Daniel Burstein

Using the Science of Habit Formation in Customer-First Marketing (interview with Charles Duhigg)

December 11th, 2015

As much as 45 percent of what customers do every day is habitual. That is just one interesting piece of research we shared in Tuesday’s MarketingSherpa blog post, which was part one of my interview with Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times and author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

In today’s blog post, we share part two from the interview. You’ll learn about the reward schedule for customers, conducting research that informs effective writing and optimizing the habits in your day-to-day life, along with a question that was really nagging me — can you leverage the science of habit and still be an ethical, customer-first marketer?

If you’re interested in learning more about Charles’s research, we’re giving away a copy of his book in this week’s MarketingSherpa Book Giveaway (enter by December 13 for a chance to win) and Charles will also be a featured speaker at MarketingSherpa Summit 2016 in Las Vegas.

Understanding the reward schedule for customers

MarketingSherpa: So, in the book, and what you’re talking about, you talk about the ways that brands or marketers influence customers to create habits essentially like, hey, marketing to have milk with cookies, or what have you, or Febreze. Have you seen any examples of customer habits actually influencing the brand? So working vice-a-versa or a smart brand out there that’s doing some research and really sees what natural customer habits are and taps into them as opposed to creating them?

Charles: Oh yeah! Absolutely, all the time. I mean, one of my favorite examples of this is video games. Right? When a video game designer designs a new game, the first thing that they decide upon is what the reward schedule is. What that reward schedule is, is really looking at when people play games, when do they expect to get some type of thing that makes the playing continue to feel kind of fun, when you get a reward that you can anticipate, when you get a reward that you don’t anticipate.

Slot machines are designed on the same principles. It’s very hard to create a new reward and convince people that they like it. What’s much easier is to look at what habits already naturally exist, and try and piggyback on the rewards that people are giving themselves.

Febreze is actually a great example of this. One of the big insights for Febreze was that Proctor & Gamble was watching all these video tapes of people cleaning their homes and they realized that all of these people were already giving themselves rewards at the end of a cleaning ritual.

One of my favorite examples — they showed me some tapes of this — they had videos of people cleaning their mirrors. Again and again and again, people would walk into a bathroom, they would spray a mirror with some cleaning solution. They would wipe away the suds, and then they would look at their own reflection and kind of smile maniacally at themselves. And you’re laughing because you do the exact same thing! Right? We all do that.

What was going on there, was that people were giving themselves rewards at the end of a cleaning ritual. Febreze’s insight was, rather than trying to create this whole new habit, why don’t we just piggyback on that? Why don’t we add some scent to Febreze to make it smell good, and we’ll reposition Febreze as this thing that makes everything smell as good as it looks. It’s a reward for doing a good job on cleaning a room.

Conducting research that informs effective writing

MarketingSherpa: Let me ask you — to kind of piggyback on what we were saying before about conducting research to tap into customer habits — it took more than just advertising to create the toothpaste habit, but when you wrote about Claude Hopkins advertising, I thought it was very interesting that he read dental textbooks and learned about a naturally occurring membrane that builds up on teeth.

Claude Hopkins advertising


At the end of the day, Claude Hopkins found some really interesting insight that he was able to leverage with a good headline and body copy in his advertising, but he did it through research. Marketers, when they’re working with agencies and copywriters, a lot of times they are looking to them for that beautiful design and compelling wording.

Claude Hopkins didn’t just write a good headline; he was tapping into some sort of universal truth there, and so it just struck me as there’s somewhat of a parallel, I would imagine, to what you do because you write. I’m sure you are a good writer, you put words together well, but at the end of the day it’s that research that really powers it, that makes it.

I was wondering if you had any advice for marketers, or brands, for people who work at agencies, on how you conduct research. How can they conduct research to tap into these universal truths that make effective advertising and products?

Charles: So I’ll tell you the two best pieces of researching advice, in my opinion.

Number one is just to pick up the phone and start calling experts. Because the truth of the matter is that there’s this instinct when you have a new topic that you want to learn about.

There’s this instinct to read instead of make phone calls. At least for reporters — I don’t know if this is true for other people, but I meet a lot of reporters, a lot of young reporters, and they say, ‘How should I write? How should I do research?’ And their instinct is, ‘I don’t know much about X so I’ll read a whole bunch of studies or articles on it.’ And that’s great. It’s important to read.

But the truth of the matter is that if you pick up a telephone and you call an expert and sort of ask them dumb questions, you’ll actually learn much faster because what an expert can do that a study can’t, is that an expert can sort immediately and tell you what question you should be asking. That’s oftentimes the most useful thing about an expert is that you ask them some questions and they say, ‘Well, I can tell you the answer to that, but what you should be asking me is X,’ or, ‘What you really want to know is Y.’ So, first of all, make phone calls.

The second thing that I think is essential, or really helpful, is to just kind of read weird things. I mean, to be honest, one of the hardest things about writing books is to find the narratives at the core of every story, right? Like, I know that I want to talk about rewards or cues, but I don’t know the story of Febreze yet. I haven’t learned anything about it.

The way that I find those stories, oftentimes, is just by randomly making some phone calls, and then looking up weird things on Google and looking up obscure publications that I’ve never heard of before, and doing Google Scholar searches on terms that don’t seem like they should belong together to me, but that seem like they’re interesting.

One of my favorite articles that I ever wrote was for Slate, and it started because I typed into Google, “the economics of suicide.” Because it just kind of occurred to me, what would economists say about suicide? And it turns out there are all these really fascinating things that economists have said about suicide, and so that became an article.

