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What Behavioral Science Has to Do with Your Communications Strategy

Behavioral science—which encompasses the fields of psychology, sociology, and behavioral economics—is getting a lot of attention these days.  Private, public, and nonprofit organizations are seeing that the more they invest time and resources into their communications, the more likely they are to create impact and inspire real behavioral change. 

Behavioral science is, at its core, the why and the what of human decision-making. It aims to help people become more aware of or engage in something and can be applied not only to external audiences but internal ones too. Behavioral science provides insights into the cognitive biases and nuances of human behavior, which can be leveraged for your communications strategy to learn more about the experiences and contexts that influence audience behavior. 

Why does behavioral science matter now?

Audiences are increasingly more savvy and sophisticated. Creating communications that look pretty and appealing isn’t enough to engage audiences, and traditional communications methods and models no longer move the needle. Behavioral science considers the environmental, social, and personal factors that impact how a person chooses to act. 

By using behavioral science principles, you can design your messages to be more impactful and drive greater actions and better behaviors. It is important to start small and build up: begin with a clearly defined target audience, a communications channel strategy (e.g., press releases, speeches, webinars, blog posts, events), and a primary message or call-to-action.

Behavioral science principles include: 

  • Addressing audience needs. If this is a benefit statement, indicate how the change or engagement makes life simpler or saves time. 
  • Highlighting differentiation. If there is a before and after effect, it could increase the likelihood that the communication will resonate with your audience and they will pay attention. 
  • Creating a positive step into the unknown. Asking for changes in behavior and engagement can potentially create barriers, such as fear, uncertainty, and a trust/distrust dynamic. By initially addressing these barriers, audiences are more inclined to engage rather than dismiss. 
  • Enlisting advocates and evangelists. This will help with audience members becoming early adopters and increase the bandwagon effect. 
  • Optimizing value. While value is subjective, it is important that the value proposition communications resonates with your audience in terms of their willingness to change and engage. 
  • Mitigating push versus pull. Sometimes pushing communications does not make up for the pull from your audience. Determine which option by the type of communication. For example, videos and webinars pull; press releases and blog posts push.

Your communications strategy and communications team can help your audience close the intention-action gap, which is the difference between what people know and how people decide to act in the moment. One tool in the communications strategy toolbox is the ability to frame a particular message. You should look for ways to frame their communications to direct and drive emotional engagement and increase your audience’s motivation. 

Finding the right balance

Ensuring that your target audience is receptive to the information you’re putting out there and that the message resonates enough for them to take action, often depends on factors such as timing and a feeling of connection. If the communication proposition highlights shared values, your audience is more likely to understand the difference between intention and action and to make a decision based on that. 

Communications activities should be designed so as to not overwhelm audiences. The message needs to be presented in a way that is simple, direct, and easy to follow. If the message is a graphic, it needs to be grouped and presented in meaningful sections. And in terms of the language you are using in your communications, remember to speak to your audience and not at them. 

Where do we go from here?

Any communications approach that leverages behavioral science needs to acknowledge the possibility of cognitive overload, decision fatigue, and backlash. This is where your overall communications strategy can work in tandem with tactics and activities to mitigate these possibilities. 

The last 18 months have highlighted that we are social creatures by nature. You can integrate a social component to your communications activities to increase the chances of your audience changing their behavior or engaging with the message to take action. You can structure your message so that it highlights how others are already on board. You can also use personalization to get your audience to buy into the message or call to action. 

By adopting a behavioral science approach to your communications strategy, you can enhance behavioral outcomes by improving clarity, relevance, and the impact of your message. This in turn motivates your audience to engage.

As with all communications activities and campaigns, setting goals, identifying what will be measured and how, and where appropriate, reusing and adapting your messages for different channels is essential. Communications that integrate behavioral science principles can move your organization closer to its goals of making an impact in the world.

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