How to Use Nudge Theory in Copywriting

Have you heard of nudge theory? It’s been around for decades but it came into sharp focus last year when Richard Thaler, a behavioural economist, won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on it.

The idea is really simple – you can get people to adapt their behaviour and make better decisions by encouraging them to make small changes or by ‘nudging’ them.

There are a couple of well-known examples you might have heard of: the fly on men’s urinals and Nest?

The first one solved the age-old problem of how to improve men’s accuracy when they’re using public toilets. Apparently, men like to aim at something when they’re having a pee. Putting a fly sticker near the drain in men’s urinals provides them with a target and gives their behaviour a subtle nudge in the right direction.

Don’t ask me who measured it but the fly reduces “spillage” by as much as 80%.

fly sticker on urinal

The second example is a bit more prosaic and concerns UK pensions. As you probably know, all employees in the private sector have been or will be enrolled into a private sector pension scheme between October 2012 and October 2018. By October 1 this year, everyone who’s eligible for the scheme should have been enrolled.

Auto-enrolment makes it compulsory for private sector employers to offer their employees a workplace pension and make contributions to it. There are no barriers to joining as enrolment happens automatically and employees can opt out if they want to. There are numerous examples of how making people opt out rather than opt in means more people being signed up, organ donation and email lists are two more.

The scheme was designed to encourage people to save for their retirements (something we’re not good at in the UK) and make it easy for people who said they wanted to save but thought the process of setting up a pension would be too complicated and laborious.

And it’s worked. Membership of private sector pension schemes has grown massively from 2.7 million people in 2012 to 7.7 million in 2016.

A force for good

Richard Thaler intended nudge theory to be used by governments for good but its application is far more widespread than that. Among heaps of other uses, nudge theory can be applied to copywriting. By understanding their decision-making process, you can nudge readers towards certain actions or behaviours. Nudging isn’t the ‘smack them over the head and force them to buy’ method of selling, it’s using subtle tweaks to encourage your readers to take small actions.

A word of warning

There’s a big difference between using nudges to encourage people to take action and manipulating people or making it difficult for them to do what they want to.

I was once a member of a marketing organisation and when I decided to leave it was very hard to cancel my subscription. They were taking recurring payments straight from my debit card so there was no direct debit or standing order I could cancel. My bank couldn’t help. I tried emailing the company – no response. They didn’t reply to my messages on social media and I couldn’t change my account settings online. They made it about as hard as possible to unsubscribe by hiding the telephone number to call several pages into an intricate search on their website. After trying to get through a few times they finally answered and I cancelled my account but not without feeling stressed and badly treated.

Making it almost impossible to opt out is not the same thing as making it easy to opt in. Always be honest and transparent. Don’t ever take your reader or buyer for granted, assume you’re smarter than they are or try to trick them. People don’t like being tricked. They can smell horseshit a mile off and it won’t do you or your company’s reputation any good.

End of lecture.

Can you remember the last time you went to WHSmith?

For me, it was on a long journey somewhere (to Wales maybe, I can’t remember) last year. What I can remember is that when I got to the till the lovely cashier asked me if I’d like to buy a huge bar of chocolate along with my other purchases.

Why did she ask? Because it’s a nudge for me to buy it, just like the Post Office asking if you want to buy insurance when you’re buying a few stamps or being offered ‘fries with that’.

WHSmith and these other companies understand the power of suggestion and that by offering you chocolate they’ll sell more of it. They offer it to you at the moment when you’ve got your money out, you’re ready to pay, and they force you to respond to someone. Of course you don’t really want the chocolate, if you did you’d have picked some up while you were wandering around the shop, but with a simple, well-timed question, they’ve made opting in easier than opting out.

Here are a few ways you can use nudge theory in your copywriting:

  1. Join the club (usually known as ‘social proof’)

    People like to belong to a group. If you show your readers that all the cool kids are buying Nike trainers or banking at HSBC or going on holiday to Wales your readers will want to join them. Which is exactly what HubSpot is doing below when they ask if you want to subscribe and join 215,000 people like you…

    social proof by numbers
    Conversely, we don’t want to be the first and only person to do something or buy something, most of us want and seek social approval.

    If you’re looking for a graphic designer, say, to redo your logo do you use the one who’s done lots of similar projects and comes highly recommended with glowing testimonials from happy clients? Or the one who tells you gingerly that you’re their first client?

  2. Make it easy to buy

    Donkey’s years ago, when I was at university, I did the first two years of a psychology degree (an MA at Edinburgh takes four years so the first two are really broad) and I’ve always remembered learning that people are cognitive misers.

    When it comes to processing thoughts and decision-making, we – our brains – want to expend as little effort as possible. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about something of relatively little importance or a massive life-changing decision, we’re hard-wired to take cognitive shortcuts whenever we can.

    So, make sure your writing is easy to understand. Readers don’t want to have to dash off to find a dictionary or wonder at your subtle nuances for hours, they want to get the message quickly.

