Base-rate neglect: a savvy online persuasion technique!

Base-rate neglect refers to “our inability to apply a statistical rule when faced with a counter-example containing stereotypic information” (Bar-Hillel, 1975). In short, we ignore statistics in situations when we shouldn’t! Why is this a savvy online persuasion technique? Because it allows us to influence on what information you base your decisions. Note, this technique can be powerful so it with care!

Base-rate stands for: how often something occurs in the general population. To illustrate that we often ignore the base-rate, read the following experiment:

Suppose there is a group of 100 people, of whom 70 are engineers and 30 are lawyers. Now meet Bart. Bart is a member of this group. Bart really likes to argue with other people during discussions. Is Bart a lawyer or an engineer? Most people who partake in such experiments say that Bart is a lawyer (because he likes arguing and that’s what lawyers do all day). In fact, the probability that Bart is a lawyer is only 30%. What people do is they ignore the base-rate: that 70% of the people in the group is an engineer and thus that the probability that Bart is an engineer is much higher than that he is a lawyer. Thus, you neglected the base-rate when formulating your answer.

Consumer decision making

When we consumers make decisions about products, say an espresso machine, you evaluate that product on its features. But what you actually do is compare these features (e.g. this machine has a 10 liter water reservoir) with what you think is normal or is the base-rate for espresso machines (e.g. most machines have a 2 liter water reservoir so 10 liters is a clear benefit). Based on this assessment you decide to buy this product. However, most of the time we don’t know what the base-rate is. What is the normal reservoir capacity for espresso machines? I don’t know actually…

Because people don’t know the base-rate of things, we can set the base-rate for them. For example, usually online marketers focus on communicating USP’s (with the emphasis on Unique). The rationale is that when we consumers think something is unique, we’ll be more likely to buy it. But they could also just stress some more obvious USP’s. By merely stressing USP’s you make people believe that these are actually unique UPS’s. See for example Amazon. They promote their Kindle Fire by suggesting a base-rate for your: “the most popular apps and games”. Obviously, these apps and games are available on any (Android) device but this sentence suggests otherwise.

3 Online persuasion tips 

  1.  Highlight obvious USP’s: because people usually ignore the base-rate (how many products have feature x), you should also highlight the more obvious USPs. For example, car salesman always point out many details of the car you’re interested in: “This car has an ergonomic dashboard for maximum comfort (all cars have that), anti-impact chasis (required by law), etc.”. They do this because they know you will ignore the fact that all cars have these features. Instead, you probably start thinking: wow, look at all those features this car has!
  2. Manipulate the base-rate: if the base-rate is against you, try to manipulate it. Most orange juice manufacturers do this: 100% orange juice! Even though we all know most orange are 100% pure orange juice, it still make us believe this product is special. Be careful though: do not use this technique to communicate about your “2% defect rate” for legal and ethical reasons.
  3. Set the base-rate: You can also just set the base-rate yourself. Make one version of your product the high-end version. It has all the features you can possibly imagine. This is the base-rate version and you show this version first. Next, you present the second and third version. The second, which is the one you want your customers to buy, has just a few features less than the base-rate version. This version is also priced somewhat lower as well. Because people actually want the base-rate model (the full version, because that is the base-rate for them) but think this version is too expensive, they usually opt for the second version. Just go to any consumer electronic retailer and see if you can detect the base-rate model!

Ok, now you understand what base-rate neglect is and how you can use it. Remember, using the base-rate as an online persuasion tool requires you to think about your business ethics too!

If you want to find out how this or other online persuasion techniques can be applied to your website, feel free to contact me.

“Fear Appeals” An online persuasion booster?

The art of online persuasion sometimes lies in small details. It is not only about selecting appropriate techniques to persuade your customers. It is also about correctly applying these techniques! One such technique is fear-appeals. Fear appeals (or fear-based marketing) can be an effective online marketing strategy. But only when you apply it correctly. In this post you will learn what fear appeals are. And how to apply fear appeals to increase your online conversion.

