Communications industry

Why don’t we science the sh*t out of communications?


In the Oscar-nominated movie ‘The Martian’ Matt Damon plays a NASA botanist stuck on Mars. His crew have departed as they have (reasonably) assumed he has been killed by an accident during their mission.

Damon survives, and wakes to realizes the magnitude of his situation. It will be several years before a rescue mission can reach him and he only has sufficient supplies to last a few months.

But as a highly-qualified scientist, he doesn’t panic. Nor does he give up and accept his fate. He decides to solve the problem in the most effective way possible.

I won’t give away any spoilers here, but suffice to say “sciencing the sh*t” out of the problem helps keep him alive. He consults the notes left behind by his colleagues, and experiments using the limited resources at his disposal (including a highly creative way of growing potatoes).

Not only is it a great movie, but it’s a metaphor for the way science has solved problems in the world we live. The houses we live in, the food we eat, the transport we use. All of these things were developed by scientists using the scientific method.

A hypothesis, followed by a deduction, and tested through observation. Then repeat.

A case for marketing science

In his book ‘How Brands Grow’, Professor Byron Sharp makes the case for ‘marketing science’. He rejects the argument that marketing (and advertising) must be purely creative, and cannot be advanced through adopting a scientific approach. Marketing is not a purely creative endeavor (like art), he argues, because it has the specific goal of influencing behavior – usually to buy a specific product or service.

Marketing is more like architecture, he says. An architect like Frank Lloyd Wright can create a beautiful house, which has obvious aesthetic and creative value. But if it didn’t obey the laws of physics, it would fall down. Without this scientific foundation to Wright’s creativity the house would be useless.

Similarly, a marketing campaign that doesn’t obey the observable and provable laws of marketing and behavioral science will not change behavior. Consumers will not be influenced, and nothing will be sold. As marketing, it is wasted effort.

And yet…

In the marketing and communications industry far too little work is scientifically based. In fact, most ‘received wisdom’ runs contrary to evidence. Like the doctors who practiced blood-letting for hundreds of years before it was proven to be harmful, marketers and communicators persist in out-dated collective beliefs.

Marketers and communicators persist in out-dated collective beliefs. Click To Tweet

For example:

Marketers often assume each problem faced is unique, and must be planned from scratch every time (wrong).

Marketers rush to discovery, spending all their budgets in one go with little to no pre-testing (wrong).

When they do test, they assume people can accurately recall how they will behave in the real world whilst sitting in a focus group (also wrong).

And marketers assume that people care enough about their brand to loyally purchase it over all others (almost always wrong), will excitedly tell their friends about it (almost never) and will want to engage with it in social media (very, very, rarely).

Isn’t it time we took this guesswork out of communications, and started sciencing the sh*t out of it? And, like Matt Damon with his potatoes, use that grounding in science to creatively grow something that will keep your business well fed?

Observable ‘laws’ of marketing

The good news is that there is a wealth of scientific evidence out there, so we now have a better idea what works. For example, Professor Sharp and his colleagues at the Ehrenberg Bass Institute in Australia have been working with a range of leading global brands to build some provable and observable ‘laws’ of marketing.

Fundamental to these laws is the evidence base provided by behavioral science. The academic disciplines of behavioral economics, social psychology and neuroscience (amongst others) have given us a richer understanding of what drives human behavior in recent years – specifically the importance of subconscious influences on decision-making.

Behavioural economics and neuroscience have helped us understand human behaviour. Click To Tweet

More and more governments and businesses are now recognizing that a behavior-first, scientifically-led approach can use the insights of behavioral and marketing science to solve a range of communications challenges. We have successfully optimized call centre and live chat scripts, website and app UX, advertising and direct marketing copy and layout, and product and pricing choice architecture for clients using this approach.

This experience has shown that everything communicates, and how you say it matters as much as what you say. Context is everything – which is why experimentation is so important. For example, using social norms as a messaging tool (e.g. “other people like you have enjoyed this product”) works when you are selling a social-status driven product such as a newspaper. When speaking to a small business owner, who seeks only competitive advantage (i.e. doing what everyone else isn’t), that won’t motivate a purchase.

Furthermore, new advances in AI and machine learning mean the opportunities to test and learn at speed and scale (and for low cost) using behavioral insights are endless. From programmatic algorithms employed for sophisticated psychometric targeting of messaging, to pre-testing content based on cognitive psychological research, the platforms now exist to test and optimize messaging to each individual consumer based on their specific motivations – rather than generic assumptions based on arbitrary demographic traits like age, gender, or location.

New advances in AI and machine learning offer endless opportunities to test behavioral insights. Click To Tweet

But you don’t have to take my word for it (that wouldn’t be very scientific, would it?). The beauty of a science-led approach is that by testing hypotheses like these you can find out for sure what works in what context.

If science has taught us anything, it’s that ‘silver bullets’ are rare. Communication (and scientific) success is usually about finding several things to work on and making them incrementally better. Communication success is usually about finding ten things that work and making them incrementally better.

Constant experimentation is therefore critical, and with that must come with a willingness to accept that we learn as much from failure as from success. My hope is that the industry becomes more experimental, and accepts that the counter-intuitive solution will often yield surprising results.

My hope is that the communications industry will become more experimental. Click To Tweet

As my friend and former boss Rory Sutherland says: ‘Test counter-intuitive things; because your competitors won’t.’

That’s how science built the world we live in today – I believe communication shouldn’t be any different.

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