Search Marketing and Psychology: 4 Principles of Human Behavior to Leverage Today

Marketers are influencers. Daily we’re thinking either about influencing internal teams to get things done or with prospects who can engage and convert through their marketing activity. We can thank psychology and behavioral researchers, my wife and college psychology professors among them, for providing empirical evidence to support marketing strategies. I was recently combing through my personal library and came across a few psychological principles where we search marketers can improve results by relying on old-fashioned experimental research. Although these principles aren’t new, they have a place in today’s search marketing practices. They also conveniently apply to stakeholder influence and driving organizational change.

Reciprocity: Serving Value to Gain Visibility

The reciprocity principle explains that, when given something of value, most human beings feel the desire to “return the favor” in some way. Call it karma, guilt, or obligation. But you can often anticipate a reward if you offer something of value. In a search marketer’s case, this means providing value within our marketing content or advertising copy in order to gain higher visibility.

While we can technically optimize our digital assets, deploying tags and reducing page load, we have entered the realm of contextual search. The new paradigm is compelling us to create content to be viewed, linked, shared, favorite, and tweeted. Valuable content improves search visibility when it is shared socially, which gives our brand a better chance to make an impression (and, hopefully, convert!).

Searchmetrics’ 2014 ranking factors shows the continued dominance of social sharing and backlinks as perceived strong correlations to search visibility. If our content is valuable enough to be shared or linked to, page authority will rise.

How does this impact search marketers?

Create content with the community and reciprocity in mind. We must create digital assets that deliver unique value with an aim to engage consumers to make comments, share assets, visit Web properties, and connect with our brand. If we are successful at that, our search visibility will improve. That’s due to the virtuous cycle that exists between social and search marketing activities. The reciprocity principle suggests we will be rewarded in the future, as more searchers discover our value and commit to our brand.

Framing Effect: Two Ways to Say the Same Thing

Anyone familiar with Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) or the teachings of Anthony Robbins will recognize the Framing Effect. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and research partner Amos Tversky conducted a number of experiments in the 1970s and 1980s addressing our cognitive ability to respond differently to the same problem. Different responses, according to Kahneman and Tversky, are the result of how the problem is conveyed by messaging. The “framing effect” was revealed by the following experiment:

  • Two groups (1 and 2) are presented with a combination of two out of four treatment options (A, B, C and D) for a deadly disease afflicting 600 people.
  • Group 1 is told that, under option A, 200 people will be saved, while option B presents a 33 percent chance of saving all 600 lives but a 66 percent chance of saving no one.
  • Group 2 is told that, under option C, 400 people will die, while option D presents a 33 percent chance that no one will die but a 66 percent chance that all 600 will die.

(How would you respond?)

As a result, 72 percent of group 1 chose option A (28 percent chose option B). In group 2 , 78 percent selected option D, while 22 percent chose option C. The researchers suggest that part of the reason for the results can be attributed to our desire to respond to perceived positive outcomes more intently than to perceived negative outcomes.

While there has been some criticism of this experiment, the underlying principle seems to hold true: people will more often make decisions that will result in positive outcomes than trying to avoid negative results.

How does this impact search marketers?

Marketers often use fear, anxiety, stress, and other negative emotions in messaging. This is typically done to stimulate urgency. But this framing effect suggests that we should design messaging that embodies positive outcomes so that when consumers search for an answer to their problem, the results we provide are more likely to be clicked. More importantly, it seems logical that positive framing for an initial brand association or purchase decision will lead to increases in customer satisfaction, customer loyalty, and word of mouth.

Behavior Change: Communicate Using Peer Pressure

Have you ever noticed that it’s tougher to act independently in a crowd? If we are convinced that our family, neighbors, and peers will decide to act in a particular manner, it is likely we will go along with the crowd. (Of course, the correct response to your father asking, “If everybody else jumps off a bridge, are you going to?” is still “no.”)

In 2008, researchers Noah Goldstein and Robert Cialdini (one of my favorite authors) conducted an experiment asking hotel guests to reuse their room towels. They used three behavior change messages to prove their theory that self-identity with crowd behavior can be a powerful influencer.

  • Message 1: Please consider the environment and reuse your towel. (Control group.)
  • Message 2: Please consider the environment. Most guests in this hotel reused their towels. (Guests were 26 percent more likely to reuse their towel.)
  • Message 3: Please consider the environment. Most guests in this room reused their towels. (Guests were 33 percent more likely to reuse their towel.)

You can see from the results that behavior change is more likely to occur if a subject is compelled to act “like the crowd,” more precisely to behave in the same way as those who have shared a common connection (same hotel or room). Anecdotally, on this specific topic, I don’t recall ever seeing messaging like 2 or 3 in a hotel room. Perhaps as society’s become more environmentally aware, that’s become enough incentive and there’s more persuasion from society than even a hotel.

How does this impact search marketers?

We can use the power of social psychology to create and distribute assets that compel our audiences to join others. We’ve become aware how impactful user reviews, ratings, and comments are when it comes to consumer behavior. We must be more diligent in leveraging crowd mentality to influence searchers. Whether search results are paid or organic, we should attempt to embed behavior change messaging in our rich snippets. We should make use of whatever influence markers (anyone for Schema.org or mobile-friendly sites?) might compel bots and users. For their own careers and the marketplace, search marketers must continue to optimize owned, earned, and paid assets to point to user-defined content that can influence audience members to change their behavior (and adopt our brand). At Adobe, we aggressively leverage customer testimonials and community conversation to influence others. Keep this in mind: the more connected an individual feels toward a specific group, event, or individual, the more effective this behavior change communication strategy will be. Random testimonials are fine, but those from recognized and respected influencers – especially when served in social media or customer service channels – will be much more effective.

Scarcity: Make Them Want You Now

The principle of scarcity (also attributed to Cialdini) was tested in 1998 by Bowling Green State University professor Scott Highhouse and others. The scarcity principle was tested in the context of job advertisements, specifically ads for a restaurant server. Participants were presented with advertisements that differed by availability (scarce vs. plentiful) and scarcity type (number of vacancies vs. time to apply). Companies advertising only a few vacancies available were perceived as paying a significantly higher hourly wage than companies advertising many vacancies available. Also, both vacancy scarcity and time scarcity had positive effects on how favorably the participants viewed the company using those tactics.

How does this impact search marketers?

Search marketers can leverage consumers’ responses to scarcity by creating ads that create an immediate need to purchase. While I’m absolutely not advocating we change all our search ads to “Hurry now!” or “Sale ends Saturday,” we can achieve higher click-through rates by embedding some scarcity in our paid listings. This is especially true for seasonal offers or time-sensitive promotions. We’ve also tested, and seen significant results from, the use of similar scarcity or urgency copy, when relevant, in both the paid ads and organic meta descriptions. Buried deeply in schema.org documentation are four properties under which we can define scarcity on the page:

  • availabilityStarts
  • availabilityEnds
  • availableFrom
  • availableThrough

Leveraging scarcity in our paid search practices will require additional ad copy updates and dynamic ad serving, but the increase in click-through rate (CTR) will likely result in higher sales and more effective return on investment.

Our industry operates at the intersection of advertising, content, and Web technology, so there’s a benefit to revisiting the time-tested principles of social psychology and consumer behavior when deploying search marketing campaigns. As we better understand how our customers respond to certain messaging, it becomes easier to create and serve content that triggers expected responses.

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