Using Behavioral Science in Marketing by Nancy Harhut

Using Behavioral Science in Marketing by Nancy Harhut

Tori Barrington

Written by: Tori Barrington | Snoball Editorial Team

Last Updated: Apr 10, 2024



 Marketers, growth managers, and business owners, you're listening to the Word of Mouth Marketing podcast by Snoball.  

Hey, hey, welcome to our Marketing Playbook series. Today, Tori and I are going to summarize the book Using Behavioral Science in Marketing by Nancy Harhut. You're going to love it. You'll learn how you can apply human behavioral principles backed by actual scientific experiments to your marketing campaigns. So let's jump in. 

Todd: Hey, Hey, welcome to the Word of Mouth Marketing podcast and our next chapter in our Marketing Playbook. And today we are going to talk about Nancy Harhut's book Using Behavioral Science in Marketing. And I've got Tori here to help walk us through it. Welcome to the podcast, Tori.

Tori: Thanks. Hey, everybody. 

Todd: We're going to uncover secrets behind consumer behavior and learn how to leverage that in our marketing. And she breaks this down into some core concepts and that's what we're going to go into. First, emotions and rationality, then scarcity and consistency, authority, choice architecture, and messaging.

And the nice thing I love about this, it's not just advice. She's not just saying, “Oh, this is something I tried once in marketing and it works.” But instead she's saying these are proven concepts based off of science and the study of the human mind. This video is just the basic overview, and watch for more videos as we break down these concepts, and you're going to see some articles and some additional video content where we break out some additional action items.

So you ready to jump in? 

Tori: Yeah, let's do it.

Emotions vs. Rationality

Todd: Great. So, she starts out by talking about the emotional versus the rational mind. Tell us a little bit about that. 

Tori: Yeah, so I think this was kind of a funny chapter to read because it's something that we all fall victim to. And I felt like I was smarter than it. And then I realized at the end that I wasn't. So that was humbling. But basically I think we all think in marketing that facts and statistics are going to be more convincing to potential customers than emotions, when in reality, it's actually the other way around. I'm going to read just two quotes really quick from her that I think kind of sum up this point.

Tip #1: Lead With Emotion, Justify With Rationale

So she says, “The buying decision is 80 percent emotional and the essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.” 

So super interesting, but I guess emotions are processed faster. And so that's what we should lead with as marketers is kind of the emotion behind things.

And, the emotions will make people make the decision, and then we follow up with the rationale behind it, and that will help them kind of justify.

Todd: I am endlessly fascinated by this topic. In fact, evolution has basically selected us so that we actually act on emotion. We've got so much input, so many things coming in so many variables that if we just rationally thought through each one of these, it would just be overwhelming.

So our brain, to save energy, will actually focus our attention on those things that we care about the most. So we can actually make a decision. So it's not like emotion actually clutters the decision making process. It's the energy that actually makes it so we do make a decision. 

And, I mean, research has even been done where people that suffer an injury in certain parts of their brain that are over their emotions, they'll just circle decisions forever. Just contemplating them because they're unable to actually make a decision. 

So think about the decisions that we make. Are they rational or are they emotional? And I love what Nancy says when she says, when talking about consumer behavior, she says, “If pressed for a reason why, they'll likely point to some rational benefit that they got but their brains will just manufacture the rationale for their actions.” So they're acting out of emotion and they're justifying it with rationality. 

Tori: My husband, he's running all these races. And so he just bought this backpack that has all these, I don't know what it's called, it's a hydration backpack, maybe. So he did all his research and then he wanted to buy one. And so he pulled it up on Amazon and was showing it to me. And he was justifying all the rational reasons that it'd be really great to get this specific backpack. 

And so he was telling me it's got a camelback in it, it's got pockets for water bottles, it's lightweight, and it's got this reflective strip on it. But when I was thinking about it, like, why did he actually even want to buy one of those in the first place? Like what made him decide I need one of these? And it was totally emotional. He wants to be safe out there on the trail, like, he wants to be hydrated, he wants to be able to accomplish something, be proud of himself, but it definitely was an emotional decision.

