The Journey from Shopper Insights to Behavioral Science


A roadmap for transforming insights using a combination of ethnography and experimentation

This article was originally published on the Behavioural Design Hub.

I spent the first 20 years of my career in Shopper Insights, leading Perception Research Services (PRS) and later PRS IN VIVO. And if I’m to generalize across many clients and studies, the most consistent theme that I observed was the gap between what people said — and what they actually did. Time and again, we’d ask people about new products– and perhaps 30%-40% would claim high levels of Purchase Interest (i.e. “Definitely Would Buy”). Yet shoppers would later visit our physical or virtual, simulated stores — and consistently walk right past the product and purchase their familiar brand.

My efforts to understand this disconnect are what led me to Behavioral Science. And now, I’ve come to realize that this journey represents both a roadmap and an opportunity for revitalizing and repositioning the Insights function.

“…the most consistent theme that I observed was the gap between what people said — and what they actually did.”

Transforming Insights

Behavioral Science has so many implications for consumer research and human understanding that it’s truly difficult to know where to begin. Many Insights professionals focus on the idea of “System 1” decision making, which leads them to abandon traditional tools – and search for new methods to measure visceral, emotional response to marketing communications. The concepts of human irrationality, heuristics and the “intent to action gap” resonate for others, who may question the value of asking people questions – and increasingly rely on behavioral data, which is more prevalent and available than ever before.

There’s clearly some validity to these interpretations: Behavioral Science does teach us that people are unreliable witnesses to their own preferences and behavior. Thus, we can’t simply ask them questions and take their responses at face-value. And there’s definite wisdom in focusing on what people actually do, as opposed to what they say, claim or predict.

However, we should also keep in mind that Big Data has its limitations as well: Sales figures and clickstreams can tell us what happened, but they rarely tell us why. For example, did people see and consciously reject a new product or offer? Or did they never even consider it, as they quickly defaulted to their familiar brand or choice? As importantly, sales data doesn’t tell us what would have happened, if the environment and situation were slightly different. These limitations point to two major opportunities to transform the insights function, through Ethnography and Experimentation.

“Sales figures and clickstreams can tell us what happened, but they rarely tell us why.”

Placing Ethnography at the Forefront

Behavioral Science tells us that people’s choices are often driven by their need to reduce their cognitive load. In other words, we all take “shortcuts” to save energy and simplify our lives. It then follows that so many of our choices – particularly for more frequent and low-risk purchases – are driven by what’s easiest. This is exactly what stacks the odds against new ideas: It’s simply much easier for a person to buy his or her familiar “good-enough” brand, rather than invest time and energy comparing dozens of options – or deciding whether or not a making a change is worth the risk.

Even when people would truly like to make a change – to eat healthier, for example – they find that “micro-barriers” (in the form of existing habits and heuristics) often stand in the way. Therefore, creating awareness, developing new features and even “convincing” people (through compelling advertising) is often not enough to change their behavior. Instead, it requires uncovering and removing the “micro-barriers” that stand in the way. This requires understanding the patterns – at home, online or in-store– that lead them to their current choices and behaviors. And the good news (for Insights professionals) is that there’s a multitude of new ways (via social networks, apps and more) to quickly and inexpensively observe and better understand people’s behavior patterns.

This is what leads us to ethnography: Because these patterns are often so automatic and sub-conscious (“System 1”), people are unlikely to verbalize them. We can’t simply ask questions. Instead, we need to deeply observe, through the lens of habits and micro-barriers. And while ethnography might not be an entirely new concept or discipline, Behavioral Science suggests that it deserves a refresh – and a far more central role within the Insights function.

“[Changing behavior]… requires uncovering and removing the “micro-barriers” that stand in the way”

Accelerating Experimentation

A second enormous takeaway from Behavioral Science is that relatively small changes in context (“choice architecture”) can have a disproportionately large impact on people’s decisions. Thus, the best path to driving sales is not always a new feature or benefit, nor even a discount. Simply “framing” options differently – or making a specific offer more salient – can potentially have just as powerful an effect. This speaks directly to the importance (and necessity) of continually trying new approaches (new messages, new offers, new presentations, etc.) to gauge how they impact consumer behavior. Or to borrow from Harvard Professors Mike Luca and Max Bazerman, it speaks to The Power of Experiments.

In the words of my own colleague Richard Chataway, organizations need to adopt “test tube behaviors” and an experimentation mentality, just as Amazon, Google, Netflix and other tech giants continually A/B test new screens. Of course, testing can be more expensive and time-consuming in the physical world, which presents a challenge for Insights teams. On one hand, they clearly need to lower these barriers and reduce the cost of experimentation. On the other, they have a responsibility to avoid simply automating weak methods that are not predictive (i.e. to get the wrong answers faster!).

To navigate this dilemma, the most important principles are to retain context and measure choice. So rather than exposing people to products, concepts or ideas in isolation, ensure that they are always being asked to make decisions, in the context of a shelf, a web site or perhaps an app. In other words, the challenge is to make contextual, behavioral approaches more agile and affordable, as opposed to making the wrong decisions, more quickly.

“…organizations need to adopt “test tube behaviors” and an experimentation mentality”

Leading the Organization

Ethnography and experimentation are more internally focused, in that they represent opportunities to evolve and enhance the Insights function. Yet Behavioral Science also presents a larger opportunity, to change the role of Insights within the organization – and ultimately help counter the current dynamic (of reduced budgets and increased demands) facing many research teams.

That’s because Behavioral Science has clear, proven applications throughout the organization, from Marketing and Sales to Human Resources and Operations. In fact, behavioral science interventions (“Nudges”) have been applied successfully to change both:

  • Consumer, customer or guest behavior (“Nudge Marketing”)
  • Organizational processes and employee behavior (“Nudge Management”)

It’s also quite clear that Insights is the natural “home” of Behavioral Science within the organization, given its deep roots in human understanding (i.e. ethnography) and its emphasis on testing-and-learning (i.e. experimentation). This points to a major opportunity for Insights to become the internal “champions” of a transformative new mindset, by helping to educate other teams – and accompanying them as they experiment in developing and testing interventions to change behaviors.

Taking on this leadership role will not simply involve an additional set of tasks and responsibilities: Importantly, it can lead to a change in perception, by linking Insights more directly to behavior change and ROI. Rather than being viewed as a cost center, Insights can become a visible partner in driving growth, by helping other teams develop and test interventions to drive specific behaviors.

In fact, this is exactly the journey on which we’ve recently embarked with the global Insights team of a major consumer goods marketer. After completing successful ad-hoc projects together, we’re now launching in-depth Behavioral Science training for 40+ Insights professionals, serving several different brand teams. The initial focus will be on the Insights function itself: How can we apply Behavioral Science to revisit our tools and revitalize our work? However, our ultimate goal is to prepare and re-position the Insights team within the organization, as Internal consultants who will help marketing, sales and design teams to apply and leverage Behavioral Science.

Coming Full Circle

When I joined the BVA Nudge Consulting, I felt that I was “leaving” the world of Insights for Behavioral Science. Several years later, I’ve come to realize that this is hardly the case. For while I’ve been fortunate to apply Behavioral Science to a wide variety of sectors and challenges, I’ve actually come “full circle” professionally. Increasingly, I find myself working with Insights teams, helping them apply Behavioral Science to their work – and to reposition Insights within their organizations. I find it satisfying that so many leaders have recognized and embraced this vision, as Behavioral Science represents an inspiring path forward for Insights within a rapidly changing world.

This article was written by Scott Young, author and speaker on behavioral science and consumer insights. Applying BeSci for good in the private sector at the BVA Nudge Consulting.