In Charles Duhigg’s recent book “The Power of Habit”, he explores the mechanisms behind our powerful, almost unthinking deferral to the usual. It was hard not to see parallels in the marketing world since marketers are creatures of habit like everyone else. In our B2C study this year, we looked at what separates great marketing teams from average ones in today’s VUCA (volatile, unpredictable, chaotic, ambiguous) environment with big data following on the heels of social media. As it turns out, differences in team performance are best explained by differences in habit formation, a subject the book investigates in depth.
One thing the book brought to mind for me was a (warning: very macabre) natural experiment done in MLC’s hometown of Washington, DC, back in the 1980’s. In DC’s Northwest quadrant, there are two bridges over Rock Creek just one block from each other – the Duke Ellington Bridge and the William Howard Taft Bridge. In 1985, three people committed suicide by jumping off the Ellington Bridge in a 10-day span, and the neighborhood began lobbying for the barrier along the bridge’s sidewalk to be raised – in order to hinder would-be jumpers from making a potentially-fatal mistake.
It’s DC, however, and even bridges are political. The National Trust for Historic Preservation – attempting to protect the bridge as a historical landmark – argued that suicide barriers didn’t work. If you want to commit suicide, they said, a barrier will just make you go elsewhere. And since the Ellington’s neighbor, the Taft, was mere feet away, opponents said that the problem of suicides along that section of Rock Creek wouldn’t even improve – they’d just shift to another bridge.
But the opponents were wrong. Five years after the Ellington barrier finally went up, a study showed that suicides off that bridge were eliminated completely, while the suicide rate at the Taft Bridge remained unchanged, and jumping suicides across DC – a city of two rivers, a major creek, and many bridges – decreased by 50%. In other words, jumpers – a group shown by psychological studies to be among the most impulsive of suicide victims – had had the impulse, journeyed to the Ellington Bridge to jump, found themselves stymied by the barrier and then reconsidered.
What this story illustrates is the importance of building mechanisms that cause people to re-think impulsive actions that can lead to negative outcomes – ones that persuade rather than prohibit, that wean people off what is automatic by increasing the cost of pursuing that option. Adapting to today’s business world isn’t nearly as important as preventing suicide, but mechanisms that serve to shut off our impulses and compel rational thought are extremely valuable in any volatile business setting.
Why? In a murky, fast moving environment full of “bright shiny objects” like Pinterest, our natural inclination – our impulse, if you will – is often to chase the newest things. Smart marketing teams avoid costly mistakes by building mechanisms that require marketers to reason through their choices, putting the focus back on key business goals that are fundamental to long term growth.
One example of a mechanism that does in a marketing setting this is the Social Media Plan-on-a-Page, a hypothesis-driven experimentation plan that puts business goals in context and links them up to key implementation steps and success metrics. Two things are key here: one, it’s a “one page” exercise meant to be simple and concise; two, it’s a chance to expose weak or non-existent links to business value before committing any resources. The template for the Plan-on-a-Page can be found here but if you were to simply talk yourself through it in condensed form it would go something like this:
“We want to accomplish business objective X that captures strategic opportunity Y in which our company enjoys a protected advantage, and given targeted audience dynamics in demographic/geography/channel Z, we decide to conduct experiment Alpha in (targeted channel) where the outcome will be measured by success metrics one, two and three.”
Sounds easy, but filling in the blanks is quite difficult if your case is weak. The same logic holds whether you’re evaluating your Facebook presence or assessing the value of adopting a new mobile technology.
These mechanisms are of course not “fail-proof”, just like speed bumps don’t course-correct your car, and to put them there requires top-down leadership plus consistent enforcement. In a VUCA world, they give necessary pause, which is often all we need to look around, reorient, and realize we need to work differently.