Imagine it’s late Wednesday afternoon.
The sun is setting. You are pulling on some sweats after a long day at work when you hear a knock at the front door. Your child — who doesn’t open it — yells up to you that there is a strange man on the porch.
And he’s got something in his hands.
You slip on some socks (because you are self-conscious about your toes), and jog down the steps. You open the door and see me standing on your porch. I’m smiling. In my arms is a clipboard.
“Hi, I’m with Gallup Research. Can I ask you a quick question?”
“Sure,” you say.
“Close to eighty percent of your neighbors plan on voting tomorrow. Do you?”
Hmm. You totally forgot tomorrow was Election Day. You’ll need to ask off work, but your boss will understand. Still, the voting booth is way out of your way, and you are certain there will be a line … but you don’t want to look like an unpatriotic oaf.
“Um, yeah, I plan on voting.”
I note this down on my clipboard, wave, and rush off to the next house.
Without you even knowing it, I influenced your behavior in two critical ways. Did you see what they were?
Let me show you …
What is the “mere-measurement effect”?
When it comes to the world of content marketing, you can influence the behavior of your readers, subscribers, and customers … and you can do it without them even noticing.
For example, in the story above, because I asked you the day before voting whether you are going to vote — and you said “yes” — you are more likely to vote than if I had not shown up.
This is called the “mere-measurement effect,” and it refers to the phenomenon where people are asked what they intend to do in a certain situation … and because of their public profession of what they intend to do, they become more likely to act in accordance with that answer.
Now, people and institutions who take surveys aren’t trying to influence behavior … instead, they just want to catalogue behavior. Yet, social scientists are the ones who began to take note of the mere-measurement effect … and seeing its similarity to consistency and commitment.
What is priming?
Now when consistency and commitment are used to influence behavior, it is called priming.
You’ll find this in just about any context. Voting increases as much as 25% and the purchase of new cars (when people are asked if they intend to buy a new car in six months) increases by as much as 35%.
Why does priming work so well?
People who make commitments don’t want to be viewed as unreliable or inconsistent. They’ll consider the cost of looking like a flake higher than the cost of inconvenience. We are a people prone to saving face.
Here’s how priming works online
Let’s say I’m about to launch a new email newsletter. Here’s how I would prime my audience:
- A month or two out I would publish a post that says, “Hey, I’m thinking about creating a new email newsletter on a new goat-milk diet. Who’s interested?” Naturally, if I get enough interest, I’ll go for it. But I’ve also primed the audience.
- Two weeks before launch: “Hey, just as a reminder, we are going to launch that goat-milk email newsletter two weeks from now. Let me know if you plan on signing up.”
- And then finally, on the day before the launch: “I’m curious. Who intends to sign up for the new email newsletter? Let me know in the comments.”.
To some people this smacks of manipulation. Well, it can be.
Here’s why priming is not manipulation
If you truly believe that people’s lives will be changed by your goat-milk diet, then you can help them make the right decisions with priming.
For instance, people have used priming to help people make healthy decisions involving exercising, quitting smoking, protesting ignorant behavior, saving their marriage, or eating right.
Furthermore, you can accentuate priming by asking people when and how they plan to respond:
- Do you plan on exercising this week? Which days and what will you do?
- Do you plan on joining the demonstration this week? Which days and what are you going to do (bring a sign, bullhorn, or nothing — you’re going nude)?
- Do you plan on working on your marriage this week? What are you going to do and when (stop work early and spend time with my spouse every other day)?
Priming works because it’s a matter of giving people simple (and seemingly irrelevant) clues in areas of their lives in which they need help. And the more desperate they are for that help, the easier they are to prime.
How conformity influences behavior
The other thing that was going on in the opening illustration was conformity. I did this by mentioning the percentage of your neighbors who were voting. As long as that number is accurate, and high, it suggests to you where popular opinion stands.
It also suggests what you should do, too.
See, our tendency is to fall in line. We tend to do what others do. So when you heard that the majority of your neighbors are voting, you will likely vote, too. It’s a sublime example of social proof.
Priming and conformity working together
Now let’s combine priming and conformity in the email newsletter example.
After one of your informal polls, use that data on the day before the launch.
Hey, I’m curious. Seven out of ten of my readers plan on signing up for the new membership class. Do you intend to sign up, too? If so, when? Let me know in the comments.
Finally, let’s turn the tables.
If you ever feel like you are being unethically primed, simply say you changed your mind.
Yes, I did plan on buying a car in six months. But my circumstances have changed and I’ve changed my mind.
You have every right to change your mind, so don’t ever allow someone to guilt-trip you into thinking you are a flake if you do.
Have you ever observed priming and conformity actually influence behavior? Share your thoughts in the comments.