This year, Richard Thaler received the Nobel Prize for Economics for his contribution to the behavioural economics: a reward that is not surprising if you know what impact his work had on nudging* as well as on the public policy or on communication and marketing strategies of companies… In Belgium, the FPS Finance experimented with the “nudge”, an invisible boost that subtly influences our choices. The result? The Federal Public Service Finance did manage to recover 18.7 million euros in unpaid taxes in 2016, an increase of 17% compared with the previous year. And all without coercive measures but by using more creative communication: in order to convince latecomers to pay their taxes, it has transitioned from using fines to mentioning the social impact of taxes and sending reminders with targeted phrasing that use various persuasion techniques.
Between the carrot and the stick: the nudge offers a third option
The principles on which nudging is based are as follows:
- Individuals are not rational. Their decisions are influenced by their emotions, surroundings, experience and so on. Consequently, providing information is not enough to influence them to take the ‘right’ decisions, i.e., those that will benefit them in the short and long term. The most famous example is cigarettes: information campaigns alone have not been enough to curb their use.
- Nudging favours soft tactics: it does not force, decree or prohibit. It does not entail any penalty, reward or financial repercussions. The individual is still completely free to choose.
- The goal is to encourage ‘good’ behaviour, i.e., good citizenship and responsibility. Using it ethically is the responsibility of those who apply it (governments, businesses, managers).
Neither a constraint nor an encouragement, nudging offers a middle way for a reduced cost. But is it necessarily effective?
Warning: use with caution
The concept seems to have rapidly revolutionised communication strategies for public policy in the areas of health, the environment and security. Applications have been developed with results that are occasionally criticised. Does nudging really work? Does it influence behaviour in the long term? And what if it had drawbacks of its own? Take the often-quoted case of “friendly reminders” that are e-mailed to people who donated to charity: although the number of donations initially increased, these repeated reminders in the long term led to more people unsubscribing from the list of addressees. So, if the nudge is to be used with caution, how can it be used to good effect in communication?
Four lessons for business communication
- Be a psychologist: a thorough consideration of people’s individual motivations is beneficial to the message creation process. More than ever before, we know we must take the individual into account (which we do through personas), along with their constraints, story and needs.
- Use it as a complement: the nudge is not a miracle solution. On its own, it is not enough to change the behaviour of individuals. That is why it is so important to multiply messages and communication channels. Encouraging customers to pay their bills on time is often a headache, but why not adapt your message to make it more personal and original before resorting to more extreme measures? Another good example: as an HR manager, you want to reduce the number of traffic accidents involving employees in your company. It might be a good idea not just to inform them of the risks of using their mobile phones in the car (something along the lines of: X% of accidents are caused by a driver while on the phone), but also to use targeted messages for employees who recently had an accident or fine, or even to talk about the 75% of employees who use Bluetooth.
- Proximity and relevance are the keys to a successful nudge: for years, hotels have been telling guests about the environmental impact of using towels. It has been demonstrated that messages in an informative style (such as: did you know that water consumption increases by X%) were less effective than those that address guests’ behaviour. And the most effective of all are messages mentioning other guests who have stayed in the same room (80% of guests who have stayed in this room replaced their towels after two days).
- Creativity and experimentation continue to be the key words: the concept of “nudging” is an invitation to revise our way of communicating and change our old habits to create truly inspiring messages. A well-known example of Belgian families is Holle Bolle Gijs at the Efteling: as a children’s tale, the park created the story of the insatiable Gijs family which loves to eat paper in order to encourage children and visitors to throw their papers in the containers representing this friendly family of monsters.
To nudge or not to nudge: if the theory of nudging rightly seems very attractive, it is still only a theory, and should not make us forget that theories cannot be applied blindly. Essentially, there is still always a specific customer, message and context to consider.
* the expression was coined following the publication of a work by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein in 2008, entitled Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness.