The Connection Between Behavioral Science and Customer Experience: Part 1

Behavioral science concepts help to explain why people take certain actions in specific situations. Books like Nudge (R. Thaler & C. Sunstein) have made behavioral science more popular across business leaders, government agencies, and the general public. Many of the concepts have been used to try to help people make better life choices (e.g., pay taxes on time, save for their future, stop smoking, etc.), but there are also applications in marketing.

Some concepts are so popular in advertising that we think of them as basic marketing levers. For example, “social proof” is the idea that what other people do and think influences the choices we make – hence the widespread use of celebrities, referrals, and testimonials in advertising. Another extremely common tactic is featuring offers for a limited time or at a limited quantity. This is leveraging the concept of “scarcity” (we assign more value when items are not abundantly available).

Social Proof Examples:

  1. (B2B) Incorporating a client logo section on your website to showcase your portfolio
  2. A travel site listing with ratings and reviews
  3. Email that includes a testimonial quote from a current customer

Learning about behavioral science can help us assess and improve our customer experiences. Understanding more about customer motivations and evaluation criteria through behavioral science can illuminate opportunities to adjust messaging and contact strategies. Testing may identify which subject line or headline works better, but familiarity with behavioral science concepts can help us explain why so we can apply the knowledge more broadly.

Easy Ways to Leverage Behavioral Science for Your Business

Okay, now that we’ve established a better understanding of what behavioral science concepts are and some practical applications in marketing, let’s dive into a few simple concepts you can pursue for your program today. It is important to adapt these ideas to your business and test different approaches to see what works for your situation. I’ve intentionally selected concepts that have broad applications across many industries and marketing channel types.

1. Loss Aversion
This concept is tied to the theory that the pain of losing is twice as strong as the pleasure of gaining. This means that consumers have potential to be more motivated by avoiding loss than by gaining something (e.g., stop losing money vs. saving money).

Thought starters for testing the loss aversion concept:
You can test loss aversion in any channel in any part of the messaging, such as headlines, body copy, bullet points, email subject lines or pre-headers, lead-ins to CTAs, etc. But using it more prominently is more likely to result in a measurable impact.

  • If you usually have a headline or callout about saving money, test against a version with messaging about loss: “You’re losing money every month by overpaying your current provider.”
  • Instead of: “Get more time with your family” try “avoid losing more time with your family.”
  • Test: “You’ve earned a reward” vs. “Don’t miss your chance to claim a free reward. Call now!”

2. Recognition Heuristic
This concept states that recognition is “an easily accessible cue that simplifies decision making.” Recognition is great in cases where someone subconsciously thinks, “this is a brand I know and trust” or “this is a product I’m familiar with.” But it can also backfire in situations like “they’ve sent me this exact offer 10 times already.”

Consider how quickly you sort your postal mail into what you want to keep vs. what gets trashed or needs a closer look. You instantly recognize a red envelope from your friend as a potential birthday card, and likewise, recognize obvious promotional pieces as potential “junk mail.”

The best way to test recognition heuristics is to try an approach that is drastically different from what you’re doing now. You can still stay true to your brand guidelines without causing creative fatigue. Remember that consumers are not giving your work the same attention that you are, so switching out some pictures and graphics may not seem as fresh to them. Test approaches with more variety.

Thought starters for testing the recognition heuristic concept:
While the loss aversion concept is most easily represented through copy, the recognition heuristic can apply to both messaging and visual look of the creative.

  • If every piece of mail or email you send is colorful and splashy, test a formal letter approach (and pay attention to metrics by segment in case they respond differently).
  • Did research identify the top 5 product features that drive sales, which is why your copy focuses on it all the time? Test different copy that addresses barriers to purchase or dive deep into one of the product features, especially in channels where you are regularly contacting the same people with the same offers.

3. Pain of Paying
This concept is fairly literal. People would rather not part with their money, especially in cash form (slightly less friction with a credit card or digital payments). If we want to be more liberal with this concept, we can also consider other types of “painful payments” that brands ask for, such as trading free items to get personal information and email or SMS sign ups.

Thought starters for testing the pain of paying concept:
This concept is not as relevant for standard branding creative, but definitely applies in any content related to sales or to asking the target to take action. Even if the CTA is just for taking a survey, the “pain” might be associated with their time and/or providing information. Is your current approach causing added friction?

  • Convey the impression of abundance. There are times where it absolutely makes the most sense to lead with the lowest price and show additional costs for “extras,” but there are also times where people may feel the pain of “death by a thousand cuts” for all those cost add-ons. Consider whether it makes sense for your business to test an all-in price. The key is to blow out the details of everything you get for that price. If you’re selling a Thanksgiving meal bundle (or any bundle of goods or services), don’t just show one picture of 9 things together with a bulleted list. Show a picture and description of each individual item to maximize value impact.
  • Minimize the psychological “pain” of providing personal contact information. I’ve seen brands with email subject lines like, “Sign up for text messages to get a free dessert!” and then the hero image of the email is a phone. Both are reminding customers of the worst part of the deal – receiving text messages that they may not want. An alternative subject line to test could be, “Unlock a free dessert reward!” with a hero image of dessert options. Email copy would still make it clear that you must agree to get text messages, but the new subject line and visual are now leading with the benefit instead of the pain point.

What Can You Do With This Information?

A concrete next step is to evaluate the experiences your prospects and customers are having when they interact with your brand. Don’t limit this evaluation to just one channel or interaction point.


  • Where can you tweak content to test loss aversion or reduce the pain of paying?
  • What changes can you make to get the recognition heuristic to work for you instead of against you?

Document where the opportunities are and then decide which ones you will test first, prioritizing those with highest potential impact and/or lowest level of effort to change. You may have multiple channels with opportunities for testing these concepts, but it might make the most sense to start with testing via digital channels such as email, website, digital ads, and landing pages. With these you don’t have the production expense of versioning radio/TV and can get almost real-time updates on which test versions are generating more clicks and sales. Once you are confident with the winning approach you can implement across other channels.

Read on to part 2 to see more ways you can apply behavioral science concepts to optimize your customer experience and sales.

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By Emily Martínez

Emily Martínez is an experienced marketing strategy and analytics leader who leverages data, consumer insights, informed targeting, and innovative solutions to attract and retain customers.