What Advertisers Can Teach Us About Convincing Someone to Change Their Habits
Imagine the Geico gecko pops up on your screen, interrupting a TV show.
He looks at you and says, “Hey can we talk for a minute? Lately, I’ve noticed you keep using the wrong car insurance. It’s bugging me. Can you please stop? I’m sorry. It’s like super annoying when you use the wrong car insurance. Get the right one ok? That’s all thanks!”
We’ve all known someone who refused to change. They engaged in the same frustrating behavior, over and over again, no matter how many times you asked them to stop. You begged you pleaded, you rationalized, but you might as well have explained quantum physics to a brick.
Often, the change we want seems simple. A loud coworker seems incapable of shutting up. A spouse tracks mud across the carpet every time it rains. A roommate always leaves used ketchup packets on the table after they order takeout.
Sometimes, the problem isn’t what they’re doing. It’s what they’re not doing. If only your significant other would join you for yoga once a week. If only your kid would do their homework on time.
If you have this problem, it's time to think like a marketer.
Armed with data about you, marketers build their brand. They want you to feel as though their product is a natural extension of your personality and your goals. They craft emotional triggers to remind you to want their products. They build sales funnels, stores, and onboarding processes. They design each one to overcome your objections and roadblocks.
If you want to persuade someone to change their behavior, you need to start with audience research. At the least, ask the following questions.
Questions to Ask
What are their private goals and motivations? What do they want, and why do they want it? Try to be specific, and think about goals they might not share.
What are their values? How do they see themselves, and even more important — how do they want other people to perceive them?
What are their roadblocks? Is there anything that might be preventing them from engaging in the behavior you want?
When you want to change someone’s behavior, it’s natural to focus on the negatives. You’re more aware of what they’re doing wrong than what they’re doing right. Focusing on the negatives is one of the primary ways you’ll derail your conversation.
Watch any car insurance ad, and you’ll see that they start with the assumption that you care about safety and you care about saving money. The ads are often flattering.
One even begins “you’re a good driver…”
There’s a famous story about Benjamin Franklin. He wanted to convince a rival to become a friend. So he sent a letter to the rival requesting a small favor. The rival did the favor, and they became friends.
The strategy is now known as the Ben Franklin Effect. It works because people like to maintain a sense of internal consistency. We don’t do favors for enemies. Therefore, if we’ve done someone a favor, they must be friends. It might not make sense, but it’s how our brains work.
If you want to change someone’s behavior, make a list of all the ways they’re already doing what you want. There are many goals you have in common, and many other ways they show they care. To convince someone to change their behaviors, you need to recognize and encourage what they're already doing.
Questions to Ask
What is this person already doing that shows they care?
Build a Brand
Marketers usually focus on branding before they focus on anything else. An ugly website or a bad reputation will make it hard to convince customers to change their behavior.
Before you tell your roommate, significant other, or coworker to change their behavior, take a look at your habits. What are you doing that drives them crazy? What could you do that would make them happy?
You might notice something missing here: demands and ultimatums. Unless you have a lot of power, ultimatums don’t work. You lose credibility whenever you make a demand or ultimatum and then don’t follow through. You put yourself in a corner and you put the other person’s defenses up.
If you want to change someone’s behavior, you need to come to the table from a position of compassion, calm, and authority.
Questions to Ask
What could you do to improve your relationship with this person? What are some things that would make them really happy? Where might you be letting them down?
Set the Stage
Marketers know that timing is important. That’s why you see beer commercials during football games, and shampoo commercials during reruns of The Bachelor.
All too often, when we want someone to change a habit, we bring it up at the worst possible time. We bring it up after a long day at work, when they’re feeling stressed, or when they’re thinking about other things.
Our comments often seem to come out of nowhere. The other person might have no idea there’s a problem. Despite our good intentions, they may feel attacked.
Before you mention anything, start setting the stage. Start noticing and appreciating the other person for all the kind and considerate things they do — especially anything that relates to the behavior you want them to change.
By the time you bring the issue up, they should be well aware that it’s something important to you, because you're always appreciative when they do a good job.
Try to find a time when the other person is not in the middle of something. They shouldn’t feel too busy, or too stressed out. You should be on good terms. It doesn’t hurt to do a small favor for them shortly before you bring the issue up.
One of the best times can be when the subject comes up and fits within the context of what you’re already working on. For example, if you need to have a conversation with a roommate about cleanliness, wait till you’re cleaning together.
Questions to Ask Yourself
How can I set the stage so that when I bring this issue up, the other person isn’t surprised or upset?
Build a Sales Funnel
Marketers use a technique called a Sales Funnel or sometimes a User Journey Map. They map out each small step they want you to take before your buy their products. Each step of the map usually has a single CTA — a "call to action." The CTA is the one step the marketers want you to take to get closer to becoming a buyer.
A sales funnel might look like this:
Your search for an air purifier on Google.
Later, you see a promoted article in your news feed about clean air.
You click it and read the article.
The end of the article offers a discount on air purifiers if you share your email.
You enter your email.
More steps follow before you buy their air purifier. Each step is small and easy to take, but it gets you closer to making a purchase.
