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Hack the Mind: Using Psychology to Boost Online Engagement

Your brain is a trickster.

It leads you wherever it pleases—while you remain completely unaware of its true motivations.

But as professional communicators, we can recognize our brains’ habits—and make them work for us.

In this entertaining, story-filled workshop, we’ll explore our minds’ most surprising tendencies. And then we’ll explore how they intersect with your website, marketing materials, and overall brand strategy.

You’ll leave with a new understanding of the subtle, predictable, and (often) irrational ways we humans think. And you’ll get equipped with concrete ways to apply these great “brain hacks” to your organization.

By the end of this session, you should be able to:

  • Identify the irrational ways humans actually think, judge, and choose
  • Learn to market to—and around—these “habits of the mind”
  • Nudge your users to engage more deeply with your organization in clever ways online


Alright, let’s go ahead and get started. Welcome to “Hack the Mind - Using Psychology to Boost Online Engagement” from Mighty Citizen. Thanks again, to everyone who decided to take an hour out of what I’m sure is a very busy day to spend some time talking about this stuff. And let’s go ahead and just jump right in if that’s ok with y’all.

So, let’s take a look at this spinning figure, and in your mind try to figure out - is she turning clockwise or counter-clockwise. I’ll give you a second - clockwise or counter-clockwise? Alright do you have your answer? So of course, as you might have already suspected, the answer is both. Of course, depending on your perspective.

Let’s do another little test here shall we? I’m going to reveal some words in these triangles, and I want you to just read them aloud, as you normally would, kind of as quickly as you might. Ok? So, just read these aloud and we’ll see how it goes. Cool, so I’m guessing most of you said, “Paris in the Spring,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Bird in the Hand.” But, if you look closely, you might notice that those aren’t actually the words. In the first triangle it actually says, “Paris in the the Spring,” “One in a a Lifetime,” “Bird in the the Hand.” Fascinating right? Well, of course it is, because the brain is weird.

And that’s what we’re going to be talking about today, the fact that the human mind is complex, often very irrational, and quite easily trickable. And so what do I want to accomplish by the end of this session today? It’s one: I just want us to appreciate the complexity and how the human mind responds to messages that you might put out, especially from your organization and especially online. And then, I’m hoping that you have the inspiration and the tools to begin experimenting with the psychological tactics in order to better communicate with your target audiences.

Now, I know there’s a lot of associations, non-profits, universities, government agencies on the call today; and so a lot of what we’re going to talk about is going to try to do it through the lense of mission-focused marketing and communications.

This is Sigmund Freud. I should point out very clearly this is “not me.” I am not Sigmund Freud. I’m also, as a matter of fact, not Frasier Crane, or his brother Niles. I’m not a professional psychologist or psychiatrist, but I am Andrew - that’s me. I’m a Content Strategist here at Mighty Citizen. Mighty Citizen is a full-service marketing and branding organization that does specialize in mission-focused communications. I’ve spent just about my entire career in that field - marketing and communications. But I have read a bunch of books about this stuff, and I’ve done all this work with my clients so I’m hoping to share some of what I’ve learned with you.

Attention Span

Now, I know we’re on a webinar, and I know that webinars have become more a part of our lives lately of course. And it’s interesting knowing what we know about the attention span of human beings. Now, back in 2000, a global study across various cultures found that the average human has about a 12 second attention span. Now that was really impressive compared to the goldfish, goldfish came in at a measly 9 seconds; but when the same study was conducted a number of years later, our attention span has plummeted to about 8 seconds. I’ve seen reports that put it under 8 seconds, so now we’re actually behind goldfish. Now why is this important? Well, it’s because you have precious few moments to seize the attention of someone who wasn’t actively looking to give you their attention. You have about 8 seconds to first capture their interest and then convert that into real engagement. Now that’s not especially easy given the 8 seconds, but it’s really really daunting when you consider the amount of content that you are competing with.

You know a lot of times, organizations think “ok, who are our direct competitors?” So, if I’m a University, well, maybe it’s the other universities in my class. Or if I’m an association, maybe there is a competing one, or maybe there’s a regional or a state version of these associations. But the truth is online, you’re not just competing with those folks, you are competing with the entirety of the internet, you’re competing against that 8 second attention span along with the massive amount of content that goes online every 60 seconds. So this is updated for 2020, and you can see, if you look around the wheel there, 2.5 million snapchats created, 694,000 images scrolled on Instagram, 4 almost 5 million videos are viewed on YouTube every single minute. So, that’s some of what you’re up against. In fact, a study that came out of China suggested that 2.5 quintillion bytes of content or data are created every single day.

