Part Three – The Availability Bias and Priming in your Mailbox

By: Ilan Mann

April 15, 2020

This is part two of an ongoing series about consumer behaviour. You are strongly encouraged to read part one here and part two here before reading this post.

Let’s recap a few insights:

  • We don’t have the mental capacity/energy to focus on doing every task slowly and methodically.
  • That’s why we evolved a system for quickly making everyday complicated calculations without overloading our brains.
  • That system calculates things inaccurately, but usually within the ballpark.
  • Those calculations usually manifest as feelings, biases, gut reactions, or other mental shortcuts.
  • We sometimes use those quick and inaccurate calculations to make consumer decisions that maybe we shouldn’t.

I began the last post with what I consider a bit of good advice about marketing: marketing is about so much more than just setting the right price, and finding the customer for whom the value outweighs the price.

It reminds me of what I consider to be very bad (and very ubiquitous) advice about sales: “You should speak to [insert ideal customer here], I bet they would love this product.”

What I’ve learned about sales after 5+ years of trying to sell a new product is that it’s not that simple. You need to find that person’s contact information, get past their gatekeepers, get their attention long enough to articulate your value proposition in a compelling way so that they actually consider it, convince them to get buy-in from their stakeholders, convince them that you’re a better choice than any alternatives that they could purchase or are currently purchasing, and shepherd them through the buying process.

Here’s how business school lecturers strongly imply that sales conversations will go:

Seller: Excuse me, I think I have a product that will add value to your life or business such that it will more than justify the price that I am asking for it

Buyer: You have my undivided and un-skeptical attention

Seller: I have a product that can provide $20 of utility for every $19 that you spend on it

Buyer: Do you take certified checks?

Here’s how most sales conversations actually go:

Rationally, we all want products that will provide the most utility for us. Practically, we don’t always act as perfectly rational consumers for a myriad of reasons.

From the perspective a marketer, familiarizing yourself with how the consumer’s mind works is a huge advantage when competing for attention, interest, decision, and action.

Consider the availability heuristic, also known as the availability bias:

The availability bias is the human tendency to overestimate the frequency, prominence, or prevalence of events, people, things, etc… due to recent exposure to them.

For example, suppose you took a survey of 5,000 American adults over the age of 60, and asked them the following question:

In which of the following years did the world experience most airline hijackings?

a) 1990 – 38

b) 2001 – 11

c) 1983 – 35

d) 1993 – 36

Most of them would say 2001, the year of the deadly September 11th terror attack.

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In fact, any American over the age of 60 would have likely read or heard about airline hijackings 38 times in 1990, 26 times in 1993,  and 35 times in 1983, compared to only 11 hijackings in 2001.

You may be thinking that this is an unfair test. We’re asking senior citizens to remember the frequency of hijacking headlines from 1983 as easily as they do headlines from 2001 – nearly 20 years later!

Well, let’s simply the question a bit:

In which of the following years did the world experience more airline hijackings?

a) 2001

b) 2000

Again, most people would say 2001. In fact, there were more than double the hijackings in 2000 as opposed to the following the year. 27 in 2000, 11 in 2001.

Hijackings

The reason for this is simple: They can recall the hijackings of 2001 with little mental effort, because it sticks out so vividly in their minds – and with good reason. Though 2001 was a year of relatively few hijackings compared to the 3 decades that preceded it, those hijackings were by far the most fatal, and led directly to 2 wars and drastic changes to the way we fly.

The examples of the availability bias at work are countless, and mostly far less depressing.

Ask someone walking out of a Tom Hanks movie how many Oscars he’s won. They will definitely over-estimate.

If you’re going to pick a fight with your spouse about household chores, do it the day after you do the laundry, meal prep, and wash all the dishes. You may not get a total pass on how often you do household chores, but you can be sure that they will overestimate the frequency.

All of this is to say that your brain doesn’t like to work too hard, scraping your memory and counting (calculating!) the exact number or frequency of these things.

Armed with that knowledge, marketers looking to mail their prospective clients can take advantage of the way the brain works to make their materials more effective in a few different ways:

Quality over quantity – Moneyball your marketing 

Of course, the best way to convince someone that you’re the number one brand in your industry is to be the most ubiquitous advertising presence known to man.

But let’s assume that you don’t have an endless marketing budget.

Take a page from Oakland A’s manager Billy Bean in one of my favourite stories/books/movies and Moneyball the situation by focusing on the metrics that matter.

Check out this post about why creating a few strong mail pieces that really catch attention will be more effective than dozens of pieces that don’t. That’s because of the availability bias.

The brain doesn’t care how many times it’s seen your ad. It doesn’t want to work hard to remember it. The more it stands out, the easier it is to recall. The easier it is to recall, the more the recipient overestimates its impact.

Ask people to rank the realtors in their neighbourhood by houses sold. Odds are their answers are going to be way off, and their list is going to look suspiciously like a list of realtors whose marketing materials they can readily recall.

Priming, Priming, Priming

Answer the following 3 Questions:

Question 1 – describe in detail what you had for breakfast or lunch. Spare no detail

Question 2- guess the average weight of a panda bear

Question 3 – complete the following four-letter word: SO_P

I’m not especially interested in question 1 or 2. The vast majority of people are answering question 3 with the word “SOUP.”

Now, suppose I change the 3 questions to the following:

Question 1 – describe in detail your laundry routine. Spare no detail.

Question 2- guess the average weight of a panda bear.

Question 3 – complete the following four-letter word: SO_P

As you can imagine, this time, the vast majority of people are answering question 3 with the word “SOAP. ”

This is called priming, and it’s a close relative of the availability heuristic. Your brain doesn’t want to work harder than it has to, so it reaches for the closest available association. If I prime you to think about food, you think soup. If I prime you to think about cleaning, you think soap.

If there is a slam-dunk answer to your question that you want your prospect, donor, or client to think about, ask yourself how you can prime them to give it to you.

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It’s passover. Soup is on my mind. Sue me.

Timing, Timing, Timing

This one is simply a matter of understanding that your marketing is going to be more effective if your prospect already has your product or industry on their mind.

Save yourself the trouble of priming them, and simply invest in curating a list of recipients who are likely to already be receptive to your message.

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Be present in their mailbox. 

For marketers, this is easily the most important insight related to the availability bias. I could have put it first on the list, but I wanted to reward the faith of those who read this far, and punish the quitters who didn’t.

Does sending my client a birthday card or holiday card really change how much benefit they’re getting out of my product or service?

Well, no. But you had better believe that it changes how much benefit they think they’re getting out of your product or service.

Just like they overestimate how many academy awards Tom Hanks has won because they saw two Tom Hanks movies this year, they overestimate how much of an impact you, your product, or your service had based on the number of times they can easily recall you showing up in their mailbox.

So don’t make it any harder for their brain than it needs to be.