Marketing Psychology – 3 Heuristics for Consumer Decision Making

High performing marketers aren’t shy in using psychology to ensure their messaging hits the mark with consumers.

We’ve previously covered some tools and approaches in An Introduction to Neuromarketing, but this post dives into some tactics for improved understanding between your brand and your audience in developing messaging and offers.

What are Cognitive Heuristics?

Cognitive biases are a brain’s tendency to infer or perceive a situation in a way which is often different than the rational or mathematical ‘reality.’ This can be our brain taking a shortcut in patterns or probability (heuristics), or simply social signals from those around us offering a guiding hand.

Heuristics are rapidly applied ‘rules of thumb,’ built from your prior experience and current understanding to help facilitate fast, efficient decision making.

The three heuristics below are featured for their ability to guide consumer decision, or enhance consumer understanding, in your marketing messaging.

Scarcity Heuristic

Act now!

The scarcity is one of the most widely used and recognizable heuristics deployed my marketers and advertisers.

This heuristic, or mental shortcut, places an inordinate amount of value on an item or offer depending on how difficult it is to obtain, and how easily lost it may be.

If you’ve ever purchased that Ronco item from an infomercial for the limited time offer knife set, or spring for early bird pricing in a conference pass, you’ve allowed scarcity to help nudge your decision making.

However, scarcity isn’t limited to ticking clocks. Nintendo employed scarcity by limiting production in the release of both the Wii and NES Classic consoles – resulting in panicked purchases of an otherwise moderately successful product.

Using the Scarcity Heuristic in Marketing

Scarcity is best deployed when specific in both deadline and availability. Give a reasonable, but tight deadline for action, paired with a limitation based on available units.

A unit available may be seats for an event, product availability, available service windows, or just a number set for an offer – such as ‘the first 15 to purchase save 15%!’

Deadlines should be tight enough to promote fast action from the scarcity heuristic, but not so quick that your audience can’t pull together the resources needed. While one-hour flash sales may be wonderful for B2C e-commerce, they can be a little less impactful in B2B where your audience must go through several layers of approval prior to purchase.

Most importantly, remember your scarcity in offer programming. Never run an open-ended discount, and always stay true to your deadlines.

Representativeness Heuristic

If it looks like a duck…

The representative heuristic is your brain’s knack for assigning a high probability in categorizing/diagnosing a situation or item based on how well it fits one of our preexisting prototypes.

The representative heuristic is just as likely to strike in assessing situations and people as it is objects. We regularly ‘misdiagnose’ a situation or challenge because it is similar enough to one for which we’re familiar with the solution.

“The 2017 D45 coupe has been designed to be lighter than any other car in its category. This improves handling and performance through a higher power-to-weight ratio.”

Is it more likely that the D45 is a Lotus-like mini-sports car, or a fuel-efficient competitor to the Prius?

For many, the emphasis on performance features will lead them to presume the fictitious D45 is a performance model, but it’s just as likely an adorable mini-city-car. (In fact, let’s presume it is.)

Using the Representative Heuristic in Marketing

Fit in before trying to stand out.

Be cautious not to present your product in a way that it fits too easily into an incorrect mental model – such as our fuel-efficient-city-car above being misinterpreted as a mini race car.

In that example, many shopping for a fuel-efficient car would be expected to pass over the D45, presuming it a performance vehicle. Meanwhile, those shopping performance coupes would quickly learn the D45 isn’t competitive to a Lotus, or even a Miata.

Just a small twist to the product presentation – ‘The fuel-efficient car for the performance-minded driver’ – can help pair the D45 better with common mental models and engage an instant and accurate understanding.

If you’re truly a unique product in your space, consider adopting common elements to help encourage understanding – even if it may seem initially limiting.

Should you choose not to adopt an existing mental model to present your product or offering, be aware that you have a significant investment ahead in training a completely new way of thinking to each potential customer.

Availability Heuristic

I can practically see it happening.

The availability heuristic is your brain’s tendency to perceive an event as significantly more likely depending on how vividly you can envision the scenario – regardless of actual likeliness.

First, watch Jaws. Now, swim in open water. Wait… did something just brush your leg. What the hell was that?

If you’ve ever had a moment of instant panic of a shark attack in a freshwater lake, you’ve experienced the power of the availability heuristic in its ridiculous glory.

The availability heuristic earned a starring role in much of the 2016/2017 presidential campaign, with vivid storytelling winning over statistics and documented facts.

Using the Availability Heuristic in Marketing

While statistics and data are critical to imbuing your message with trust, surround them in vivid storytelling. Story Telling in Case Studies offers a great opportunity for this approach. Take it a step further by inviting your audience into envision their own success story they can achieve with your support, or failure story from which your product/service can protect.

Learn more about availability heuristic in-depth in The Availability Heuristic and Marketing.



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