Like, he wanted it. And then he justified, this is cool because it has all these features, but it was just something he wanted.

Todd: Once you realize how many of our decisions are made emotionally, I mean I think of my Apple Watch right here. I've had a normal Apple Watch for years and years.

But just recently, I do a little trail running, not as seriously as Tyson, but I do a little bit of trail running, and I was looking at this and I have wanted the Apple Watch Ultra for a long, long time. It's big, it's beefy, it's chunky. I love the wristband and all this kind of stuff. Well, I needed a reason.

And so essentially I looked, you know, read all these reviews and looked at the battery life. And so I go to Annie and I say this battery life on this watch, it's unbelievable. I'm going to be able to be in the mountains forever. And I'm never in the mountains forever. I'm up there for like a couple of hours.

And I'm like, this thing will last for days and see how safe you'll feel. And so again, I really wanted it. But I was finding an actual rational reason to get it. 

And this is why I think it's important that our marketing has both of these things. It's not like we can lean into the emotion and that's it. We have to have the emotional component and we have to have the rational component. And that way, both sides of our brain are being convinced that, okay, this makes sense. And I'll go ahead and take action because it's something that I really want. 

Tip #2: Ensure Presence of Rationale Info

Nancy then takes this principle and takes it to the next level. I was really surprised at this little concept that she introduces here. She says “It's quite possible that a prospect may use the amount of copy to show as a proxy for the quality of an item.” Just the amount of copy on a page, that this means, this is a quality item and she continues, “Even if the copy is never read, its mere presence could be enough to suggest the product must be good.”

So if we see some text and some copy there, even if we don't read it or we just skim it, the fact that it's there, it's like, okay, someone's thought about this. So there must be some really good reasons. And it really makes me think, Tori, about reviews. Like, I mean, people love reviews, but they don't read them all.

But just the mere presence that we've got a hundred reviews and a 4.5 star that just gives them the sense of, okay, this rational side of my brain, it's now appeased and I can check that box that this is credible. 


Well, next, I want to transition over to the Scarcity Principle. She highlights this nicely as having two components, both an urgency and an exclusivity component.

So this actually reminds me of what Jonah Berger was saying in the last book that we studied Contagious. And Nancy adds kind of a new twist and adds a little bit of meat onto this. 

Tori: Yeah. I think it's cool because Jonah was talking more about being part of an exclusive club or making sure that your deal was only available to a certain number of people, like that kind of part of the exclusivity. 

Tip #1: Personalize Outreach

But Nancy also talks about just making people feel special and you want to feel singled out. And so I think especially right now in the world that we live in that's full of like software and AI is now this huge beast that everybody's tackling. And we are kind of learning how to live with that and how to integrate AI, but also be personable.

But I think it just makes it so much more valuable now when you actually do reach out to your customers on a personal level, because they're not expecting that. Like if you call a helpline for anything these days, It's always a robot and it takes like 20 clicks until you can finally get to a real human person.

It's so frustrating. So I feel like a DM on LinkedIn or an email from an actual person is really special because you feel like you're being singled out, like you're important because a real person is reaching out to you. 

Todd: I love that. I think that human touch, I think in a world of AI, like you said, Tori, is just going to mean more and more.

I mean, I think of our friend Jeremy over there at Sunergy. And recently, you know, we were just moving into this office and we had just done our rebrand for Snoball. And what does he do? I've got them right here. He sends us a big old pack of snowballs and we start having snowball fights. 

He sends me a handwritten note. And let me tell you in a digital world, that meant the world to me that someone would sit down and write out a note like that. So I think little things like that are actually going to become increasingly important as we get more and more digital and more and more AI and more and more automated.

