What business are you really in?

If I asked you what business you are in, what would you say? Consulting, retail, manufacture, accounting, health – well, you’re wrong, kind of.

You see, I think you are in the business of behavioural change, because everyday you are influencing people to do something: Buy, sell, read, write, talk, type, click, swipe, walk, run, turn up. Each of us, everyday has the task of influencing others to move from one state to another, and that’s why behavioural economics is such an opportunity; it’s a playbook on what you need to do.

Lessons from the fitness industry

Let’s take some guidance then from one of the most challenging behavioural changes that we can make – getting ourselves or others into shape.

The difficulty has always been sustaining the change once initial enthusiasm has worn off, and this is due to the potency of the outcome (looking better, feeling better) not being as forceful as the immediate attraction of other choices (lazing on the couch, staying in bed or eating the wrong foods). After all, you can experience the benefits of the chocolate now, but the benefits of not eating the chocolate are distant and ambiguous.

Given this challenge, it is therefore no surprise that a range of websites and apps have been developed to help people sustain the behavioural change of a healthier lifestyle.

One that garnered a lot of attention last year was GymPact because it charges you if you don’t follow through on your commitment. The concept is that our desire to avoid a penalty will be enough to push us towards fronting up at the gym when we would otherwise have been able to talk ourselves out of it. The app is clever because it creates activities in the short term to keep us on track as we inch toward a longer-term benefit.

Another site that works for any type of personal commitment is StickK.com. Here you are required to make public your commitment contract and even put money on the line that goes to a recipient of your choice if you fail.

A more recent example is SlimKicker. I first heard about the concept last year when its creator got in touch to discuss how behavioural economics could be incorporated to help keep people motivated and accountable.

According to SlimKicker developer Christine Chu, the site is designed to maintain motivation and emotional engagement by rewarding and reinforcing progress.

“I think the main problem with being healthy is motivation. It’s an abstract, overwhelming goal. I think the best way to counter this is to turn it into winnable games and small victories.

“So… my app makes living healthy, and fitness into a RPG game, where users earn points, and ‘level up’ as they accomplish their health goals.

“Every time they add something healthy like veggies to their diet, they earn points. Every time they complete a workout, they earn points. As they achieve more and more, they’ll level up and unlock badges, and discounts/coupons to rewards like spas, health foods, etc.”

A few of the clever elements of SlimKicker include:

  • Levels – people move through different fitness levels, collecting points and rewards along the way, which breaks the task of ‘getting fit’ down to attainable goals (overcoming behavioural short-term bias).
  • Progress – throughout each level the user can see how far they have come and have to go (using the behavioural principle of completion to secure continuation once started).
  • Inspiration feed – a sense of community has been created through users sharing how they are feeling about their successes and slip ups (uses social norming to influence behaviour).

By far my favourite part of SlimKicker is the “challenges” section. You can sign up to participate in a challenge (for instance, no snacks after dinner) and be rewarded with points upon completion. What’s great about this is that you can see at a glance “who’s in” and how many others are giving the challenge a go.

SlimKicker’s challenge graphic

There are some areas of SlimKicker that can be further improved, for instance, showing how many points are needed to complete a level, clearly stating that the website is free to join and explaining how the site is financially supported. But I think they are doing a great job of tackling behavioural change.

Applications for your business

Getting people to exercise and eat healthier is really no different to the challenge of getting people to buy something today when the benefit is not immediate. Examples include building a house, securing investors for your proposal, ordering something online where you have to await delivery, signing up for a course, contracting a consultant and paying insurance. You need to overcome the pain of now while keeping your customer’s “eye on the prize”.

Make the benefit vivid: Draw it, mock it up, make a model – do something that ensures the customer can see what they are working towards.

Use milestones: Stage the process so that your customer feels like things are progressing. Think of it like FedEx parcel tracking where your customer can see how far the parcel has travelled and how far it has to go.

Keep the connection: Communicate with your customer throughout the process so they feel comfortable that things are progressing. I ordered a new iPhone cover through a Kickstarter project in December last year for expected delivery in January. Today I received project update number 18 advising me where they were up to in production, so while it’s a long time to wait, I have been taken on their journey throughout thanks to their frequent and transparent communications.

It’s easy to think we are simply in whatever business we spruik on our business card or website, but always remember we are behavioural change experts and it is up to us to support our customers going from one state to another. What better guide than behavioural economics?

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 www.peoplepatterns.com.au, [email protected] or by following on Twitter @peoplepatterns. Bri’s book, “22 Minutes to a Better Business”, about how behavioural economics can help you tackle everyday business issues, is available through the Blurb bookstore.


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