Questions to Ask
What would a sales funnel for this behavior change look like? How can I break this behavior down into small steps?
Have you ever ridden a Peloton? They are far more expensive than competitors. But, they are popular anyway. When you ride a Peloton bike, you’re part of a live class, competing with real people. Instructors shout encouragement while upbeat music pumps up your adrenaline.
Marketers spend a lot of money making their products fun to buy and use. There are lots of ways to make habit change fun, too.
Imagine you have a messy roommate. Asking them to clean isn’t working. Instead, try scheduling a Saturday afternoon to clean together. You get a bottle of wine, turn on some pump-up music, and you reward yourselves with a nice dinner out when you’re done.
Questions to Ask
How can I make this habit change fun?
Can I establish a competition or goal with a reward at the end?
When you finally broach the topic, don’t start with the problem. Start with appreciating the other person, and highlighting your shared goals and values. (This is why car ads often show family vacations rather than detailed tech specs.)
Remember, your goal is for the other person to see how the desired behavior lines up with what they want — not how it lines up with what you want. You want them to see how the first step in your sales funnel already aligns with their goals, motivations, and past behaviors.
Consider the example of the roommate who always leaves used ketchup packets on the table after eating a takeout dinner. You’re cleaning the apartment together because they have a date coming over.
You might say, “Thanks for wiping down the table. It looks great. What do you think of moving the garbage can closer to make it easier to keep the table clean for when your date comes by later?”
Once your roommate gets in the habit of using the trashcan, then you can move it back to where it was.
Questions to Ask
How can I line up the first step in the sales funnel with the goals the other person is already working towards.
It would be nice if it was that easy. But, if you’ve ever tried to change someone’s behavior, you know it’s not. I’ve known plenty of people who will litter or leave a mess even with garbage can right next to them.
Marketers plan for roadblocks. They know that all sorts of objections can derail a sales funnel. Customers can walk away for all sorts of unexpected reasons.
You’re going to have to prepare for the other person to have all sorts of reasons not to change their behavior. Their reasons might not make sense to you. The other person might not tell you their reasons at all.
When you get pushback, avoid the temptation to fall into your old habits. Don’t start making demands or trying to reason with them. Instead, remind them of your shared goals and values, and ask them to propose solutions.
Try a variation of this phrase:
I want us to ____. How can we ____?
Example: I want us to have more guests over. How can we keep the apartment cleaner?
Salespeople know that the key to a sale is to ask questions. The more data you gather about what the other person thinks, wants, and needs, the more you can work together to find a solution.
There’s a saying, that a leopard can’t change its spots. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. It’s true. You’ll rarely convince someone to change by badgering them. But, if you understand them, you can remove the obstacles that are holding them back, and give them the options they need to succeed.
By now, everyone has heard of Pavlov’s dogs. He trained them to get hungry every time he rang a bell. All he had to do was ring a bell every time he fed the dogs. It was a simple trigger -> habit -> reward cycle.
Marketers love this technique. They’ve created all sorts of cycles like this that we don’t even notice anymore.
Trigger: Start Movie. Habit: Popcorn. Reward: Yummy.
Trigger: Drive Home. Pass McDonalds. Habit: Drive-thru. Reward: Full.
Trigger: Commute to Work. Habit: Starbucks. Reward: Energy.
To create a lasting behavior-change, you should consider this trigger-habit-reward system as well. For example, to get that roommate to keep cleaning, you could establish a trigger like “every Saturday when they get back from the gym, we'll clean together, then grab lunch.”
If you do it consistently a few times and make sure it’s always followed by a reward, pretty soon your roommate will feel weird if they don’t clean on a Saturday.
A Word of Warning:
Don’t punish desirable behaviors. The person you’re trying to change will not be perfect the first time around - or even the 50th. To an expert, their efforts may feel pathetic and half-assed. But they are still efforts. If you complain and criticize when someone is trying their best, you will break the trigger-habit-reward cycle. As much as possible, meet every effort they make, no matter how small, with encouragement.
Questions to Ask:
What triggers can we create for this behavior?
What is the specific habit I want to encourage?
How can we reward the behavior?
Putting it All Together in a Marketing Plan
To change someone's behavior, think like a marketer. Most people approach behavior change from the perspective of an enemy combatant, ready to use threats, ultimatums, and arguments to get what they want. That doesn't work in marketing, and it won't work with the people you're trying to change, either.
Instead, do your audience research. Why should they care what you have to say? How do your goals align? Build a brand. Focus on yourself before you try to change other people. Map out a sales funnel. Break the behavior change down into small, achievable steps. Create a customer experience — make the behavior change fun and rewarding. Provide white-glove customer service, audience engagement, and sell like a pro — ask "how" questions instead of making demands. Finally, create sales-triggers and rewards to make permanent habits.
A note on addictions and mental health: These techniques are written to help you replace conflict with positive, cooperative behaviors. They are not meant to be manipulative and will not work if you use them that way. They are not designed to overcome addictions and mental health problems. For example, you are not going to cure a compulsive hoarder this way.