Now for the human brain, that is quite a bit to take in, but what’s interesting is we know that the brain processes somewhere in the million of 400 billion bits of information per second. Which seems like a lot, but we’re only aware, that is our consciousness, our conscious understanding of what is actually happening, is limited to somewhere around 2000 bits of data per second. And so, when we talk about communicating effectively with our audiences - as professional marketers - what we really should be doing is focusing on is how do we get to the subconscious understanding? How do we bypass that very limited prefrontal superficial awareness, and catch someone where it really matters. Where they might be more able to be more easily persuaded to do what it is we hope they will do, whether that’s make a donation, sign up for a form, visit our campus, become a member, etc.

So the human brain obviously, is wildly complex, but the real complexity happens without our awareness of it at all.

A Quick Note About Psychographics

Now, I do want to start with a little conversation about psychographics. And we put this in here, because we get asked this by clients now and then; because you know, demographics we’ve heard about for a long time. But I want to try something first - and forgive me, I’m a one man machine over here today, but I’m going to launch a poll based on this question and I want to see what the response is. I’m going to launch that poll, it should pop up on your screen - let’s see if this is working. Go to webinar yesterday, we had another one of these webinars, has been working intermittently. But let’s go ahead and see if this works, the question is, “does your organization have and/or use psychographic profiles of your users?” Have you all done that research and that work? Let’s see - so far it looks like overwhelmingly it’s “no.” Only 4% of y’all are saying “yes” and that seems actually a little high to me, but it’s pretty impressive that there are some of you who’ve done that work. So let’s talk a little bit more about what exactly that is.

So, let’s imagine that we have someone who’s in our target audience, and we’ll call her Deepa. We know she exists, or maybe we are just using her as a stand-in for a more generalized user persona, so that we can begin to really craft a deeper understanding of who it is we’re trying to communicate with. So that we can obviously communicate more effectively. Now, a lot of organizations are capable of doing demographic analysis right? Of their users. And demographics are anything you can put on a form - things like gender, location, level of education, family status, professional status, country of origin, income, religion - and they might come up with a user profile that looks something like this. Now this is not useless at all, there is use in this. I worry sometimes, though, when organizations try to substitute this for an understanding of what the messaging should be.

Now a psychographic profile on the other hand, might look something like this. We identify a user who we want to go after who is generally extroverted, might be labeled as aggressive or type A, highly conscientious, maybe more traditional in their views, and definitely more family-focused maybe than other types of users. So as you can see, just from this very bare bones psychographic profile what we’re really trying to get at is understanding what is the personality profile of the people we want to go after.

Now when I say “personality profile” what do I mean? Well, probably the most famous or the most widely-used personality assessment is called OCEAN. Which is really just an acronym for openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Now some of those words, especially neuroticism, might seem negative but they’re not technically negative. And the idea is that a lot of psychologists when coming up with personality profiles, basically try to plot each person on a scale of let’s say 0-100 on each one of these five measurements. So are they typically more open or less? Are they more conscientious or less? Are they more extroverted or introverted? Are they more agreeable or disagreeable? And are they more, sort of calm and accepting, or are they more neurotic? And once you sort of map that, then you have the beginnings of what might be considered a psychographic profile for your users.

Demographics vs Psychographics

Now I want to make sure I’m real clear about the distinction here, so demographics are really effective at helping shape your overall organizational communication strategy. In other words, what channels are we going to go after? Where are we going to invest our resources? What is the timing of the work we’re going to do? But psychographics on the other hand, are much more helpful actually shaping the messages.

So to put it maybe very simply, demographics tell you the how. Because if we know that a certain large percentage of our target audience are mothers who live within a hundred miles with college degrees, then that gives us some insight into where and when we should try to intercept them and get their attention. But it doesn’t tell us, to any real reasonable degree, what we should actually say and how we should actually say it when we do have those 8 seconds of their attention. Psychographics begin to tell us more of that; because psychographics speak to the personality, and the personality of course helps shape how people actually respond to different messages. So that’s the value of psychographics as opposed to demographics. You need both to have a comprehensive picture of your users.

How to Gather Psychographics

And then once we get here, usually the next question I get is - “well how do we do that? How do we map out psychographic profiles?” Well, the fact is that it’s a very high touch process most of the time.

1. In-person interviews (Pro-tip: Use silence to dig deep)

So, the first is conducting in-person interviews. Here at Mighty Citizen, a large part of what we do is research. This is part of it - we sit down with users, either prospective users or current users of a clients services or mission and we just ask them a bunch of questions. And here’s a pro-tip by the way, if you decide to do this, if you decide to go out and interview some of your users, I cannot overstate the value of using silence to really dig deep. You ask somebody a question, then let them answer, often it’s a pretty brief or short answer, but if you just are silent, you just wait an uncomfortable extra second or two, people will fill the silence and that - in my experience - is where you really get those insights that reveal why they do what they do, how they think about you, how they think about themselves.

