Can you nudge your way out of a crisis?

Couldn’t make our last coronavirus comms coaching session? Here’s what you missed.

All eyes have been on the behavioural scientists lately (and not always in a good way). Does behavioural fatigue really exist? Can a slogan keep the nation indoors? Arguments abound.

So we went back to behavioural science basics in our latest coronavirus comms coaching session (we hold one on Teams every Friday). And we called on the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT)’s tried-and-tested EAST model to take a closer look at some of the messages we’ve seen so far.

What’s EAST again?

BIT says that if you want to change people’s behaviour, you should make the new things you want people to do East, Attractive, Social and Timely.

Easy – ‘Stay two trolleys apart’

Most of us are hopeless at guessing amounts of time or working out distances. It’s why advice to wash our hands for 20 seconds quickly became wash your hands while you sing Happy Birthday twice. And why supermarkets are telling shoppers to stay two trolleys apart and adding helpful 2m markers on the floor.

Grounding a new behaviour in something familiar and concrete makes it much easier for us to follow.

Naturally, the language you use makes a difference, too. Think back to the confusion around ‘self-quarantining’ and ‘self-isolating’ (phrases we’d never heard before) compared to the clarity of ‘stay at home’. We’re not surprised people had lots to say when Boris’ slogan changed this week. Understanding stay at home didn’t take much brain power. We have to think a bit harder to work out what stay alert means. (You can hear Neil’s thoughts on the slogan change on the Evening Standard’s podcast.)

Attractive – It’s not ‘just like seasonal flu’

Brits might have a reputation for cynicism, but most of us wear surprisingly rose-tinted specs. We’re quick to believe good things (like winning the lottery) will happen to us. But when someone tells us we’re going to catch a seriously contagious virus, we’re sceptical.  

Behavioural scientists call that the optimism bias.

The Government tried a few approaches to make us all take the risk seriously – including writing to every household in the UK. But their most effective attempt at changing our mind wasn’t intentional.

When Boris Johnson got seriously ill the risk hit home. If the PM could end up in intensive care, so could we. It worked because of something behavioural scientists rather ghoulishly call the identifiable victim effect. The story of one person is often more persuasive than the data. (They don’t have to be a victim in the literal sense; they could be a hero too.)

Social – Did somebody say ‘panic buying’

We’re wired to follow the crowd. And behavioural scientists often play on our sheep-like tendencies to change our behaviour. It’s called social norming and it’s normally very effective. But it can also go horribly wrong.

Just look at panic buying at the start of the pandemic. All it took were a few news headlines and pics on social media of empty supermarket shelves for us to race to the shops and buy every loo roll and packet of pasta we could get our hands on.

It was only when the media started doing the reverse and showing shots of well-stocked shelves (and empty streets) that things settled down.

One particularly effective social norm we’ve seen in the lockdown is reciprocity (or you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours). It’s there in every pic and social post of NHS staff reminding the public that they’re working hard for us, so we need to stay home for them.

(Speaking of reciprocity, we hope you’re enjoying our free coaching sessions and blogs full of tips…)

Timely – ‘What’s the occasion?’

When and how you send a message is just as important as what you send.

Before lockdown, our WeWork building got their timeliness just right by sticking 20-second song lyrics on all the loo mirrors. It was the right nudge, in the right place, at exactly the moment you needed it.

But we also spotted a few blips from brands who were slower to realise their everyday content might not be right, right now. Days before inevitable lockdown, Reiss was encouraging me to buy occasion-wear (it was all gorgeous, but not the kind of thing I’d wear for sitting on the sofa or queuing at the supermarket). Well into lockdown Waitrose was still infuriatingly emailing me recipes that called for flour, despite never having any on their shelves.

Brands either became content-deaf to what was going or simply forgot to update their automated content calendars.

Most brands and businesses are getting the hang of their coronavirus messages now… right?  

Join Nick at 11.30am on Friday 15th May for our next coaching session, where he’ll be looking at the ups and downs of sticking to a strong brand voice in a crisis.

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