Technology has changed behaviour…or has it?

I recently spoke to a large, multi-disciplinary public relations firm on the topic of technology and human behaviour.

To kick off I borrowed a couple of quotes from industry commentators that I felt summed up how a lot of business owners and marketers are feeling right now.

The first, from MD of Frank Media Martyn Thomas noted that:

“One of the hottest topics in marketing today is how to make the best of all the communications channels now available.”

The second, on the same theme came from author David Aaker who said:

“The challenge for agencies is to be able to develop an integrated communications effort that will access and employ a wide range of communication vehicles.”

Both Martyn and David have captured the challenge posed to anyone seeking to engage a target market – there are so many options available it is hard to know where to lay your bet.

But here’s the thing. The quotes are 17 years apart!

Martyn was quoted in MarketingMag in 2013 and the quote from David is from his 1996 book Building Strong Brands.

To give you a sense of what was happening 17-years-ago, Friends had just started on TV, Mel Gibson was revered in Hollywood with Braveheart winning the Best Picture Oscar, Google was in Beta and Business Week’s front page article was proclaiming the ‘Fall of an American Icon’ as Apple floundered post-Steve Jobs Mk1 and pre-Steve Jobs Mk2.  Oh, and some of us were dancing the Macarena.

The objective for marketers hasn’t changed

My point is that the struggles marketers faced 17-years-ago are similar to those we face today; cutting through to impact the behaviour of your market.

Technology has of course changed the number of communication channels – from a couple of metro newspapers and a few commercial TV and radio networks to an explosion of social media sites, websites, digital TV and radio stations and so on.  But 17 years ago all a marketer knew was that world – it only seems simpler in hindsight, at the time it is all-consuming.

Behaviour hasn’t changed

My central message to the public relations firm and to you is that the central principles of how customers behave have not changed over time or as a result of technology.

We are and always will be influenced by behavioural biases such as status quo, loss aversion, social norming, mental accounting, cognitive dissonance and paradox of choice.  These are the ‘invisible’ influences that operate at a subconscious level and operate regardless of whether your tablet is electronic or carved in stone.

Build a technology-proof business

The massive upside is that by hooking into these hidden influences you can build your business to be technology proof. By getting underneath the surface to the behavioural rule that lies beneath, the choice of how you implement and the channel you do it through becomes a secondary concern.

So to modern day business owners and marketers my advice is;

1. Build from the behaviour, out

In other words, by understanding how behaviour happens (behavioural economics) you can define what you need to do to change behaviour (motivation, ability and trigger) and then wrap it in the market execution (website, Point of Sale, script, campaign).

2. Start with what hasn’t changed rather than what has

We can get caught up keeping up with new social media buzz and the latest gadgets when it is more efficient to know what underpins usage of the technology. For example, Facebook ‘likes’ are grounded in the same behaviour that drives busy restaurants to attract more customers, price is and always will be used as a yardstick for quality, and your products and brand will be used to cue social status whether it’s a gold fob watch or white Apple earbuds.

3. Treat technology as a fluid, behaviour as stable.

In my presentation I represented the dynamic between technology and behaviour metaphorically; behaviour was the rocks in a river and technology was the fast running water that swirled around it. Technology will be different tomorrow than it is today so while it is important to adapt your business to market conditions, more important is to know what is under the surface.

Here’s your challenge. Next time you hear people banging on about how everything has changed, offer a different perspective; one that you’ll find makes utilising the latest technology much more straight forward and meaningful.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns Pty Ltd, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.


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