Tip #2: Add Adjectives to Product Descriptions

Tori: The other thing that Nancy points out that I never really thought about this way is how much thought we really should be putting into our product and service descriptions. Meaning, like, you can tell me all about your service and your product, but are you explaining to me in those adjectives how special or exclusive this actually is?

And so she kind of has a list of a couple words she suggests using. So she says like, handcrafted, one of a kind, special edition, limited edition, rare, one of a few, award winning, unique, like all of these words used just as adjectives in your regular product description you already have can make people feel like they're investing in something that is special and exclusive.

Todd: Using phrases like, hey, this is unlike something you'll see with other companies, or this is uncommon in a category. And sometimes people think, well, in order to differentiate or order to be, to stand out, our entire suite of all of our services have to be unique. When that's really not the case.

You don't have to offer something entirely unique. It can even just be something in part, just a small little feature.

Tori: That makes me think of Kory Stevens too. He just came on The Snoball Effect podcast recently that we do, little plug for The Snoball Effect. But he started Taft and then has sold it and since moved on, but he was talking to us about just how his shoes were just shoes until he decided to differentiate them and use that, like, exotic fabric and he put the little gold markings on them.

But he said shoes are just shoes until you do something to set them apart, which probably is similar to, like, Kiziks. Those are just, you know, shoes until you talk about the hands-free and that's like what they really lean into is that they're hands-free. And there's so many products out there that like they're all the exact same but then they lean into like one little thing that differentiates them.

Todd: I love that. I think that's one way to really differentiate.

Consistency & Zeigarnik Effect

I'm excited to talk about this next topic, Consistency and the Zeigarnik Effect. First of all, that's a fun word to say, but tell us what in the world is the Zeigarnik Effect. 

Tori: Yeah, so these are, these were both totally new concepts to me.

And so I just wanted to start this part by giving just very basic, simple definitions. And so, first the Consistency Principle. This just means that once people take an action or take a stand, they like to remain consistent with it. And then the Zeigarnik Effect is that people remember unfinished tasks better than finished ones. So those tasks can nag at people until they are completed. 

So, weird names, but very basic principles of just, things that you don't finish nag at you. You want to be consistent. You don't want cognitive dissonance. So kind of basic principles, but the way that Nancy talks about how we can use those in marketing is actually pretty cool.

Todd: I love that. It reminds me of Annie. She loves sticky notes and she loves writing them out, but even more, she loves taking them off the refrigerator and chucking them and it will drive her crazy until every one of those little to-do's is checked off. So it's very satisfying to let people complete the circle to finish something that they started.

 Tip #1: Lean Into Consistent Personality Traits

Another thing that I want to lean into, something that you said there about this Consistency Principle, that people actually like to be consistent with something that they believe about themselves. They want what they believe and their actions to be in sync and think about it. If you call someone something and then they act in opposition to that, it creates this tension, this cognitive dissonance. 

We like one part of something that we think to be in line with another part of something that we think. So if you call someone adventurous and then they don't buy the hiking gear, they're not going to feel adventurous and you're creating that tension. You call someone charitable and then they don't donate. Then some of that little tension is being created.

Tip #2: Create an Onramp to Yes

Additionally, it's kind of this onramp, this gradual onramp to yes, which is, ask a small yes and kind of get the momentum going your way. And then you can lean into bigger yeses. 

So first ask them to follow you on social media. Then ask them to leave a review, then ask them to send a referral. Here's how Nancy says it. “Start with a smaller low commitment request from your customers. Get that first small yes, then escalate your asks.” 

Tori: This just makes me think back to, we have like a cookie shop close to where I live. And the first time I went in, they asked, (so I guess they had like a soda machine too, and it's not like they did anything crazy or special) but just like, do you want buy-one-get-one on the drink? So like you buy some cookies and then you'll get buy-one-get-one on a soda. I'm like, okay, sure. Like I'm not gonna turn down a drink. But then she said that I would have to sign up for the rewards program if I wanted to qualify for that buy-one-get-one.  

