The concept of marketing to your future self

future self n me south park screenshot

How can marketers use the concept of the future self to create and launch a successful digital campaign? 

By now you have probably tossed out your New Year’s resolution with about 98 percent of the rest of the population. Humans reliably and almost universally terrible at trading immediate gratification for long-term improvements or future gain. It’s why we suffer from largely self-inflicted problems that some dismiss as irrational behaviors which can simply be educated away.  If that were true, societal challenges like drug use, credit card debt, smoking, obesity, or gambling would all respond to a simple plea for rationality.

Though not all economists have swallowed the rationality argument. Some fascinating research out of the University of Chicago has unveiled an interesting view of human behavior and our future selves that also has application for smart and ethical marketers. What Your Future Self Can Teach You  is a piece of academic research that has the potential to alter how marketers message, target, and test.

Marketers have long known the power of context in the right message.  A logical, fact-based message is appropriate in certain circumstances, for certain results and audiences.  At other times, the emotional tug of the heart-strings is more effective.  This research puts that to test in a scientific way with both expected and unexpected results.  The interesting twist is the additional element of the users’ current frame of mind layered with how they think and feel about their own future.

Healthcare and financial marketers, in particular, get some good pointers on how consumer choices now are affected by how connected users feel to their future selves.  Behavioral studies in conjunction with Northwestern colleagues focused on whether you can manufacture situations to bring people closer to their future selves and also make them care about that future version of themselves, to influence the trade-off decisions we make every day.  They found that reminders to make positive trade-offs now for future gain only work when people don’t anticipate much change in their future self.  Presumably, it feels like you are taking care of the current self in that scenario rather than a future you that isn’t recognizable.

Time to start that diet

Understandably, those reminders only worked for those individuals who could relate to that particular reminder.  The example they used was that only overweight participants were motivated to choose a healthy snack more often, after being manipulated to consider and care for their future self. Participants of average weight continued to enjoy their unhealthy snack.

This time shift in our heads is apparently a common phenomenon. People tend to think nostalgically about the past and logically about the future. When it comes to our future selves and future choices, we think we are Spock. However, we are emotionally driven in the present, especially when considering the past. Also, we are rarely as rational as we think we will be at a future point.

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Additionally, how far back or forward one is considering an action or benefit stretches the connection to that past you or future you, weakening the effect.  It’s human nature to believe that the changes ahead for us are all or mostly positive and to interpret past events as more positive than they objectively were at the time – especially relative to current events.  That optimism is predictable and influences the decisions we make today.

Digital marketing presents a wonderful lab to continue to test your messaging effectiveness given this new insight. Need your audience to think rationally?  Get them thinking about their future self. Give them a reason to care about that future self by connecting it to their current state, then remind them of the benefits to be reaped.

Research confirms that just hammering on the benefits is likely to be less effective without the set up proposition. Consider testing messaging on the target audience that highlights how bad choices now can negatively impact a person’s future, against another test group that receives messaging that reinforces taking care of yourself now or even how fast one can leave any negative aspect of their current behavior behind.  If you have a relationship with consumers in a space or spaces you control, you might be able to weave in subtle cues that get users thinking about their future. Alternatively, you can connect to them when they are consuming content that does that job for you.

Need your audience to think emotionally?  The study suggests that you should bring your audience backwards in time to the good ole days, before presenting selling messaging.  It doesn’t mean that you should always directly inject nostalgia messaging. But, it does suggest that for certain marketing opportunities, if your audience is in that nostalgic frame of mind when you make your offer, it will resonate more effectively.

all in the family screenshot-youtube

It will be fun and interesting to see how the academic work plays out in the real world. While we don’t have lab conditions, we can keep these insights in mind to test how our audiences’ future state of mind can inform and support our marketing efforts.

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