Note, this post draws on a scientific paper written by my good friend (and outstanding researcher) Gjalt-Jorn Peters.

Fear appeals

A fear appeal is a message designed to elicit fear in an attempt to persuade an individual to pursue a predefined goal (see wikipedia). Advertising based on fear appeals usually paint a picture of what your life will look like if you don’t buy their product. They usually play into existing fears (accidents, hurricanes, flooding, being under-insured, etc.). Or they try to create new fears for you you never even thought off.

The fear appeal strategy is clear: create fear, offer the solution.

The most well-know use of fear appeals is perhaps “quit smoking campaigns”. Everybody knows smoking is bad for your health. Social marketers believe that stressing the negative health consequences motivates people to quit smoking.

Online persuasion using fear appeals

Save driving campaigns are also mostly based on fear appeals. They focus on showing the severe consequences of speeding/not wearing a seatbelt/etc. The more gruesome and vivid the negative consequences are portrayed, the more people will start to drive safely (or so the Australian Office of Road Safety seem to think).

Scientific Research on fear appeals

Research has shown that these fear appeals usually do not work. Why not? Because people direct their attention away from the fear appeal message. Or they start coming up with all sorts of counter-arguments (yes, I smoke but I eat very healthy and there is no family history of heart diseases, my grandpa smoked and lived to become 90, etc.). That being said, research also identified the conditions under which fear appeals can be very effective!

Two elements which make fear appeals successful!

In order to prevent people from not taking the appropriate behavioural action upon scaring them, you should make sure the following two elements are always present in your fear-arousing marketing strategy:

  1. Threat: Use a moderate level of fear (not too extreme) and make people feel susceptible to the threat. For example, insurance companies should scare you to some extent about the risk of car crashes or “in house” fires. That’s good, you need to scare them. However, also be sure to make them feel susceptible to the risk. It can happen to you too! As soon as people start thinking: “naah, this will not happen to me” the campaign becomes ineffective.
  2. Efficacy: tell people what to do. So don’t just tell them to quit smoking or buy that insurance, also tell them how they can do that! Make it easy for people to follow up on your recommendation. Put your call-to-action right next to the fear appeal, so that when you scare them, they immediately hit the “I want to insure” button. Also, be sure to tell them how effective your solution is when they hit the button! “Our insurance covers all you need as a car owner so you don’t have to worry about it anymore!

So, the bottom line is:

Scare them and tell them what to do to avoid the threat!

5 online persuasion tips!

So, how does this translate to an online persuasion setting? First, you need to think carefully if fear appeals are appropriate for your marketing strategy. If so, then always make sure to implement the following tips in your fear appeal message:

1. Threat: be very careful what kind of fear appeals you use. Don’t scare them too little but also not too much! Make sure the threat you use is relevant for your target audience. Make sure they can personally identify with the threat.

2. Efficacy: make sure to boost their efficacy. Provide the solution and convince them this solution works! Put the call-to-action next to the threat so that they can efficiently deal with their feelings of fear. You scared them, so immediately give them your solution!

3. Make it easy: make it very easy for your customers to implement your solution. Do not only provide the call-to-action close to the threat, also make the rest of the process as easy as possible. The easier it is to order, pay for, and use your product the more likely it is they will actually buy it!

4. Cal-to-action: I stressed this already before but: provide a strong call-to-action and implement the call-to-action when you scare them. Once they are scared, they are likely motivated to do something but only if they can do something right away. If not, people start to think and probably conclude that the threat is not applicable to them.

5. Reassure and congratulate: Finally, make them feel good again by saying that they have taken the first step towards a better life. Everything will be OK again. In other words: boost their self-efficacy again!

OK, so now you know how to use fear appeals properly. Tell me in the comment section what you think of the effectiveness of fear appeals. Would you use them? Or did you use them already? What were the results?  Please do share your thoughts on fear appeals with us!

If you want to find out how this or other online persuasion techniques can be applied to your website, feel free to contact me.