And so I said yes, which kind of works on both levels. I wanted to be consistent. I'd already said I wanted to drink. And so if I went back on that, then I was being inconsistent with what I wanted and that was weird. But also she had me say yes to something small first. And then built up to the rewards program, which if she had just come out of the gate and said, “Do you want to be part of our loyalty program?” I probably would have just said no. And we would have moved on. 

And so really good work on her part because it got me part of the loyalty program and I get texts all the time. And we go back because of that. 

Todd: That's awesome. It's a nice onramp to yes. She just eased you right into it. 

Tori: Yes, totally. The other thing I wanted to point out with the Zeigarnik Effect is that you want people to agree to something that you know that they'll have to complete later. And so that could be asking someone if they would recommend you to a friend, and if they say yes, obviously that's not a strong commitment they're making because they're not recommending anyone to you at that moment, but they said yes, and they're going to want to complete that later.

And so, in the back of their mind, they'll know they have this unfinished task of, I said I would recommend someone to them, but I haven't yet. And so that can be a really good way to use that effect in your marketing. 

And then the other thing it reminds me of is when you're on any site and you're going to buy something and you put it in your cart. But you haven't quite bought it yet. You always get those email reminders that are like, you have this in your cart! Don't forget to buy it! Whether that's from Amazon or wherever else you're shopping online. And it's really annoying to get in your email, but it does remind you that you put something in your shopping cart and it's helpful because you're either going to go delete that or buy it. 

Todd: I mean, it even comes down to little things like zeroing out your inbox or notifications that pop up on your phone. I mean, just that instinct that you feel to get rid of that and finish that. Even if it's just to get that notification off, that's a manifestation of the Zeigarnik Effect. 


Let's talk about authority. Nancy says when an authority figure suggests that a person take a specific action, that person often will.

I mean, it's really basic, right? So we think of authority figures and we think of things like, doctors and academics and authors and subject matter experts and people wearing uniforms. Even people wearing a whistle like your high school coach. But also just books. I mean, I think of how many influencers online or content creators online, they've got a big old stack of books behind them or a library behind them. And just subconsciously that makes them look smarter and makes them look like an authority. 

Tori: Okay, those first couple ones that you mentioned, like doctors, and academics, and authors, I feel like that's what we normally think of as authorities, and I feel like that's why people kind of back away from using this principle, because most of us are not doctors, most of us have not written a book.

Tip #1: Become a Subject Matter Expert

But I think the subject matter experts is a really cool one, and I feel like it's a good place to start for people trying to get their foot in the door to be perceived as an authority figure. So something that Nancy says that I thought was really interesting. She says, “The people you think of as authorities can be the original discoverers of the information or they can simply be the ones curating it and passing it on to you, but they're the ones you trust and believe.”

And so that is super interesting to me because when you look to somebody for information, most of the time you don't know if they're the ones that did that research. But they're the ones telling you about it, and so you trust them. And all of a sudden they're the experts that you're looking to on that subject matter, even if they just read a different article and repurposed the information.

And so, figuring out what subject matter you could be an expert on, could be a really good way to get started, to start being perceived as an expert in that area and just kind of creating content around that, even if it is just repurposing things that you've seen and turning it into your own type of content that people will think is very valuable.

Tip #2: Inject Authority into Website Images

Todd: But the nice thing is, like, if you're not in a place as a company or as a marketer to just crank out content all the time, there's small things you can do to actually create some of that authority. 

I mean, just little things, like maybe you do installations as a company. Well, get pictures of your team in their uniforms and put them on your website. Show your van, show your truck with all your branding on it. These are all things that are going to bring credibility. 

And show authority. So show that equipment that you use, show those certificates that you've earned. Show those awards and those badges and those high star ratings you get from reviews. 

And be on LinkedIn. That's where decision makers are. So it's basically, you know, Instagram for people with jobs as, as we heard from Kory Stevens. And so just be in those places that make you look more credible.

