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I’m a big fan on focusing on getting the “copy” (the words on the page) right to drive behavior. I’ve posted in the past about Cialdini’s great book, Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion, and how the principles outlined in it can be used for structured brainstorming to improve copy to drive the results that you want. Of course, all this needs to be A:B tested, but it provides great ideas to test.
Sunday’s NY Times has a great story on how behavioral science can help drive policy, and how a change in copy helped increase tax collection in the UK by 15 percentage points:
One early success story involves an attempt to collect taxes from people who fail to pay on time. Most British citizens pay their taxes promptly because it is a simple tax system with few deductions, so that most taxes are collected via payroll withholding. (That’s “make it easy” in action.) But small-business owners and individuals with significant nonpayroll income are expected to save up the money to write a check to the government, and some of them fail to pay on time.
In such cases, the government’s first step is to send a letter asking for payment within six weeks, after which sterner, more expensive measures are taken. The tax collection authority wondered whether this letter might be improved. Indeed, it could.
The winning recipe comes from Robert B. Cialdini, an emeritus professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, and author of the book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.”
People are more likely to comply with a social norm if they know that most other people comply, Mr. Cialdini has found. (Seeing other dog owners carrying plastic bags encourages others to do so as well.) This insight suggests that adding a statement to the letter that a vast majority of taxpayers pay their taxes on time could encourage others to comply. Studies showed that it would be even better to cite local data, too.
Letters using various messages were sent to 140,000 taxpayers in a randomized trial. As the theory predicted, referring to the social norm of a particular area (perhaps, “9 out of 10 people in Exeter pay their taxes on time”) gave the best results: a 15-percentage-point increase in the number of people who paid before the six-week deadline, compared with results from the old-style letter, which was used as a control condition.
The tax authorities estimate that this initiative, if rolled out across the country, could generate £30 million of extra revenue annually. And note that sending an effective letter doesn’t cost any more than sending a bad one.
If you’re in product management and you haven’t read Cialdini’s book, go out and buy it now. Nine out of ten product managers already have! 😉
Focusing on copy can dramatically improve user response June 18, 2009Posted by jeremyliew in copy, product management, UI, usability.
A couple of years ago I posted about how improving copy is an easy way to increase user interaction. Bokardo recently posted on a similar topic, about how microcopy can improve your user interface:
Microcopy is extremely contextual…that’s why it’s so valuable. It answers a very specific question people have and speaks to their concerns right on the spot. And because its so contextual, microcopy isn’t always obvious. Sometimes you have to hunt to find the right words. (or create an error notification service like I did) How to discover these hurdles? Talk to people! Why aren’t they adopting your software? What concerns do they have? What are they worried about? Successful salesmen know the power of these small turns of phrase. They have an arsenal of them for every situation.
Here are some other examples:
- When signing up for a newsletter, say “this low-volume newsletter”
- When people add their emails, say “we hate spam as much as you do”
- When subscribing for something free, say “you can always unsubscribe at any time”
- When selling an paid-for web application, be sure to let people know if you have a free trial.
- When storing customer’s information, say “You can export your information at any time”
- If offering optional account creation, say “If you create an account, you’ll be able to track your package”
All of these microcopy examples have one thing in common: they help to alleviate concerns of would-be customers. They help to reduce commitment by speaking directly to the thoughts in people’s heads. That’s why this copy can be so short yet so powerful.
Don’t be deceived by the size of microcopy. It can make or break an interface.
Writing good copy may not feel as heroic as implementing a huge new code base, but it can often by just as effective in increasing user interaction.