2. Focus Groups (Pro-tip: Start with a questionnaire)

Now another thing you can do is focus groups, now I want to make sure that we understand the difference between interviews and focus groups; because I think a lot of times we mistake them. Interviews are really good for generalized knowledge, focus groups are especially good for comparing options. So. say for example your organization was considering rolling out a big new fundraising campaign, or maybe even like an ad campaign, something that you’re going to put out into the world - a new series of continuing education classes; but you want to understand if anyone is going to like them or use them before you spend all the time rolling them out. Focus groups can be really good for that, because they allow you to understand how a group of people compare one idea or option to another. Focus groups are not good for generalized sort of personality insight, but they can still help you share that identity. Oh by the way, if you decide to run a focus group please use a questionnaire at first; because what happens by the end of the focus group is the one or two loudest voices in the room dominate, even with a good facilitator this is really common. And a questionnaire allows you to capture some really good information up front and then allow the folks to talk.

3. Surveys (Pro-tip: Question writing is key)

And the third thing you can do of course is a survey. This is a more scalable option. If you were to go to mightycitizen.com/insights we have some resources to help you design, and run, and launch, and analyze surveys. In fact, I think we might have another live webinar coming up at the end of this month, but the point here is surveys allow you to gather a lot of information at once. And that’s why we love them because they’re a relatively low investment of time and energy and a potentially high investment of data use, but question writing is critical. One wrong question can totally skew the insight that you think you’ve gained; because one thing we say here around the office is that, “bad questions don’t stink.” So if you write a survey with bad questions, unless you’ve done a bunch of them and understand the science behind them it’s really easy to not realize that you’re sending out a bad question - there’s some sort of bias built into it. So, make sure you use those three resources in order to create a great survey and then of course you combine all three of these and you can really begin to bucket out your different personas within your larger target audiences by a deeper understanding of their psychology. Now obviously, we’re still generalizing here, each person is a unique and wonderful thing; but for purposes of mass communication, which is presumably what you do most days, you want to spend the time creating some generalized personas. We’re always just trying to get a little more sophisticated in our messaging.

The Two Ways We Think

So I want to talk for a minute, I want to revisit this idea of how we think - so that we all are on the same page with: how when we go through our day our brain processes what it encounters. In order to do that, let’s do a little math problem. In fact. We’re going to do two math problems back to back. Alright, here’s your first question: what is (2x2)? If you said “4” you are correct. Ok, another easy one here (23x17)? Ok, you might, no opening the calculator app. Not allowed. So this is a really good demonstration of the way our minds process information.

The first we might call “system 1” and the second we might call “system 2.” In fact, the naming of those came from Daniel Kahneman, and his partner Amos Tversky who shaped this idea in their behavioral economic and psychological testing throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s, and into the 80s. And in a nutshell - system 1 is our conscious thought and system 2 is our more deliberative thought. By the way, the answer is “391,” if you’re curious.

Let’s flesh this out just a little bit more. Words we might use to describe our system 1 way of thinking, and by the way system 1 does the vast majority of our “thinking” throughout our days. It is the fast, intuitive, emotional - that’s going to be key, we’re going to revisit that here in a minute - and our unconscious thought. I think a second ago I said our conscious thought, that was a mispeak.

System 2 on the other hand is more slow, deliberate, logical, and conscious. So, when we say, “let me think about that” what we’re kind of referring to is system 2. When we hear (2x2) we don’t have to think about it, in the way we traditionally think about the word “think.” It is not a deliberative slow process where we have to crunch up our brow and think “ok, 2 x 2?” That’s all system 1 - fast, intuitive, emotional, unconscious. But when we hear (23x17) we actually have to start doing real math in our head, carrying the one etc. That is slow, deliberative, logical, and conscious.

Now, as - this is a little preview of what I’m about to get to - but, as communicators we want to be, most of the time, aiming for worming our way into our audience’s system 1. Because that is where the bulk of the thinking happens, and that is the emotional self. And we want to touch that emotional self in order to be able to persuade them to engage with us. A really great metaphor for the system 1 system 2 the thing that Kahneman uses is - you know how you can drive to work and pull up in your parking spot, well back when we did drive to work, but when you drive to work and you pull up in your parking spot and it kind of dawns on you that you have no idea what just happened for the whole last 20-30 minutes. Like, you were just driving, you weren’t thinking about driving, you just sort of appeared at work because you drive there every day - that’s system one. It’s offloading all of that deliberative thought onto the system 1 so that you can just drive.

