The One Comparison That Compels (Jim Karrh On Marketing)

How do you compare yourself, or your organization, to others?

Just as surely as a child will try to convince a parent to buy some gizmo “because so-and-so’s parents let them have one,” we grown-ups still judge our behavior according to what relevant others are doing (or what we think they’re doing).

Your customers and prospects make comparisons all the time. If you can affect those comparisons through your advertising, website, direct sales or other touch points, then you’ll likely be unusually effective. That’s the subject of this column.

Which type of comparison do you assume is most compelling to your customer base:

  • The money they could be making or saving?
  • Their better selves, or the culturally correct thing to do?
  • Their behaviors in the past?
  • What their peers and neighbors are doing?

While working with a company called Opower, based in Arlington, Va., during the past few months, I have seen this question answered definitively through the choices of millions of actual consumers nationwide. (Opower is a client of DSG Consulting, which is based in Little Rock and where I am a consulting principal.)

Opower’s co-founder and president, Alex Laskey, says his company has been conducting “the largest behavioral science experiment in the world” since its start in 2007. Opower is a software company that works with utilities, analyzing usage data and producing home energy reports and other communication tools directly for the utilities’ residential and small-business customers.

The utilities are typically trying to get people to manage their energy consumption or change their behavior in some specific ways, such as lowering use during peak times, buying energy-efficient products or paying bills online. Opower’s service provides each utility customer a specific comparison to the average energy use of their neighbors, plus detailed tips for lowering their own use.

The brains behind the approach belong to Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University, one of the world’s top social psychologists — I studied his research while a graduate student — and Opower’s chief scientist. More than a decade ago, Cialdini ran an experiment to learn what might persuade people to run fans instead of their air conditioners. Money was not persuasive. Neither was an environmental message or an appeal to their better selves. The one reliable way to persuade people to act was to tell them their neighbors were already doing it.

The July/August 2013 issue of the Harvard Business Review features several articles on the topic of influence; Cialdini is the subject of a four-page interview. Here’s another example. The next time you’re staying in a hotel room, look for some message from the hotel about reusing towels and sheets.

  • At one hotel chain, a card in my room read, “If you re-use your towels as you would at home, we use less laundry detergent, less water and less energy.” (The communication strategy is to prompt you to be consistent in your behavior. As a hotel guest, I interpreted the message to really mean “we want to cut our costs.”)
  • At a Starwood property, I was offered extra reward points for each night I would forgo the Changing of the Towels. (That’s even less of a green message and a more direct economic incentive.)
  • A third chain used this: “We care about the environment, just as you do.”

These messages typically aren’t effective. Cialdini argues that the hotels would do far better by taking out the shaming and bribes, and instead using the lever of “social proof.” When he consulted for another hotel chain, they crafted a message that told guests the majority of other guests reused their towels. That changed behavior significantly (and without bribes).

Our basic drive for social comparison is pretty powerful. When creating customer or employee communications, try to leverage comparisons to peers, friends and neighbors everywhere they are relevant.

And if that strategy happens to work on your child regarding new gizmos, then please let me know. n

Jim Karrh of Little Rock is a marketing consultant, researcher, speaker and author. See JimKarrh.com or email him at Jim@JimKarrh.com.