Choice Architecture

Tori: The next principle that we are going to talk about that Nancy highlights in her book is called Choice Architecture. So, the idea behind this is basically that people's decisions are impacted by the way their choices are served up to them. Which means just how you organize your options is important. And so, Nancy says that people have the tendency to go with the flow, or just the easier choice. And so, how can we create our choice architecture to align with the easy choice.

Tip #1: Present the Path of Least Resistance

And I think a lot of that comes from eliminating all barriers, making sure that the path we're presenting to our customers to get from where they are to what we want them to do is the path of least resistance. And so cutting out as many extra steps or buttons to click. So that it's just a very easy process for them to get there. 

Todd: I love that. And I'm going to borrow some verbiage from Donald Miller in his book, Story Brand, where he basically says, when our customers are on our website or they're reading our marketing material, their brain's on a treadmill. Right now. Now, how long are you going to make their brain be on a treadmill?

And they're having to work through and put things together. So every little click that they've got to make, people are dropping off that treadmill. And so think about your customers and how many steps are required for subscribing to something or following you or buying a product or signing up for something. Each one of those steps is forcing your customers to burn more brain calories. 

And then along the way, we want to give messaging, where we're actually saying, hey, just these three easy steps, or this will take no time at all. Or it's super easy. Reminding them that this is easy. So eliminate as many steps as possible and give them that encouragement that, hey, this isn't so bad.

Tip #2: Automatically Opt Them In

Tori: I think on that note, one of the studies that Nancy points out that I thought was really interesting. She said that when people were automatically opted in for something, they were asked if they wanted to opt out, but they stayed opted in. And then the opposite of that was true, where if they were automatically opted out, and asked if they wanted to opt in, they, most of the time, stayed opted out. 

But it's so interesting to me that clicking and unclicking a box is so easy, and you're talking about brain calories, like how many brain calories does it really take to click and unclick a box? Probably not very many, and yet that is how freaking lazy we are is like, no I'm going to stay opted in to get these emails because I don't want to unclick the box like it's just easier to leave it that way. And so I think it's so important for us to consider how the options are being served up. 

If you're wanting someone to subscribe, check the box subscribe and let them choose to opt out and automatically opt in because that's the path of least resistance. 

Todd: When in doubt just make it really simple on the path you want them to be on. And then if they want to step off, then they can do that.


The next section that I want to go into is messaging. Now, Nancy, throughout her book, she's got all kinds of really practical insights having to do with the way we message, the way we communicate with our customers. And so, I just want to go through some of those, throughout all these behavioral principles.

Tip #1: Loss Aversion

There's some of these that just really, stand out. The first thing that stood out was loss aversion, that we're more likely to avoid pain than even pursue something that's beneficial. And so if we can sprinkle just a little bit of a painful scenario, or this is what you're going to experience if you don't go with our product or service, then people are going to be more averse.

They're more likely to avoid that pain. So just sprinkle a little bit of that in there by using phrases like, “Do you ever make this mistake?” or “Don't miss out!” These are ways to kind of trigger that loss aversion. 

Tip #2: Autonomy Bias

Tori: Another principle that Nancy talks about is autonomy bias. Basically the idea behind this is that having a choice makes a person feel like they're in control.

And so the phrase that Nancy uses is B Y A F, but you are free. Obviously that phrase is kind of clunky and weird, but you are free. That's not how we actually talk. But adding that next to a decision someone has to make makes them feel like they're in control and not like they're being forced to do something.

And so instead of like, subscribe here, it's like, subscribe here, but you're free to choose not to do this. And so including phrases like “The choice is yours,” “It's up to you,” “Take control.” All of these things kind of imply that the person has a decision and that actually makes it more likely for them to respond or react to something just because they feel like they're in control. 

Todd: I love that, especially between primary and secondary CTAs where it's like, hey, schedule a demo now. Hey, but you're free to just go on our YouTube and check out our DIY videos if you want to do that yourself. 

