How Marketing Bypasses Our Rational Thinking

After changing our habits online, companies make us pay to keep them

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

There’s a commonality between marketing when it first started, and modern marketing in the digital world: both don’t give a shit about convincing.

Back in the 1920s, when marketing first showed up, it consisted of pushing products towards customers with little thought given to their desires. Henry Ford’s words sum up perfectly the situation during the mass production era:

“Our customers could have a car in any color — so long as it’s black.”

Then, over the following 100 years, the market slowly acknowledged the close link between sales and understanding customer needs and expectations. Today, the customer is the focal point of marketing. And while the messaging is much nicer in terms of voice and what we tell people, the underlying attitude is the same as Ford’s: we don’t care about convincing you — because we’ve already hooked you on our products via your habits.

Targeting the Subconscious Mind & Acting on Decision-Making

In light of marketing’s development, influencing decision-making winded up as the most critical lever to push. At the same time, scientists uncovered that human decision-making is mostly carried out by the subconscious mind. From there, modern marketing, in general, stopped focusing on convincing the rational mind and started to play around with the subconscious one. As for the digital market, the main playground of influence involves routines and habits.

We’ll dive into the details a bit further, but first, let’s start with an example.

Once, I caught myself hesitating between two labels of peanut butter. The price was identical, the packaging was analogous, and both products were healthy options. They came from companies that supported organic agriculture and fair trade: they shared the same “why” — hello Simon Sinek. It was virtually the same product except for one thing: I already had a history with one of the pots — it has been my go-to for months. So guess what? That was the pot that ended up in my shopping cart.

When confronted with similar choices, customers tend to lean towards their traditional options.

“Sweet story Nabil, but what does this have to do with marketing digital products?”

The very same influencing pattern unfolds for digital products, and it happens much earlier. Digital producers don’t wait for their prospects to become regular customers to influence their behavior. They take action as soon as the marketing phase starts, and two distinct factors come into play to explain why that is.

1. The try-now-buy-later strategy

The current by-the-book marketing approach for digital products is to give prospects access to the product — or an incomplete form of it — before they start paying for it. Unlike with goods and services, customers experience the product not after the marketing phase but during it.

Therefore, when users are freely enjoying a demo, a trial period, or an extract of the cyber merchandise, a perfect window to unleash some behavior-altering magic becomes available.

2. Plenty of choices

One of the downfalls of digital products is that there’s an ocean of them. I’m sorry if this comes as a shock to you, but our products are rarely unique. There are probably a million posts out there saying the same thing as the one you’re reading right now.

As a marketer, you want to increase your odds of getting your digital peanut butter selected out of the multichoice cyber shelf.

The Science Behind It

During the early marketing stages, companies rely on specific neuropsychological patterns to influence subconscious behavior and default decision-making mechanisms. Since the last sentence sounded like a French menu, allow me to be the waiter who explains the dishes in more accessible words.

Habits & neuroplasticity

After countless hours spent using a digital product for free, the practice of consuming it becomes wired into our brains and a part of our default routines. Over time, our conscious decision-making vanishes from the equation. In this regard, author of The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, wrote:

“When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. Unless you deliberately fight a habit, the pattern will unfold automatically.”

In other words, customers start paying without even thinking about potential alternatives.

Sure, you can try to break the pattern as I did with my hesitation in front of the peanut butter shelf. The problem is, at this point, your psyche has to face two new challengers: fear of the unknown and escalation of commitment, and both are not willing to go down without putting a fight.

Fear of the unknown & escalation of commitment

Psychology showed that the human mind prefers to support its past ideas and decisions — even when new evidence makes doing so irrational. In other words, we refuse to contradict ourselves and stubbornly stick to our initial opinions. Escalation of commitment is quite common in business and politics. The Vietnam war is a good example. Another example is why I keep buying the same toothpaste even if it’s obnoxious. It’s hard to believe, but the same behavioral pattern triggers both events.

The fear of the unknown usually ignites this funny and sometimes dangerous trait of the human mind. “How will my roommate react if I bring home a new toothpaste? What will the citizens think if we withdraw after all that has been invested?” We don’t know, and that’s precisely why it’s scary to our brains.

The subconscious mind doesn’t care much about rational thinking, and it happens to be the one that drives behavior and choices. So even if you think that “ it’s just a toothpaste” or “it’s better to end the killing,” your default behavior is likely to have other plans.

A Strategy That Flourishes Right Now

As you may have noticed, a lot of digital merchandise became free during isolation and it’s not a coincidence.

During the pandemic, we are spending more time than ever behind our screens. We’re filling our stretched schedules with new activities most of which are online — audiobooks, reading, TV programs, documentaries, meditation, nutrition, you name it. Thus, people are happily enjoying the content that’s graciously offered.

In turn, digital producers and distributors are also pleased to help while investing smartly.

First, their generosity boosts their image among the public. Second, their prospects are likely to stick to their freshly-developed consumption habits and pay thoughtlessly when “normal life” resumes.

This two-pronged plan has seduced companies regardless of their content and audiences.

  • Audible made hundreds of its books free of charge.
  • Canal+ — French leader of pay-TV channels granted full access to its premium programs.
  • Microsoft gave away tons of webinars.
  • Countless mobile apps unlocked their premium versions.

All of the previous digital players made an investment based on neuropsychology to steer consumer behavior during the current massive exposure to the cyber world.

Whether you’re marketing video content, articles, or an app, if you get your audience to get used to consuming your products, you would no longer need to convince them with rational arguments — you wouldn’t care about what they think. Your new strategy will be to directly influence their behaviors.

Whenever I learn about a strategy, I feel the urge of trying it right away. If you’re like me, please hold on because you have more time than you can imagine to understand, adapt, and apply these behavior-based tips. Sure, the strategy shines in the light of the pandemic, but it isn’t specific to the current situation as we saw in the first section. Besides, the end of isolation is far from being immediate.

Even if we find a cure for coronavirus tomorrow at 5.34 p.m., people won’t be partying outside after dinner, nor the day after. Social distancing will stick with us for a while — at least during the summer. In the meantime, people will still work remotely and spend several hours every day browsing the wondrous web. You still have a lot of time, so make sure to use it.

Written by

Psychology | Business | Marketing — When I’m not reading, I’m writing

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