Now, if you’re driving and suddenly you have to parallel park - that is system 2. You can’t just do that intuitively, you have to be a little more deliberate, you have to pay attention. You have to focus your attention on a specific task. Those the two ways our brains work throughout the day, but the question of course is, “what does this have to do with marketing or communications?” And to quote again Mr. Kahneman in his wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow “If there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. Laziness is built deep into our nature.” And of course he’s being a little cheeky there because what he’s talking about is sort of cognitive laziness. Our brains don’t want to have to think when we’re driving to work, “ok put that foot on the gas, not too far just enough, ok hit the blinker” if they can offload that onto system 1 it will. Our brain is constantly looking for shortcuts so that we don’t have to use up what is actual energy on thinking.

Cognitive Ease

So, your mission, if you choose to accept it as a communicator, is to constantly pursue cognitive ease. Cognitive ease is just “the measure of how easy it is for our brains to process information.” In other words, we want to make things easy. Easy on our users, easy on our audiences, easy on each other, because the moment things don’t become easy on our brains and we have to start thinking and our logical self fires up, we’re far less likely to pay attention, to stick around, to engage deeply, and to feel anything. I’m going to show you an example of what I mean.

This is the, admittedly former, homepage of an organization called the Montana Association of Counties. If this is hurting your brain, you’re not alone. This is an example we love to use to show what cognitive strain might look like. If you’re a user who needs to do something with the Montana Association of Counties and you come to this website, after you recover from a brief cry, and begin looking around, you’re going to find it very difficult to find. There’s one, two, three, I count at least four menus, five menus, a big ol’ block of text, small text, there’s a lot going on here that makes it difficult. And instead of letting system 1 naturally move us through the site, system 2 is being taxed and asked to do a lot of work, and it’s just not as much fun and it’s certainly not as persuasive. So the question is, “what does produce cognitive strain?”

What Produces Cognitive Strain…

Well, there’s a few things that you can avoid to avoid it. So, first of all,

1. Poor Writing

If the user has to read a sentence twice, you’re in trouble.

Your writing should be top notch and as short as necessary to do the job.

2. Too Many Choices

Every piece of content should have a single call to action.

So if you put up a page on your website or you send out a marketing email, or you put together some donor letter or an annual report, or you launch some sort of campaign - to the best of your ability really focus it, keep the writing good and the choices low. Too many choices makes us think too much, we don’t want - maybe I’m being a little cheeky when I say this but, I think in general, you want the audiences that you’re trying to serve not to think. You want them to feel. We want less thinking, more feeling.

3. Too Many Steps

If you’re asking the user to do something, it should be short.

Similar to too many choices, is too many steps to get to those choices. If you’ve got a donation page because you’re a non-profit or what have you, I should be able to donate within maybe 2 mouse clicks. I mean, finished donating within 2 or 3 mouse clicks. And if you obviously are typing in a few pieces of information.

4. Unfamiliar Design

Don’t try to reinvent the wheel.

And finally, unfamiliar design. It’s nice to push the limits, there is a case to be made for being provocative and unexpected as a way to engage users and seize their attention, but if you go too far afield from what your audience’s know and expect, then they’re going to have to think too hard. So we want to sort of make our progress iterative when it comes to our communications and not just sort of wholesale reinvent things.

Oh, by the way I just wanted to provide an example of what I might consider, a cognitively easy homepage. This is the homepage of the American Association of Nurse Practitioner (AANP) and I think it’s just a really nice example of ease. It feels like a website, we’ve all seen websites, plenty of them, the menus are as simple as they need to be, there’s not five of them, there’s a clear call to action right on the front, there’s not multiple choices headlining the thing - so just one of many examples I’m sure we could find or cognitive ease.

What produces cognitive ease?

So, just as a reminder, keep communications as simple as possible. That says donor communications but really it applies to everybody. Offload tasks from prospective donors whenever possible, and give information more than ask for it.

So, again I think you’re starting to kind of, sure you’re kind of like “yeah I get it Andrew,” basically we want to keep things simple, focused, have a single call to action, don’t ask people to do things that they don’t absolutely have to do right? You know, the example number two that I always think of is when I go to fill out some sort of form online, and it asks me for, say, my suffix. Or even my prefix. Like you don’t need that, you really do not need that. You’re not going to do anything with that, stop asking me for it right?

And number three might be, even though this is a way to produce cognitive ease, it actually might serve better as like a thesis statement for the value of content marketing. Our job as marketers and communicators is not to get it’s to give and then if we give and give and give and give, eventually we will get - it’s just math folks. But it works great with specific communications too.