And I see this a lot on pricing pages and things where there's tons of options and really sprinkling in the choice. Yeah. You know, this plan over here gives you the choice between this and that. And I think she's really highlighting here that people really want to feel like they're in control. 

Tip #3: Information Gap Theory

Another thing that she highlights is the Information Gap Theory. Anytime you can alert someone that there's something they don't know, or that there's a gap in their knowledge, they're going to naturally want to fill that.

And one of the magic words that she highlights here is the word “new.” Oh, I didn't know that that was there. I need to fill my knowledge with some information. What is new? Other words that she highlights are who, what, where, when, and why. You're identifying and asking, you know, who, what, when, why questions.

And people are going to think, I don't know the answer to that. I've got to get that answer. And so posing questions that someone can't answer is a good way to lead them down a path towards finding that answer. And it gives them the opportunity to add to their base of knowledge and fill those gaps.

Tip #4: Automatic Compliance

Tori: The next principle we want to talk about is Automatic Compliance. And this means that people are more likely to comply with a request if a reason is given. And so the word “because” comes into play a lot here. And she talks about “because” being a very powerful word, kind of like a magic word, like Todd just said “new” is.

But, it's because the word “because” can trigger a response. And so, when you are telling somebody to do something, make sure you're giving them a reason. Even though we want our messaging to be fun and creative, being obvious isn't really natural to us, most of the time. But sometimes we just need to be obvious and say, buy our product because it is the best, because it will help you with this. Subscribe to our YouTube channel because it will give you this information. And just providing a reason actually has a very powerful effect. 

Todd: I love that. When it comes down to it, if you ever have to choose between cleverness and clarity, always go with clarity, even if it feels like you're just spelling it right out, make sure that you're clear first and foremost.

Tip #5: Language Techniques

Another thing she talks about are just different language techniques. And we're all suckers for this. I mean, things like rhyming,  alliteration, repetition, simile, and metaphor. I mean, just think of some of the examples,  like Nationwide, like I can't even say it without singing it, Nationwide is on your side. It's like, those are the most boring words, each of them considered individually, but you put them together, and it just now is catchy and, and it comes together. 

Have a break, have a Kit Kat, Red Bull gives you wings. Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's Maybelline. The quicker picker upper. The snack that smiles back.

These are just fun ways to put words together that are going to make it stick in people's minds and it elevates the credibility as well.

Tip #6: Power Words

Tori: And then kind of just to end, she lists a lot of power words, and we already talked about a couple of these. But the ones she suggests using frequently are “new,” “because,” “you,” “imagine,” and “free.” So make sure you have those as part of your marketing vocabulary. 

Todd: Especially in emails and things like that, like the open rates and everything increased when you, when you trickle those in. 


Tori, this has been a great conversation. This is a really good book. Like I was blown away that on every page, there's some action item. And at the end of every chapter, there's just a list of action items that that marketers can, you know, can experiment with, you know, she'll actually break it down and say, here's the scientific research. Here's the study that's been done. And here's the impact. And then here's my personal experiences where I've actually tried it. And here were the results that we got. So really a powerful book. 

Yeah. I'm really excited about the stuff that we've got coming out because we're going to dive more into some of those action items and we're going to distill them down in different articles in different short videos that we're going to put out and we're going to show how the Snoball platform actually incorporates a lot of this human behavioral science right into our word of mouth marketing platform. So keep an eye out for all of that. 

And thank you so much, everybody. Thanks for joining today, Tori.

Tori: Yeah, of course. Thanks for having me again. 

Todd: That's it for the Word of Mouth Marketing podcast and our next chapter of our Marketing Playbook. See you later.

We know you're busy. So from us at Snoball, thank you for listening to the Word of Mouth Marketing podcast. Want to leverage more concrete strategies, real life examples, and practical tools? Then hit that subscribe button. 

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