Insights from our team: How behavioral science can inform your content strategy

By Caroline Geithner

The term “behavioral science” might sound obscure or complex, but it’s actually at work all around us every day. Communications leaders, in particular, benefit from leveraging principles of human behavior to influence change in attitude and actions and ultimately boost their organization’s performance.

Take, for example, the way that millions of people commit themselves — and quickly give up on — New Year’s resolutions around this time of year.  Why do we fall prey to the same tendencies every January, and how do we change the cycle? The field of behavioral science offers one helpful explanation for this recurring phenomenon.

Behavioral scientists argue that the New Year signifies a temporal milestone and clean slate upon which to work towards new and often lofty personal goals. However, this fresh start effect wears off quickly because humans also favor short-term gratification, and won’t often see the impact of our resolutions right away (especially if we set unrealistic goals for ourselves!).

We behavioral scientists study why we do the things that we do — by studying the impact of factors like conscious thoughts, motivation, social influences, the environment, and habits. This approach has proven effective in addressing social problems, like improving COVID vaccine uptake. More recently, it’s also become an increasingly hot topic in corporate America.

This application isn’t exactly new — Harvard Business Review first wrote about using psychology to enhance customer service in 2001, and a more recent McKinsey podcast covers the implications of behavioral science for performance management, recruiting, and cultural changes. But as of 2022, this discipline has become less of a source of curiosity for companies and more of a key ingredient in business operations. More companies are using behavioral science consultancies or even creating internal behavioral science teams (“nudge units”) to help them drive business results.

At Copperfield, we help companies and individuals develop content that has an impact — in the form of brand and positioning statements, thought leadership, op-eds, newsletters, social media posts, communications plans, and more. To create content with the desired impact, our team seeks to understand the cognitive biases of our clients’ diverse audiences. By applying this understanding of how humans process information and make decisions, we engage in effective storytelling that moves stakeholders to action.

Consider the newsletters we all see arrive daily in our inboxes — some of which we’ll immediately delete or flag as “spam,” and others we look forward to and savor every morning. Executives seek help in drafting and disseminating roundups that have the latter effect — those that educate, entertain, and motivate their key audiences to engage in their work, and keep coming back for more.

Every aspect of the newsletter creation process should be informed by behavioral science — from the design and layout, to the copy itself, to the exact delivery time. We extract human-centered stories from dense, technical text to convey impact and spark inspiration. In so doing, we leverage a principal of behavioral science, the affect heuristic — the idea that humans favor information that elicits an emotional response. We also consider the concept of limited attention — especially in our hyper-digital world that thrives on consumer multitasking — by selecting short, punchy one-liners and eye-catching headers. Relatedly, we select a time of day that research suggests is optimal in terms of energy and focus levels.

There are four steps that your organization can take to devise a content marketing strategy that harnesses the power of behavioral science.


1.     Start with the data

To develop an evidence-based content strategy, it’s important to meet the audience where they are — with a close understanding of their likes, dislikes, preferences, habits, needs, and more. At Copperfield, we do this through methods such as conducting interviews and surveys. This qualitative data helps us uncover the current industry landscape, including relevant topics of interest, behavioral barriers, and other pain points that may be hindering engagement with certain content.


2.     Clearly identify the content goals  

The next step is to outline specific goals for your content. This is especially important because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to applying behavioral science. Rather, these goals determine what human biases are relevant to consider in the strategy. If the objective is to persuade someone to change their mind, you might consider barriers like confirmation bias, which is the idea that people are motivated to seek evidence that supports their prior beliefs. If the goal is to entertain your audience, you would be better served to think about the human attraction to stories over facts.  


3.     Map stakeholder groups and desired reactions/actions

Once you’ve defined your content goals, you can attach them to specific stakeholder groups and outline exactly how you want these groups to feel or what you want them to do. It’s not enough to say that the goal is “to entertain” or “to persuade.” Go one step further, asking — to entertain or to persuade whom? It’s worth considering exactly whom you want your content to reach and clarifying if there are different goals for different audiences.


4.     Put an evaluation system in place

How do you know if you’ve met your content goals? It’s critical to select key metrics against which to measure your progress. An evaluation system also provides a foundation upon which you can continuously test and retest your strategy. If one method isn’t yielding the results you want, these metrics provide a clear point of comparison for your next strategy.