Ok, and finally, create more structure online and in your fundraising emails. Structure is really, and what I mean by structure is just make sure your entire website site map and individual pages have a clear repeatable structure. Because the truth is people do consume things differently online than off. We know that. And so you can sort of disobey certain rules when you’re putting something in print, but online we need to reinforce patterns that people are used to. Again, all of this in an attempt to keep people feeling and not thinking too hard.

Some Heuristics

Alright, this is the last section of the talk. And basically what we’re going to do here is we’re going to go over heuristics. There’s probably more than a hundred heuristics that have been identified and officially named, we’re going to look at about five or six; because they’re the most relevant to our work in communications. But, if you’re curious about this we’re also going to share with you what we might call a heuristic cheat sheet, which lists more of them and some descriptions and examples.

And you’re like, “ok, but what the hell is a heuristic?” Well, a heuristic is “any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal, but sufficient for the immediate goals.” Now, if you’re reading that and thinking, “didn’t you just spend seven minutes talking about how everything needs to be easy, and then you give me a definition like that?” Well, you’re right. Heuristic is just a rule of thumb. It’s a fancy word for a rule of thumb. And when we’re talking about cognitive heuristics what we’re basically saying is, “here are all the ways that the human brain takes shortcuts in order, again, to get things out of system 2 and deep into that easy system 1 mode of thinking. These are all the rules of thumb that our brains employ so that we can get through our days without having to deliberately think about every single thing we encounter. Heuristics are very, very powerful, highly demonstrable - in other words we know this stuff happens across all humans - you know, obviously some to lesser degrees than others. But we know that these are the rules of thumbs that humans have adopted unknowingly.


So, the first one I want to talk about is an affect. I sometimes want to say a-fect. Just so we’re not saying effect. So, basically affect is just, “people make decisions quickly by bringing their emotional response into play.” And you know, I do a number of webinars and conference presentations and what not, on a pretty good diverse set of subjects and it seems like no matter what I’m talking about I always want to end up talking about this, or finding a way to talk about this. And when I say “this” I mean, the role that emotion plays in how we respond and how we persuade others to respond. And it goes back to what I said a minute ago, we want people feeling not - let me give you an example of what I mean.

So, this is an example of an advertisement from the Truth Initiative. You’ve probably heard of the Truth Initiative, or encountered their work. The Truth Initiative is an anti-teen smoking campaign. It’s been around over 20 years now I think. And what they do, the Truth Initiative uses emotional advertisements, this is just one. They used to run a bunch of commercials - one of the most famous ones I remember is, they ran a commercial where they pulled up in front of the headquarters of Philip Morris, the cigarette manufacturers, and they opened the back of this van and they pull out all these body bags - like full body bags, and just start loading them on the steps of the headquarters. And they yell up at them “this is the number of people that your products kill every day.” I mean, that’s pretty provocative messaging right? It’s very old, unexpected, and emotional. The emotion being some combination of anger and fear.

About the same time that the Truth Campaign started another campaign started to try to get teenagers not to smoke and this campaign was called “Think. Don’t Smoke.” “Think. Don’t Smoke” ran for a number of years, a lot more traditional - not emotional, not out there, not bold, not provocative, very appealing to logic. If you smoke, it will cost you this much money, and you might get these diseases some day, and it will make your breath smell bad, etc. etc. etc. Oh, if you’re curious “Think. Don’t Smoke” was actually run by Philip Morris. That’s right. The cigarette manufacturers. They were forced to run these ads when they lost a number of high-profile lawsuits in the 90s.

So here we have, two attempts to get teens not to smoke. One is emotional, one is highly logical. When analyzed, we learned that teens who were exposed only to the emotional campaign of the Truth Initiative were 66% less likely to ever smoke. Wow. That’s pretty impressive right? I mean by any sort of ad measure, that is a huge conversion rate. Now, the question I’ll let you answer for yourself is - what was the reduction among teens exposed only to the “Think. Don’t Smoke” ad? Well, the answer is 36%. Oh, that is 36% more likely. So these teens are more likely to smoke if they are appealed to by logic, and far less likely to smoke when appealed to with emotion.

How to use the Affect Heuristic

So how do you use this in your communications? The first is just, as simple as, use emotion. Acknowledge that you are communicating with emotional creatures. I think sometimes we appeal far too much to the logical side - now how do we do this? How do we appeal to emotion? Well, we tell stories, we acknowledge our own humanity. We don’t pretend that we’re robots and they are robots. These are the four human emotions by the way: mad, sad, glad, and afraid. And, every other emotion is pretty much a combination or shade of these four basic emotions. And of course as you might guess, fear - afrad right? And maybe in a distant second anger, are the best ways to persuade people. And I’m not encouraging you to be craven or to stir up fear where it doesn’t exist - gosh knows we don’t need any more of that these days. But, people have actual fears, and if your organization can do something to calm or assuage their fears, then it would probably be silly not to at least acknowledge that. And to acknowledge how you can make their lives better by improving their emotional state right? Feeling not thinking. And so that’s the affect heuristic.


Alright, let’s talk about this one. This one, I’m guessing a lot of you have heard of before. It’s kind of woven its way into pop culture a little bit more. Anchoring - so anchoring is just “the human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered, which we might call the anchor, when making decisions.” Now, if we were in a room at a conference right now during this talk, I would have already conducted this really cool experiment that we do that really drives this point home. Unfortunately, we’re online and it’s really not possible to do this easily online. But let me tell you what we do in the room.

So the first is, we hand out a bunch of questionnaires to everyone in the room. Each person gets a questionnaire, and haf the room unknowingly gets one version of the questionnaire and the other half of the room gets another version, and the two versions are almost identical. The only difference is the red text that you see there. So it’s a two question questionnaire. One is “Is the tallest redwood tree in California more or less than 150 feet?” and number two is “What’s your best estimate of how tall the tallest redwood tree in California is?” So they say “yes or no” to question one, and then they fill out their guess on question 2. Now the other half of the room gets this version of the questionnaire, and the only difference is instead of saying “is it taller or shorter than 150 feet” is we upped it way up to “810 feet.” And then we ask them to provide their guess. And what happens inevitably is the two guesses for question 2 are widely different based on the anchor from question 1. So, on average folks guess on version A when they’re anchored to 150 feet, they guess it’s about 225 feet. Now, the version B where folks are anchored to 810 feet, the average response is 1,125 feet. Wow that’s quite a big difference. And the only thing that accounts for that huge difference in their perception was that random number in question number 1. If you’re curious, the actual answer is 380 feet. That’s anchoring at its most obvious.

How to Use Anchoring

But of course the question is, “how do we actually use this?” How do we use the fact that the first number or thing people encounter affects how they perceive the things or numbers immediately following it. Well the most obvious is in sort of online forms - especially when there’s some sort of purchase. So here I’m especially talking to the non-profits, I’m talking to the associations out there who are trying to get memberships. I might be even talking to the universities and their fundraising. Here’s an example - this is actually from Zoom believe it or not. Zoom, which has suddenly become such a huge part of everybody’s life, but Zoom says “alright I’m going to anchor you to a $14.99 montly cost to use our product.” And then suddenly, the next number seems lower, I mean it is lower, but it seems lower even though it’s an annual billing. So, notice that - one is “we’ll charge you month to month,” but what Zoom really wants, they don’t want that month to month, they want that annual bill. That’s much better for their strategic objectives. So, they anchor at a higher monthly price, then the annual cost seems like much more of a saving then it would have been if it said, $149.90 annual. So when designing donor forms, when designing membership levels, when designing anything where you have a real clear objective. I want the user to do X, decide whether you can anchor them to some other option, so that in comparison, what you really want them to do seems much more reasonable.

Decoy Effect

Similar to anchoring, is something else, and I will show you an example of what I mean. If I’m at a movie theater and they have two sizes of popcorn, small for $6 and a large for $12, most folks - and this is an actual study by the way, so when I say most folks I mean it literally - end up going for the small. But, when you introduce a third option, a medium at $10.50, guess what people order? Suddenly they start ordering the large. Why is that? Well, it’s because of something called the decoy effect. Kind of similar to anchoring but the decoy effect says that “people tend to change their preference between two options when presented with a third option that is asymmetrical.” So, the way I might do this if I were an alumni group trying to raise money, I would make sure that my online donation form - if I want most people to give us $50, then I might do a $10, a $40, and a $50. Because the difference between $40 and $50 seems so much smaller. So play around with this, and when I say play around I mean experiment. Keep an eye, follow it closely, maybe just decide to go back and mix up your donation form so that the higher numbers are first or that your recurring monthly donation number is higher and is anchored to a lower number. Whatever you decide to do, make sure you’re keeping a close eye on your analytics so that you can see well, this is not working or it is. And then maybe you can make the change permanent or experiment even further. So anchoring and decoy effect are quite similar in that sense.

Framing Effect

Ok, now I’m going to do a poll, so I want you to read the screen, and I’ll read it aloud with you. “I’m going to give you a technological invention - a breakthrough that will increase the country’s wealth, make us more efficient and productive, and make our lives much more fun. The only thing I want in return is that once a year you let me swoop in, pick 40,000 people totally at random, and kill them.” Alright, so now what I’m going to do, I’m going to put out a poll, and forgive me I haven’t done much of these polls, here we go. Do you take that deal? That is the question. We’re going to launch this, and I’m really curious what percentage of the room - looks like we have somewhere in the neighborhood of 320 people, so that’s the deal. I’ll give you this great technological invention, it’s going to make life more efficient, productive, and fun. The only thing is once a year I get to kill 40,000 people at random.

