Interview with Shira Abel on Behavioral Engineering

I recently attended a fascinating talk on the topic of Behavioral Engineering by my friend Shira Abel. Post that talk, I had an opportunity to ask her a few questions on the same topic.
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I recently attended a fascinating talk on the topic of Behavioral Engineering by my friend Shira Abel. Post that talk, I had an opportunity to ask her a few questions on the same topic.

Here is the result of that interview:

RS: What is behavioral engineering and why is it important to focus on that subject?

SA: Behavioral economics is the study of how and why people make decisions, which, not surprisingly, is not always based on logic. Behavioral engineering, therefore, is how we can use that research to help understand and anticipate our customers' behaviors and motivations.

From choosing the perfect price for your product, designing a product that will make your customer act the way you want them to, getting customers to remember your brand, to making them feel like they are part of the in-crowd -- behavioral engineering is crucial in every aspect of any business.

RS: What are the key principles that form the foundation of Behavioral Engineering?

SA: There are many different principles at play in behavioral engineering. They start from priming the customer with words, images or seemingly innocuous calls-to-action. It includes understanding how to harness repeated exposure to create a subconscious connection with your brand or product. Inclusion tactics in behavioral engineering cause your customer to feel like they are part of an in-crowd. And framing strategies are important for how your product is viewed.

RS: Can you share some examples?

SA: Take priming as an example. LinkedIn has a feature called "Who's Viewed Your Profile" that contains a link of how many people have looked at your profile this week. In order to see who actually viewed your profile, you have to do an action, namely, clicking deeper in the site. Once you have "invested" that click, you are more likely to click even deeper into the site and view more pages. A primed action causes repeated actions.

It takes ten to one hundred times for the customer to remember your message. Which is why giants like Facebook and Google offer ad retargeting solutions that repeatedly show you advertisements for sites you may have visited but had not purchased anything. For the exposure, which leads to heightened awareness, it's worth paying for impressions.

MixPanel used an amazing Easter Egg in their tutorial referring to the Nimbus 2000, a blatant Harry Potter reference. This would be quickly passed over by anyone who had never read about the game of Quidditch, but would make any Harry Potter fan feel included.

Framing means that how you say things matters. It is sometimes better to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. I once mentored a database startup in Bulgaria who was confused as to why no VCs would invest in his company. They would all point out his larger competitors and ask how his less expensive product with less functionality could ever compete in an enterprise market that isn't price sensitive and needs a deeper functionality. After being pressed a bit more, he explained to me that his target client were smaller enterprises who needed different functionalities and a lower price. In other words, he was providing a premium product to an underserved market, instead of a sub-par product for an over-served market. With that mere change in perspective, he raised money and is doing quite well now.

RS: How did you get started with Behavioral Engineering?

SA: I was always interested in psychology and why we do what we do. It was intuitive for me. Then I read Influence by Dr. Robert Cialdini and I started to see how behavioral economics could be used in marketing, not as a method of manipulation, but as persuasion. It's been a passion ever since. Then, through my Executive MBA at the Kellogg School Management, I took a class on "Social Dynamics and Networks" by PJ Lamberson, which opened my mind up to so many more possibilities.

RS: How has Behavioral Engineering changed your company?

SA: At Hunter & Bard, we incorporate aspects of Behavioral Engineering into everything we do. Our branding department uses minor anchoring techniques in order to convey subconscious benefits and associations of the client brand. The whole practice of inbound marketing is a combination of exposure and reciprocity. We help our customers give amazing content and information, which creates the perceived obligation that their audience wants to respond positively in return.

RS: What resources would you suggest for learning more about the basics of Behavioral Engineering?

SA: For someone interested in learning more about it, the books I would recommend are: Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, Hooked by Nir Eyal, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.

I've also recently written blog posts about priming and price strategy for SaaS companies.

RS: How does one get started to capitalize on Behavioral Engineering?

SA: Well, one thing you can do is download the free Hunter & Bard Behavioral Canvas and start sketching out your customers' motivations, goals and behaviors.

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