Leveraging behavioural biases as part of your paid strategy

By Wolfenden
16th March 2022
By Shannon Reeves


As marketers, we all know the positive effect that leveraging psychological principles and behavioural biases can have on campaigns – but are you utilising them effectively as part of your paid strategy? If not, you could be missing out on significant uplifts in performance.

Paid media is an area of marketing where the incorporation of psychological principles is often overlooked. But many of these principles and biases lend themselves well to this type of marketing strategy and we have seen first-hand the beneficial impact that utilising these strategically has had for our own clients.

Below, we explore 10 key biases that we regularly use to improve the performance of our paid campaigns.

1. Media context

A key bias to be considered in the world of media buying is the context of that media – as this can determine how the content of your campaign is interpreted.

This is especially important to consider when running any form of programmatic display activity. Ensuring that you bid on placements relevant to your industry sector will allow your campaign to gain added credibility from its environment.

This is likely to lead to better performance than you would achieve from serving ads to your target audience in an out-of-context placement.

As the focus on user privacy continues to grow, this type of contextual marketing will become even more important to delivering success.

2. Distinctiveness

In a world of content overload, it’s more important than ever for your ad campaign to be distinctive. This is important to bear in mind when briefing in the creative for your paid campaigns.

Creative that subverts the normalised rules of an industry is more likely to stand out from the crowd and, ultimately, be remembered. Although this can be seen as a risky tactic, it can have huge payoffs in brand lift. This bias is especially important to bear in mind when targeting younger age groups.

3. The primacy effect

Related to distinctiveness is the primacy effect, which highlights the importance of first impressions on your overall brand image.

In terms of paid strategy, this most closely relates to your campaign messaging. In order to avoid the user’s all important first impression being taken up by the least compelling message, you should aim to run with the most compelling message across all channels wherever possible, and avoid running a single campaign with multiple different angles.

4. Habit

Anyone who uses social media will understand the habitual nature of checking their accounts. Most of us will do so every day without even thinking – perhaps even getting caught aimlessly scrolling and staying on the app much longer than we intended.

These habits raise an important question for marketers: how can we disrupt behaviour, when most of that behaviour is happening on auto-pilot?

The key to successfully leveraging this bias is understanding the specific habits that your campaign would benefit from disrupting, and how you can best disrupt them. For example, drawing attention to the habit through creative messaging, or targeting your campaign to a time when the habit is loosened.

Because environmental changes tend to impact our habitual behaviour, studies suggest that people are more likely to change their conversion patterns when experiencing a big life event. This is a great way to utilise the wealth of detailed targeting data we have available for paid activity; enabling us to deliver the right message to the right user at the right time.

5. Mood

Similarly, because receptivity to ads has been found to improve significantly when people are happy, or when their mood is congruent to the tone of the ad, performance can also be improved by targeting ads according to mood wherever relevant, as well as matching your messaging to the mood you are targeting. As Nigel Clarkson, former Managing Director of Yahoo UK, said on Yahoo’s Receptivity of Emotions study:

“Digital marketers all appreciate the importance of reaching the right person, on the right device, at the right time. But the ‘right time’ should be about more than the webpage they’re viewing at that moment. We should be striving to take a consumer’s emotions into account as well.”

How you go about putting this targeting in place will depend very much on the campaign you are running as well as which platform you are running on. However, the targeting capabilities available to us as digital marketers set us up to be able to effectively utilise this bias!

6. Social proof

Social proof is the idea that people are more likely to complete a desired action when they have evidence of others having already done so. This is a really effective bias to utilise when writing copy for paid campaigns.

You can incorporate this into your copy simply by highlighting the popularity of your brand – this can be as straightforward as sharing any positive reviews or statistics; your sales growth, or even just the volume of customers served.

Tailoring your social proof claims in a way that makes them more relevant to your target audience can also boost the effectiveness of this bias. For example, tailoring your copy by location can help improve the relevancy of your ads – more on this later…

7. Negative social proof

When using social proof in your campaign, it is important not to fall into the trap of inadvertently promoting negative social proof. This is when social proof is utilised in such a way that it has the opposite effect than intended.

For example, by sharing figures designed to shock users into action, this highlights that an unwanted behaviour is commonplace, which can encourage the opposite of the behaviour you are trying to promote.

It’s therefore important to ensure that any statistics shared are phrased in a way that emphasises the popularity of the desired behaviour. Where this is not possible, make sure to focus on injunctive instead of descriptive norms so as to not fall into the trap.

8. The Cocktail Party Effect

The power of relevancy on performance leads us nicely on to the next behavioural bias: The Cocktail Party Effect. This gets its name from the human tendency to pick up on the sound of our own names in a crowded room.

Because personal relevance indicates that something is worth our attention, it can help paid campaigns to stand out from the crowd. As mentioned previously, tailoring copy by location is a great way to achieve this effect, whilst boosting impact; recall and trust in the brand.

Although targeting capabilities available to digital marketers can allow us to make personalisation even more granular than this, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. Digital marketing platforms often prevent personalisation that is deemed to be too intrusive for good reason.

Being served a digital ad that contains too much personal information can be a very uncomfortable user experience, promoting negative associations with the brand. Localisation allows your campaigns to be relevant without being intrusive.

9. Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart’s Law states: “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

The measurement of digital marketing campaigns can often fall into this trap, when poorly set targets result in losing sight of the ultimate goal of the campaign. It’s therefore important when running any kind of paid activity to ensure that a broad and balanced range of metrics are being used to measure success.

The impact of your campaign on long-term goals, such as brand uplift, should be closely monitored alongside standard shorter-term goals such as CPA, ROAS and CPCs. Whilst these metrics are a useful measurement of success in the short term, they don’t always provide a full picture of the impact your activity is having on the brand overall.

10. Winner’s Curse

The final bias I’m going to discuss is the Winner’s Curse. This is the idea that, because of the way auctions work, the winner will typically end up paying over the odds. Because the vast majority of advertising through paid media involves bidding in often highly competitive, real-time auctions for clicks or impressions, this is an important bias to be aware of as a digital marketer.

Finding ways to reduce your auction costs can have a notable impact on the cost-efficiency of your campaigns. For example, through the use of regularly updated data-led max CPCs; automated bidding; long-tail keywords or finding creative ways to target your audience where there is less competition.

Another way of avoiding the winner’s curse is by getting more value out of your impressions than your competitors. By utilising some of the biases mentioned above, such as distinctiveness, social proof and the cocktail effect, you can give your ads more chance of getting noticed once they win auctions. From there, the onus is on the website to convert the high-quality traffic you have successfully driven to the site!

To learn more about how relevant behavioural biases can effectively be employed as part of a customised paid strategy for your business, get in touch with our team for a chat.

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