paying lower interest. The result was angry customers who complained and closed their accounts and we lost valuable customers. We applied our behavioural science learning and researched our new communications – unbranded. This was important as we didn’t want the brand to influence responses. We took the research findings to our Savings Director, who was sceptical, but then gave the go ahead to make the recommended changes. The rest is history – readership up circa 50%, more than 40% of customers taking positive action, and complaints down by circa 80%.


Learnings of how not to apply behavioural science

If you don’t choose the right research methodology things can go wrong. The following example is not research I led but I was involved in unravelling it.

The research was for a new add-on to a bank account that meant spend using your debit card, could be rounded up to the nearest £1 and the money given to a charity of your choice. The research used Focus Groups and the feedback was really positive. The add-on was launched with an expensive marketing campaign – but next to nobody opted into it and it was soon scrapped.

Why were the research findings so flawed? Using focus groups was the wrong approach for this proposition. Several behavioural science biases were at play including Norms, Priming and Commitments. In the focus groups, everyone wanted to be seen as generous and altruistic – but money is very personal and not everyone could afford to give their money to good causes in this way. If individual in-depth interviews had been used, it’s much more likely this would have come to light.

Consider what you want from your research and tailor your stimulus to get the insights you need, without leading your subjects. And be open minded – your research might throw up something you’re not expecting.


How to apply behavioural science today

We understand a great deal now on how to apply behavioural science to our communications. Our research builds on this. The best approach depends on the complexity or personal nature of the communication:

  • Apply your behavioural science insights as best as you can to your stimulus and keep it neutral to avoid brand contamination.
  • Quantitative research using industry insights or online surveys can be a quick and relatively cheap way to find out if you are positioning your messages correctly.
  • Use focus groups to get broader feedback on a new proposition.
  • But if your communication is of a more personal nature, one on one depth interviews is the way to go.

If the research is good there should always be an unexpected insight – the rectifications letters is one example. We wanted to understand how far we should go when putting right something that had gone wrong. The unexpected nugget was how significant this was in deepening trust in our brand – “if you take the time to write to me about the smaller things and put them right, I can have confidence in you for my bigger financial needs”.


The biggest behavioural change I’ve nudged using this methodology

It has to be “persistent debt” – communications to customers who just pay the minimum amount off their credit card each month. We needed to change this behaviour as it meant it would take years to pay off what they owe. We did several rounds of research with different messaging and diagrams. Our first communication caused irritation as customers were angry that we were telling them to change their payments when “they were not doing anything wrong”. Ultimately what cut through was a simple chart showing them how much money they paid in interest – and regular reminders when their payments were due, to pay a bit more if they could. In conclusion, to visually show people how much money they can save by changing their behaviour is very convincing.