    During the 2016 US election, voters didn’t want to hear about immigration statistics, economic arguments for and against the movement of people, or domestic border policy. They wanted to hear what Donald Trump was going to do about the Mexican border and he couldn’t have made it simpler: “We’re going to build a wall”.

    Voters didn’t stop to think about whether a wall is necessary, acceptable or effective – they loved this straightforward soundbite. It was easy to understand and picture, and it was presented as *the* solution. While lots of us laughed at it, Trump’s ability – whether through luck or design – to translate complicated policy into simple soundbites helped him win the election.

    And whatever you think of him, his approach was certainly effective.

    Secondly, make sure that the action you want your reader to take is as easy as falling off a log.

    How many times have you not done something because it seemed like too much effort? We do it all the time.

    A few nights ago, a young chap came to our door to promote Gousto (they deliver food and recipe boxes with everything you need to make delicious, fresh meals). We already use one of their competitors, Hello Fresh, and despite the guy’s best efforts to convince us that Gousto’s food quality is just as good if not better, the meal selection is much much bigger, and it’s cheaper, we didn’t sign up.

    Why not? Because quite honestly we couldn’t be bothered to go onto the app, fill in our payment details, enter our address, and choose our meals and delivery date when it was easier to say ‘no thanks’ and go back to watching Silent Witness.

    Put yourself in your buyer’s or reader’s shoes

    Make sure that signing up to your mailing list as simple as filling in a first name and an email address, don’t ask for 30 lines of information. Ensure your website can store credit and debit card details, addresses and passwords. People don’t want to faff about looking for passwords or spend ages filling things in. Your online processes should be as quick and simple as possible.

    Copywriting is often about overcoming people’s objections to taking an action or making a purchase. Don’t give them a reason to say “I can’t be arsed!” like we did the other night.

  3. FOMO

    The fear of missing out. I’m going to sound like a hypocrite now but this is how complicated people’s behaviour is. I couldn’t be bothered to look at the Gousto app and potentially save money a few days ago but I once spent £1500 on a laptop because I thought Amazon was about to run out of MacBooks. Seriously.

    You see it all the time on websites: a countdown widget ticking down “Special reductions for 1 day and 11 hours”, “Buy now at the introductory price”, “Three MacBooks left”…

    Scarcity creates desire.

    If you think this is your last chance to get your hands on something, you buy it. Introducing scarcity is a nudge to get someone to take action.

    How much would this (real life) example below make you rush to order your copy?

    Not a whole lot I’m guessing.

  4. Help people avoid pain

    I don’t mean literal pain (although ‘Buy this now or I break your legs’ would probably work), I mean things like guilt, stress or worry. Emotions are very important factors in decision-making and your copy can enable readers to make a choice or take an action that moves them away from something they don’t want towards something they do.

    Charities use guilt to encourage us to donate. The trick with this one is to use guilt not shame. You don’t want to make people feel like they’re shitbags for not giving all their money to the local cats home but you do want them to feel a tiny twinge of guilt that they’re sleeping in a comfortable bed in a centrally heated house tonight and maybe they could give a few pounds to help someone sleeping on the streets.

    This Saatchi & Saatchi advert (below) is one from a campaign called “Small Change, Big Difference” they did for Cordaid that went viral.

    You can’t ignore its message: it’s clear, simple and hard-hitting.

    And it’s harder to ignore the ad and walk away, knowing how little they’re asking for relative to how much we all spend on unnecessary things, rather than take action and donate – which is why it worked.

  5. Shared values

    The Harvard Business Review reported that 64% of people who have a brand relationship say that shared values are the main reason for the relationship (and interestingly only 13% cited frequent interactions).

    Communicating your brand values to your customers is more likely to engage with them and encourage them to build a relationship with you than bombarding them with marketing messages, so don’t be afraid to talk about your “brand’s higher purpose or broad philosophy” – people love authenticity and connecting across common values.

    Think about MINIs for a second.

    When you drive a MINI you’re not just driving a car, you’re buying into the whole MINI ethos and way of life. It’s fun, it’s irreverent, it’s not taking life too seriously, it’s anti-establishment, it’s cool.

    And people are massive devotees of the brand. A quick Google search for ‘MINI fan club’ brings back 14.6 million results. The same search for Skoda? Less than 2.5 million.

If you’ve got any tips or questions please leave a comment.

And, as always, thanks for reading.


5 thoughts on “How to Use Nudge Theory in Copywriting

  1. This is a fascinating post Sally and makes perfect sense once you see it all written down. Interestingly even the Education world (perennially – and often quite proudly I think – behind the times) is getting on board with “nudging” as a way to improve parental engagement. Perhaps my next parent meeting invitation should have a “sign up now to guarantee your place” or “only a few places remaining”?

  2. Thank you! I remember thinking nudge theory was deceptively simple when I first read about it. Not at all like the economics I had to study.

    It’s great that the education world is embracing nudging, it could be applied in loads of different ways. You’ll have the parents signing up in droves! Maybe promise them cake too? Cake always gets people to do things.

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