Ok, the responses are pouring in. Ok, right now we’re at like 8% would take it, 86% say no, some not sures in there. Overwhelmingly, it looks like you all are saying no. 87% we’ll call it there. 87% of you all said no I would not take that deal.

Well, of course, you’ve already taken that deal because the invention I’m talking about is - the automobile. So, we know that unfortunately deaths from car accidents are around 40,000 per year, but that obviously does all those other things too. Making our lives more efficient, productive, and more fun. So, what just happened there? If I had presented the car first, and then asked the question, I’m guessing there would be a far greater number of you who would take that deal. 87% of you said you wouldn’t because you didn’t know what I was talking about. And that’s something we call, framing.

Framing is probably, at least from my understanding and point of view on this subject, is maybe the most powerful heuristic that our brains rely on. “Our choices are influenced by the way they are framed through different wordings, settings, and situations.” And that was an example of that just now. I framed - let me show you a few more examples. This one’s classic right? If you choose to see the black as the background then you’re seeing two faces looking at each other; but if you choose to see the white as the background then you see, sort of a vase or candelabra, candlestick.

Here’s some more:

Taxes are a “social burden” vs. Taxes are an “investment in society.”

Drug Addiction is a “law and order problem” vs. Drug Addiction is a “public health problem”

We are facing a crisis vs. We are facing a challenge

Buying beef that is 80% lean vs. Buying beef that is 20% fat

Framing is so pervasive it’s often done unconsciously and it is so powerful. They hire consultants for politicians specifically to figure out what to call taxes - a “social burden” or an “investment in society” because they know how things are framed, greatly affects how we feel about them and interpret them.

This is a great example of that: so let’s say you’re having an event, like a conference or something and you got an early-bird special right? You could present it two ways - you could say “If you register after June 15th you will pay $50 more for the event.” or you could say “If you register before June 15th you will pay $50 less for the event.” Exact same truth, just framed differently. In an experiment done in Europe, they found that framing as a negative ensured that 92% of folks registered early, but framing it as a positive only 67% did. So this is maybe something some of you could use like tomorrow. If you’ve got an event later this fall or something. The point here is that framing is very powerful so we just need to be aware of it. The words and images we choose matter.

Peak-End Rule

Alright, peak-end rule says that, “people judge an experience based on an average of how they felt at the peak and at the end.” We don’t think of every single moment of an experience, we think of the most intense moment, and the very end of the moment and that’s how we remember it. Let me show you what I mean. Here are two charts, Patient A and Patient B recording their pain levels during a, shall we say, sensitive medical procedure - it’s a colonoscopy. And Patient A had about a 9 minute, Patient B had about a 25 minute session so a much longer session, but you can see this is their level of pain intensity. That they were recorded at each minute during the session. So the poll I’ll put out is - which patient, Patient A or Patient B, thought of the procedure as more painful? So Patient A or Patient B who considered it more painful? And we’ll launch that right now. And then we’ll wrap up here.

Ok, Patient A with the 9 minute, Patient B with the 25 minute? Let’s see, ⅔ of y’all, more than ⅔ are saying the 9 minute person said it was more painful. You’re probably catching on that a lot of my questions are pretty sneaky. Well, going back - Patient A thought that the experience was much more painful. Even though it was about a third as long, the way it ended - it ended so painfully, that they remembered it as a much more negative or painful experience. Patient B the pain sort of gradually lowered over time until it was pretty low at the very end, and so they remembered the experience as less painful.

How to use the Peak-End rule

So, how do you use the peak-end rule? You need to be designing amazing experiences at the end. Designing them. How are you going to end at a particular engagement with your users? You need to make it really magical and special. Go above and beyond. A great example I heard of recently was from the pet food company Chewy - they’re like a subscription service they mail you your pet food every month or whatever. And this woman called them and said I need to cancel the next two months because my dog died. And so what chewy did was, they sent flowers, they sent a card that they all signed and some other things, they designed that into the process. And so even though it was a terrible situation for that customer, Chewy made sure that, for at least a moment, the end of their engagement with this customer was something special and real. I would encourage you all to find magical, special ways of interacting with your users. Do something different.


I know we’re up against it on time. Let me see, ok, actually if y’all don’t mind I’m going to take a real quick second, like I should, to wash my hands and while I do that if you can go ahead and complete the following word in the chat box and then I’ll come right back.

