Nudging Consumers? Well, That's a Start

Convincing people to change their behaviour is all in the details
By: 
Jordan Whitehouse
One parrot nudges another parrot with its beak.

If you’ve read it in one headline, you’ve likely read it in a hundred others: data is the new oil. And certainly the numbers seem to back that up. Last year in the United States alone companies spent US$12.3 billion on acquiring and analyzing consumer data. One reason for some of that spending is simple: Companies want to understand our attitudes and preferences so that they can predict our behaviour. 

But do our intentions always align with our behaviours?

Perhaps not, says Nicole Robitaille, assistant professor of marketing at Smith School of Business. “There’s often a huge gap between what customers say they’re going to do, or what their preferences are, and what they actually do.”

Take organ donation, for example, which has been an area of interest for Robitaille since she won a public speaking contest on the subject in high school. According to the Canadian Transplant Society, 90 per cent of Canadians support organ and tissue donation, but fewer than 20 per cent have actually made plans to donate.

So how do marketers and policy-makers close these gaps between intention and action? One way is with a simple nudge, says Robitaille. 

Altering behaviour

While the idea of “nudging” has been around for decades in behavioural economics, it wasn’t until the 2008 release of the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness when the strategy became popular with marketers. 

In the book, authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein defined a nudge as something that alters a behaviour in a predictable way without deterring someone from making another choice. “To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid,” they write. “Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”

Since then, nudging has been used widely in the public and private sectors. It’s been credited with improving healthy eatingincreasing timely tax payments and even boosting vaccination rates.

And thanks to Robitaille and a team of researchers, nudging also helped increase organ donation registrations in Ontario. During an eight-week trial at a Service Ontario centre (where people renew their driver’s licence), the researchers made a few simple tweaks to the sign-up process and the messaging around organ donation. With their most effective nudge statement, organ donor registrations rose by 80 per cent. The results of that field study were published in a Journal of Marketing paper in April.  

Four nudging lessons

In 2016, the Ontario government adopted part of the researchers’ recommendation for increasing organ donor registrations. But Robitaille, who has done extensive research on nudging, says her study has several general lessons for anyone looking to implement a nudging strategy. Here, she outlines four important lessons. 

1. Make it easy for people to act 

“When you’re trying to get people to do something, one of the most effective strategies is to make the action as easy as possible to do,” Robitaille says. “For example, when we looked at organ donation in Ontario, the registration process was cumbersome. You’d be asked if you want to register in the middle of your driver’s licence transaction, and, if you said yes, they handed you a lengthy form that was time-consuming and included unnecessary information and questions to complete. So, we first cut out any information and questions that were not required. Then we created a simple form that focused specifically on the decision at hand. We then handed the simplified form out for people to complete while they were waiting in line to renew their driver’s licence. Finally, we tested a series of nudges using our simplified process. And while the nudges were successful, if we hadn’t simplified the process, it is possible we wouldn’t have seen any improvements in registrations.” [Keep reading to find out which nudge statement worked best.]

2. Deliver the information at the right time

“Timing is really important to consider when trying to nudge,” Robitaille explains. “You can have the perfect intervention, but if you give it at the wrong time, it can have no impact. For example, in our organ donation experiment, the government always mails an information brochure on organ donation to customers with their driver’s licence renewal, and they also make it available in Service Ontario centres. However, we found that handing it out specifically while people were waiting to be served, along with a registration form, nearly doubled registration. This illustrates how critical intercepting customers at the right time can be.”

3. Have the right promotional message

“When it comes to motivating action, sending the right message is key,” Robitaille says. “Research in psychology has shown us that perspective taking—putting yourself in the shoes of others—can be very effective at encouraging prosocial behaviour by increasing altruistic and self-interested motives. We tested a few different perspective-taking nudge statements on our simplified form, and while they all improved organ donor registrations compared to the centre’s standard process, the one that performed the best was: ‘If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so, please help save lives today.’ This statement evokes both self-interest and reciprocity by pointing out that if individuals are willing to accept an organ, they should also donate, and, in turn, it led to the most registrations.”  

4. Measure and test

“In order to implement the best nudge strategies, or simply to know what is working and what is not, you have to use evidence-based decision-making,” Robitaille says. “For example, in a pre-test we found that participants did not correctly identify which of our interventions would increase organ donations the most. By running an experiment in the field, we were able to establish which of our interventions had the biggest impact. The gold standard for testing any strategy is to use a randomized controlled trial, but that’s not always possible. When it’s not, even just tracking performance to inform decisions is useful.” Of course, she adds, “if you are interested in running such nudge trials and don’t know where to start, you can always reach out to academics to partner with as well.” 


Bottom line: If you want a nudging strategy that works, analyzing attitudes and intentions won’t be enough, says Robitaille. “You need to focus on behaviours themselves. And some of the key things you can do to encourage behaviours are to make them easy, ask about them at the right time, add behaviourally informed messages and measure to make sure they’re working.”

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