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Behavioral Marketing: Unlocking Why Your Customers Do What They Do

behavioral-marketing:-unlocking-why-your-customers-do-what-they-do

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Whitney Blankenship

Content Marketing Manager

Reading Time: 10 minutes

As marketers, we’re drawn to the psychological aspect of branding. This is proven by the myriad of articles, infographics, and studies you can find on how the most minute details affect a customer’s purchase decision.

From color psychology to using urgency language to incite our customers to act, behavioral science is omnipresent in the marketing world. It’s a popular, yet often misunderstood subject, especially when we have to reconcile “best practices” and data-driven strategies.

I had the opportunity to speak with Nancy Harhut, behavioral science marketing expert in the ecommerce industry. Sought-after keynote speaker across the globe, and founder of her own consulting agency, HBT, Nancy is the go-to name for marketing driven by behavioral science.

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Why Use Behavioral Science in Marketing?

Nancy Harhut: At HBT Marketing, we inject behavioral science into marketing best practices in order to increase response.

The truth is, it can be hard to understand why customers do what they do. Very often, the customers themselves don’t know. They may think they do, but science has proven that people are influenced by factors they’re not even aware of. Gerald Zaltman, author of How Customers Think, explains that 95% of purchase decision-making takes place in the subconscious mind.

Over the millennia, humans have developed decision-making shortcuts—automatic, instinctive, reflexive responses—as a way to conserve mental energy. Today, when people encounter a certain situation, they frequently default to these hardwired behaviors, giving the decision little to no thought. The great news for marketers is that these behaviors can be prompted.

Nancy Harhut, Co-Founder & CCO at HBT Marketing

Nancy Harhut: Over the millennia, humans have developed decision-making shortcuts—automatic, instinctive, reflexive responses—as a way to conserve mental energy. Today, when people encounter a certain situation, they frequently default to these hardwired behaviors, giving the decision little to no thought.

The great news for marketers is that these behaviors can be prompted. Marketers can skillfully add social proof, loss aversion, reciprocity bias, or a number of other behavioral science principles to their strategies and creative executions to trigger automatic responses. While data science can determine what message goes to whom, behavioral science tells us how to craft that message.

Nancy Harhut Behavioral Marketing

How did you get into behavioral science marketing? I think most marketers feel some sort of connection to the psychological aspects of marketing, but you’ve taken a deep dive into it. What pushed you to approach marketing from this social science perspective?

Nancy Harhut: I read “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini and found it fascinating. It gave me so many ideas that I wanted to test in my creative executions. So, I started to test them, and the campaigns got better response. The ideas worked.

Once I saw that, I was hooked. I became a student of the craft, reading about behavioral science and behavioral economics, keeping up on the research, and constantly testing new ways to motivate behavior. It doesn’t take too many double- and triple-digit lifts over a control or benchmark to convince you that infusing behavioral science into your marketing is the way to go!

Nancy Harhut Behavioral Marketing

Over the course of our careers, marketers see so many changes in the industry. Especially for digital marketers, where digital landscapes change minute-to-minute, a piece of insight can go a long way. In speaking with Nancy, I wanted to know the most important thing she’d learned along her career, and what advice she’d give to those starting out in ecommerce and marketing today.

You’ve spent over two decades working in marketing. If you could go back to when you started and give yourself a piece of advice, what would it be? Is that advice different from what you’d give to someone just starting out in the industry today?

Nancy Harhut: That is a great question, Whitney. I started off in this business as a copywriter, and knew very little about art direction. The advice I’d give to my young self and anyone else just getting started, is to collaborate with your creative partner.

As a writer, make sure you work with your art director/designer so that what you’ve written is displayed in the most inviting, most persuasive way. The best art directors know how to do that. But some, especially when they’re younger, do not. And that can cripple the effectiveness of the message. When a writer and art director work together, however, they can make sure the email, ad, etc. will deliver the marketing message in a clear, powerful manner, with the most important points popped.

