Power of the Norm

Power of the Norm

14 November 2012

No, I'm not talking about the big guy from Cheers (although to be fair he did look as though he'd take a bit of stopping if he got up a head of steam), but the power of social norms.

Behavioural psychologists have long understood the importance of social norms in influencing people’s behaviours, and their power has been widely utilised by B2C marketers, indeed many advertising campaigns’ primary objective is to persuade the audience that consumption of a particular product is ‘normal’ for people like the viewer.  But are B2B organisations doing enough to leverage this human trait to their advantage?

A recent article in HBRC by Steve Martin, MD of Influence at Work, highlighted how powerful perceived social norms can be in changing behaviours. Martin quoted the experience of UK HMRC, which has experimented with a variety of different approaches to persuade late payers to settle outstanding tax debts. HMRC found that by including information about general collection rates (i.e. 94% of UK citizens pay their taxes on time), rather than threats of legal action, response rates increased from 68% to 73%. When the approach was modified to include stats for the percentage of people in the offender’s own town paying on time, the increase was even more marked, up to 83%.

This contrasted to a US initiative which sought to persuade people of the need to pay by highlighting just how many people avoided taxes. The effect was the opposite of that intended  a 22% increase in tax fraud. People clearly felt more inclined to avoid their taxes as a result of knowing that many other citizens were already doing the same.

There are other examples where perceptions of social norms have been used successfully to influence peoples’ behaviours. Robert Cialdini, a leading researcher in the field, ran studies showing that hotel guests were more likely to reuse their bath towels when informed that the majority of previous guests on their floor had reused theirs. Highlighting social norms has also been shown to help persuade patients to keep doctor’s appointments or students to reduce alcohol consumption. The evidence consistently shows that our actions are heavily influenced by what we perceive to be normal, driven by an instinct, honed through many millennia of evolution, to conform with the group.

Although social norms are not traditionally used as much in a B2B marketing context, nonetheless I think there are many situations where we can use them to our advantage. To view a number of examples, read the full article on our sister agency, OneGTM's, blog at http://www.onegtm.com/our-insights/