Smiley faces strike again! The business benefits of social acceptance

I was recently reminded of a strategy in the UK that halved the rate of speeding motorists. It wasn’t a fine. It wasn’t a change in the limit. It was a smiley face.

Let’s look at why it was persuasive and how you can apply this technique to your business.

You are speeding. Frown Sad face!

In a township in Scotland, the council installed 226 speed recording signs that displayed the speed along with a smiley or sad face according to whether the driver was under or over the limit. The initiative was reported to have reduced speeding by 53%.

On a similar theme you might recall a post I wrote called ‘Getting your bills paid: The persuasive power of a smiley face‘ which illustrated how the use of a smiley face by a US utilities provider was effective in reinforcing desired behaviour; in their case, reducing energy consumption. In the post I outlined the opportunity you have to reinforce on-time payment behaviour by using a similar tactic.

What’s with the smiley face?

What is the lesson behind these strategies which have been so effective in changing behaviour?

Social approval.

A smiley face indicates that our behaviour has been endorsed by either our community or an authority figure, and that sense of approval will reinforce our desire to comply in future. A sad face on the other hand is short-hand for rejection, which is psychologically painful.

Business opportunity to use reinforcement strategies

Aside from smiley faces being tactically deployed at points where you want to reinforce the behaviour of your customer (or staff), you can greatly improve your rates of success in getting people to take action by following the lead of MailChimp.


Figure 1 Collage of MailChimp reinforcement techniques

MailChimp is an email and newsletter design and publishing website. Here are just four of the techniques they use:

  • As soon as you hit their home page, MailChimp lets you know that they have 2.5 million users, providing immediate social endorsement.
  • Once you have put the hard work in and sent a campaign, you have that confirmed – not via a dull email but by one with energy and personality that makes you feel personally acknowledged.
  • When you receive a new customer (subscriber in this case) MailChimp celebrates with you, ending with a “Feels good to be loved” signoff. When someone unsubscribes MailChimp even share the disappointment with “Nuts!”
  • Performance statistics are provided in a way that is constructive and once again celebratory (smiley face style).

So when you are communicating with your customers through your website or emails, why not take a leaf out of the MailChimp playbook and use social approval to make your customer feel great about being in business with you?

Sweeten the emotional experience they have every time they take the desired action and chances are they will stick with you. Laughing

With thanks to Matt Sadler and Barking Up The Wrong Tree for bringing the traffic smiley to my attention.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns Pty Ltd, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues. Bri is a presenter, consultant and author who you can find out more about at, or by following on Twitter @peoplepatterns.




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