For example, behavioral scientists talk about the von Restorff Effect, which refers to the fact that people notice and remember things that stand out. The writer and the art director need to collaborate to make sure they call attention to the right parts of the message, which will result in the right takeaway.


Common Mistakes Marketers Make When Using Behavioral Science

In your time as a consultant, what is one mistake that you’ve seen a lot of ecommerce brands making? On the flip side, what’s one best practice you wish more brands were doing?

Nancy Harhut: One common mistake is that brands want to tell their prospective customers everything they can about their product or service. After all, they believe in what they sell!

What happens is they cram in all the details, thinking at least a couple should resonate with any one person. Since they’re sending the email, direct mail, etc. anyway, they figure, “why not use all the space?”

Nancy Harhut Behavioral Marketing

Nancy Harhut: The problem with that is, although the brand thinks they’ll make more sales using this approach, they actually won’t. It’s important to focus your message to what your prospective audience needs to hear, versus everything you’d like to tell them.

For example, we spent a lot of time helping our clients identify the biggest barrier to their target audience responding, as well as the best argument to overcome it. Very often that argument taps into behavioral science.

And that leads us to your flip side question. One best practice that I wish more brands used was blending behavioral science tactics into their communications. It doesn’t cost any extra, and it can be so effective. Using these tactics can help marketers motivate the customer response they want, because they trigger hardwired human behaviors.

For example, one of our clients recently saw a 35% increase in sales over their in-house control campaign. Another reported the biggest lift they’d ever seen the creative drive.


How COVID-19 Affected Consumer Behavior (and the Trends That Are Here to Stay)

From here, the conversation turned towards the elephant in the room: COVID-19. As a behavioral science specialist, I asked Nancy about what practices consumers adopted during the pandemic, and which were here to stay. I also asked how marketers’ behaviors changed, and if any of those tactics had staying power in a post-pandemic world.

Nancy Harhut: There’s certainly a lot of change in the marketplace driven by COVID-19. It’s well documented that the pandemic sped up digital transformation for a number of industries. There are instances of customers discovering new brands because they couldn’t find their usual choices. And of course, people started to shop differently, with everything from curbside pickup to contactless delivery to livestream video shopping and other forms of social commerce.

I suspect the changes that will stick are the ones that people find genuinely helpful, saving them time or effort or actually enhancing their experience. Anything that adds friction or delivers a “less than” experience will likely disappear, as people are able to return to their old habits.

In terms of how the pandemic changed the way marketers approached customers, we advised our clients to lean more heavily on certain behavioral science principles than others.

For example, COVID-19 made people feel a definite lack of control. They were frightened. Their routines were changed. They had no idea what was coming next. And this is a problem, because humans have a deep-seated need to feel in control. They want to exercise some agency over themselves and their environment. Behavioral scientists refer to this as Autonomy Bias.

COVID-19 made people feel a definite lack of control. They were frightened. Their routines were changed. They had no idea what was coming next. And this is a problem, because human have a deep-seated need to feel in control.”

Nancy Harhut, Co-Founder & CCO at HBT Marketing

Anything marketers could do to make their customers and prospects feel more in control during all of this was a good thing. One way a marketer can accomplish this is to provide two or three options instead of just one. When people feel they have a choice, they feel more in control. As a result, they are more likely to make a purchasing decision.

Nancy Harhut Behavioral Marketing

Similarly, when people are uncertain of what to do, they usually look at what other people are doing and follow that lead. The scientific principle that embodies this is called Social Proof. So, we advised our clients to amp up their use of Social Proof, to indicate that many other people just like the target had already made the decision the marketer was asking the target to make. There are, of course, various ways to do that.

Finally, during the pandemic, people had more demands on their attention. Many were working from home while also providing childcare and/or eldercare. And at the same time, they had one eye glued to the news, to see what the latest developments were. This means the need for Cognitive Fluency in marketing communications was even more urgent. Cognitive Fluency refers to the fact that people prefer things that are easier to think about and easier to understand. For marketers, that means, among other things, using simple, accessible language and clean, uncluttered designs.