S_ _ P

Alright, wink wink, ok, as you might have guessed I’m not actually washing my hands, I’ll do that when I’m done I promise. I’m guessing that a number of you went with SOAP. And, that’s because of something called priming. If I had said, actually I need to take a break to take a real quick bite of my lunch, and then asked you to fill that in - you might have come up with SOUP. And maybe some of you still came up with SOUP, but the idea is that by mentioning washing my hands, it primed you to think of another word.

Similarly, if I say the word ‘banana’ followed immediately by the word ‘vomit’ what I’ve done is I’ve created this prime in you, so the next time you see a banana, or if you see a banana today or even if you really see something yellow, it might create this association in your mind. I’ve primed you to think of something gross like ‘vomit’ when you see a banana. This is really powerful stuff if you use it. And it’s priming.

It’s “when people are exposed to one stimulus, it affects how they respond to another stimulus.” The point here is that words create associations so please choose your words very wisely. If you decide to say ‘you’ versus ‘we’ that means a lot. ‘Join the giving club!’ versus ‘Join the giving society!’ ‘Donation form’ versus ‘Donate Today.’ These words matter - by the way, images you choose to put out into the world from your organization matter too. A famous one is from the Challenger School, which is just kind of a normal, private, kind of charter-ish school; but on their website, if you went to their website and looked at it, you might think the school is only for children of asian descent. Even though it’s totally not, any kid can go there that wants to go there, but they are priming you to think that. Now I’m not saying it’s a mistake on their part, they might be very strategic with this, they want to increase enrollment from a certain target audience, so they prime the audience to see themselves in those images. But this stuff really does have serious influence. You have to be very mindful of the images and words you use.


Ok, last little poll we’re going to do here. I want to describe this woman to you - her name is Sarah, she loves new age music, she definitely reads her horoscope every day, in her spare time Sarah enjoys yoga, aromatherapy, she attends a local spirituality group. So the question I want to ask about Sarah, for you, is which is most likely? And I’ve got three options here for Sarah:

Is it more likely that Sarah is a school teacher?

A life coach?

Or a holistic healer?

Given what you know about her, what do you think the most likely job for Sarah is? Alright, we’ve got about 55% of y’all saying she’s a holistic healer. We’ve got about 30% of y’all saying she’s a life coach, looks like only 18% say she’s a teacher. If you answered A, that Sarah is a teacher, well of course you’re right! And why is that? That’s because there’s a heck of a lot more teachers than there are life coaches or holistic healers. But you weren’t thinking in terms of numbers there, you were primed with all this detail about her, so you jumped to the conclusion - not all of you, but many of you - that she must be some sort of like life coach or healer or something like that. When the sheer numbers, say it’s far more likely that she’s a school teacher. And that is the power of representativeness.

“People judge the probability of an event by finding a comparable ‘known event’ and assuming that the probabilities will be similar.” Which is just a fancy way of saying, we judge books by their covers. For better or worse. I’m going to skip past this because we’re at the end.

How to use Representativeness

Here’s how I want you to use representativeness. Show users what they expect to see. Use their vocabulary not yours. That is so key, I can’t emphasize it enough, and I don’t just mean the big industry jargon or lingo that you use. What is the actual language that the people you’re trying to communicate with - how do they talk? How do they write? What do they read? And then use that language. If you’re going to introduce something new - a product, a service, some sort of resource - try to immediately compare it to something they already know, because that’s how people become familiar and engage with new stuff when it feels linked to something they already know and feel comfortable with. That’s the power of representativeness and frankly, a little bit of priming sprinkled in there.

Summing it all up

So, to some this all up today - we’re at the very end.

  • Invest Resources to really segment your prospective donors or users by their psychographics, and then use those insights to craft your messages.
  • Humans “think” using those two systems - and we want people in system 1, the emotional, intuitive, unconscious thinking as opposed to deliberative, focused, often very skeptical and cynical system 2.
  • And experiment with these heuristics. Make sure you check out that heuristic cheat sheet when we send that along shortly. Do you have any of those? Investigate more, read more about them, and play around with them, because there are going to be some instances where you find they are quite powerful influencers on the people you’re trying to serve.

We are going to send you the slides and the cheat sheet, but you don’t actually have to go to this url. You can get a bunch of other free stuff tools and templates and stuff and other webinars on other subjects by going to mightycitizen.com/tools.

I think we have so many people and we’re at 1:58 central time that unfortunately we can’t take questions right now, but again feel free to email me and be on the lookout for our stuff. And by the way we’re doing a series of these webinars because we’re all stuck at home over this month, and you can learn about those and register also on the websites. So, I do want to thank you all for the work that you do, it’s more important now than it ever has been and I can’t wait to hopefully talk and meet y’all face to face at some point in the near future. Thank you, and have a great day.