MarketingSherpa: Okay, so when you talk to experts, how do you get them on the phone? What advice can you give to marketers about that? And I understand the answer may just be, ‘I say I’m a reporter for The New York Times,’ and marketers won’t be able to do that.

Charles: I just call them. I mean, honestly, I think working for The New York Times helps because people like being quoted in The New York Times, but the truth of the matter is if you literally just dial someone and they pick up the phone, it’s very hard for them to hang up right away. Usually what happens is I call and I say, ‘Dr. Smith, my name’s Charles Duhigg. I’m a reporter for The New York Times. If you don’t mind, I wanted to ask you a couple questions about this one study you wrote.’

And usually they’re so caught off guard that by time I’ve asked a question, they’ve started answering it. Everyone likes being an expert, right? No one minds being told how smart they are. So I do a little bit of research. I don’t make it seem like I’m just calling them because their number came up first in the phone book. I signal to them very quickly that I know at least a little bit about them, but then I try and ask interesting questions, and the most interesting questions are frankly the questions that seem interesting to me.

Using habit research in customer-first marketing

MarketingSherpa: When we talk about research into habits, I sometimes worry that customers can view what the marketers do as being hidden persuaders, or using subliminal tactics to manipulate consumers, induce desires that aren’t naturally there.

I noticed, you wrote an article called “How Companies Learn Our Secrets” in The New York Times.

I was reading through the comments, and one of the commenters posted “How the NYT learns our ‘secrets:’” and listed all of the tracking software on The New York Times website.

What advice would you give to marketers? How can marketers do this research on habits but put customers first in a way that really benefits customers? How can they avoid alienating customers, and what every customer might fear when they hear about these things — being manipulated in some way.

Charles: The big lesson from that article, “How Companies Learn About You,” is about the Target project where they built a predictive analytic program to figure out which customers were pregnant. And the reason why some customers freaked out about that was because it feels sort of invasive for a company to know that I’m pregnant if I’ve never told them that I am. Right?

But I think that there’s all types of things that companies do that don’t feel invasive. And the truth of the matter is, that the more transparent they are, the more we usually, customers, are willing to play along.

Take, for instance, loyalty rewards programs, right? I tell companies all the time all kinds of things about myself, because I know that they are giving me these points that I can use for free hotel rooms and things like that. So that seems like a pretty fair trade to me. I don’t mind.

I mean, I know that when I use my Delta credit card, that AMEX and Delta, they’re tracking how I’m using that card and they’re trying to create marketing messages that are perfectly designed to appeal to me. But, A, it’s fairly transparent, right? They oftentimes send me a marketing message and they say, ‘We’re sending this to you because we noticed that you recently shopped with so and so.’ And, B, it’s actually a great trade of value. I’m giving them some information about myself, and they give me all these points that let me take free plane trips.

Optimizing the habits in your day-to-day life

MarketingSherpa: We’ve talked a lot about your research into habits, and how marketers can use that to essentially market their products to their customers, but I also wanted to ask, what about in their own work day? How can marketers become more cognizant of their own habits and remake those habits to be more successful?

Charles: So I think a huge part of it is spending time to try and identify what your habits are. I actually have a new book coming out in March on the science of productivity that touches on some of these topics — basically, like, what are the behaviors that make us more productive at work? But the first and important thing is just to recognize what habits are actually driving behavior?

One of things that we know about neurology is that our brain tends to ramp down when we are in the grip of a habit. We actually notice much less what we’re doing. That’s why habits are so useful … because we don’t have to think about them quite so hard. And so part of changing habits or optimizing habits is, first of all, just recognizing what habits are at play, when I’m doing something, when I’m going about my daily life.

When I procrastinate at work, is that a habit? When I decide what to eat for lunch, is that a habit? What are the habits that influence these behaviors?

If almost half my day is spent on habits, what are those habits? What are the cues? What are the rewards? If I can diagnose my own behaviors, that’s the first, most important step towards creating the change that I want in my own life.

MarketingSherpa: We do yoga at lunchtime here, and it sounds like you’re talking about what our yoga teacher would call mindfulness.

Charles: Yeah, they’re very similar. The truth of the matter is that most people don’t know what habits they have. I think you’re right. Mindfulness is very similar, where it basically says, first, just be aware.

MarketingSherpa: Thank you Charles. Let me just ask you lastly, is there anything else to add? Anything I should have asked that I didn’t?

Charles: No, this is a great interview. I really appreciate you guys taking the time to do it.

MarketingSherpa: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.


You can follow Daniel Burstein, Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS Institute, @DanielBurstein.

You might also like

See Charles Duhigg speak at MarketingSherpa Summit in Las Vegas, February 22-24, 2016  — every attendee will receive a copy of The Power of Habit

Enter for a chance to win a copy of The Power of Habit in the MarketingSherpa Weekly Book Giveaway — enter by December 13, 2015

The Hidden Side of Email Marketing: The once-and-done option, A/B testing and a supersmart kind of dumb (Interview with Stephen Dubner)

Daniel Burstein

About Daniel Burstein

Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the editorial direction for MECLABS – digging for actionable information while serving as an advocate for the audience. Daniel is also a speaker and moderator at live events and on webinars. Previously, he was the main writer powering MarketingExperiments publishing engine – from Web clinics to Research Journals to the blog. Prior to joining the team, Daniel was Vice President of MindPulse Communications – a boutique communications consultancy specializing in IT clients such as IBM, VMware, and BEA Systems. Daniel has 18 years of experience in copywriting, editing, internal communications, sales enablement and field marketing communications.

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