Cognitive Fluency refers to the fact that people prefer things that are easier to think about and easier to understand. For marketers, that means, among other things, using simple, accessible language and clean, uncluttered designs.”

Nancy Harhut, Co-Founder & CCO at HBT Marketing

While all three of these behavioral science principles can be quite effective for marketers, COVID-19 has made them even more so.


During the pandemic, we all felt that loss of control and uncertainty. According to Nancy’s advice, offering more choices to customers can put the control back into their hands in a time when they feel they have none.

In addition, customers were being pulled in several directions at once. Offering clean, simple interfaces that made it easier to understand and think were hits with customers during the pandemic and beyond.

With more of the pandemic looming ahead, these best practices that are effective even in more “normal” situations will be especially effective during these more difficult times. Apply these principles to your email campaigns and automation workflows by displaying different options in a clean, uncluttered interface.

The Battle for Privacy: Reconciling Consumer Protection with Data Collection

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a shift in the way customers view privacy. Large data-holding corporations, such as Google, Facebook, and Apple, have been responsive in changing their privacy policies to privatize the data they collect. Both iOS 14 and iOS 15 updates by Apple changed the way we can market to Apple customers, while the end of third-party cookies meant the end to retargeting ads through that data.

These policies, while ultimately beneficial to end-users, force marketers to get creative in the way they use these digital channels. iOS 14 pushed marketers to rely more heavily on trusted opt-in channels, such as SMS and email marketing. We have yet to see the fallout of iOS 15, but marketers will have to decide how they’ll measure campaign engagement moving forward.

I wanted to know Nancy’s thoughts on the dichotomy between privacy and marketing, and if she could foresee any other at-risk metrics.

Nancy Harhut: Privacy has long been a marketing hot button. And you are correct, it’s even more in the spotlight right now. I believe marketers need to look at a “give-to-get” value exchange. People will willingly give up information about themselves as long as they get a benefit from doing so.

Nancy Harhut Behavioral Marketing

For example, I like a good rum and diet Coke. And I am more than happy to tell a bartender to avoid any flavored or spiced rums, because I don’t like them. A bartender using one of them would mix a drink I wouldn’t enjoy.

So, while this is a bit of an oversimplification, the foundation holds: if there’s a good reason to offer up data to marketers, people will do so. But marketers have an obligation to use it properly. If people feel the data a marketer collects about them doesn’t result in more personalized service, or that it in fact leads to an uncomfortable experience, it will very hard for that marketer to obtain subsequent information.

Additionally, now is the time for marketers to start to build their own lists, so they own certain data and are not dependent on outside sources for it.

Do you have any recommendations that marketers do to future-proof their marketing strategies?

Marketers need to be both relevant and respectful. If a marketer provides what their customers need—in their products and services, in how they communicate about those products and services, and in the experience a customer has obtaining and using those products and services—that marketer has established solid ground on which to build a business. Some of the basics never go out of style. These are the same things that can help future-proof marketing strategies.

“If a marketer provides what their customers need—in their products and services, in how they communicate about those products and services, and in the experience a customer has obtaining and using those products and services—that marketer has established solid ground on which to build a business.”

Nancy Harhut, Co-Founder & CCO at HBT Marketing

In our business, change is a constant. So, we need to establish a firm foundation and then be flexible to pivot or adapt as needed, remembering that consumers measure us not only against our immediate competitors, but against their world experience.

Nancy Harhut Behavioral Marketing

At HBT Marketing, we guide our clients using industry best practices blended with the science of human behavior. That combination sets them up for success today, and in the foreseeable future.


Behavioral science is not exact, but it can teach us so much about how our customers think and behave. By combining what we know about human nature with the data you collect about the way your customers behave, you can apply bespoke marketing strategies that are relevant to their experiences.

For more about how we can shape marketing strategies with behavioral science, follow Nancy Harhut on Twitter, LinkedIn, and at HBT Marketing.

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