In digital politics, we spend a lot of time and attention to the tactics and execution of online marketing. Just as important as knowing what to do and how it should be done is understanding why a strategy works.
Behavioral scientists have identified dozens of cognitive biases and principles that govern human behavior in meaningful and, often, unconscious ways. These are mental shortcuts our brains have developed over thousands of years. Click here for an exhaustive yet easy to read list of examples.
In this post, you’ll learn about a few of the most common cognitive biases that campaigners encounter in politics and how to tailor your marketing efforts accordingly.
Hick’s Law describes the pattern that the more choices an individual has, the longer they will take to make a decision. Online campaigning is a constant battle for seconds of a supporter’s attention, so if you want a supporter to do something, give them a single, obvious call to action. Don’t make them choose.
The average user spends 13 seconds reading an email. That’s why effective fundraising emails repeat only a donate call to action multiple times. There’s no choice and it’s obvious what you’re asking the supporter to do.
If you give them more choices, like reading an article or watching a video, they’ll most often choose “none of the above” because the time they need to decide is longer than the time they’ll spend on your email.
The Curiosity Gap
Humans are desperate to resolve unanswered questions. This behavior is called closing the Curiosity Gap. If you’ve ever been bugged about forgetting the words to a song or annoyed trying to recall the answer to a trivia question, you’re familiar with the Curiosity Gap. It’s an uncomfortable place to be.
Use this principle to drive supporters to action. Write a subject line for your email that raises a question, something like “New Poll Numbers:” or “The Democrats have gone too far” and then provide the answers after your supporter takes the next step by opening your email. Always close the gap as soon as possible. Otherwise, your supporters will be frustrated.
According to the Pareto Principle, in general, 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. Applied to campaigns, this means that $0.80 of every dollar raised online comes from 20% of your donors. 48 minutes of every hour volunteered will be by 20% of volunteers.
The upshot of this principle is that focusing on your most loyal and engaged supporters will yield higher output. They’re your campaign’s most valuable asset and you should treat them as such.
Don’t get hung up on growing your numbers if you’re not taking care of the supporters you already have.
Everyone searches for evidence to support what they already believe – that’s confirmation bias. Your persuasion and direct response efforts will perform better if they align with what your supporters already think. New information and arguments are harder to process and will reduce your conversion rate.
When email list building, for example, selecting topics for your petitions and surveys that are already trending make it easier for supporters to take action.
Commitment & Consistency
Humans will go out of their way to maintain consistency with their own prior decisions and actions. This is the fundamental principle behind voter modeling. If someone voted in several elections, they’re likely to vote in the next election.
With your campaign’s online marketing conversion funnel, you’re encouraging supporters to make commitments and then offering actions to maintain consistency. A supporter who follows your campaign on Facebook made a very lightweight “commitment” and signing a petition is a consistent behavior. Once they’ve agreed with you on that issue and you invite them to donate, you’ve shown them the next way to maintain consistency.
We rely on the information around us to make decisions. The classic example of the anchoring bias can be found on a restaurant’s wine list. Most diners don’t want to seem cheap so they select the second least expensive wine on a list. By anchoring that decision to a cheaper wine, the restaurant can make their most profitable wines more popular.
Smart campaigns apply the anchoring bias to their online donation pages. The default gift amounts listed on a page have an impact on whether a donor decides to give or not. Compare these two button choices from the Trump campaign’s WinRed page:
The one on the left was used for an email, where the average gift is in the $30-$50 range. There are as many options below the average as there are above it. On the right are the donation amounts for the default WinRed page. Since supporters must proactively find that page, the average gift is typically higher.
Each of these cognitive biases is a shortcut our brains have developed through evolution to help us save time, be safer, and reduce mental energy. Knowing about them is important to communicate effectively and to drive action, but exploiting them is irresponsible. You may be able to trick someone, but you won’t earn their trust and support.