The Big B2B Content Marketing Lesson from Freakonomics

Psychology and marketing: A match made in heaven. Specifically behavioral psychology. That’s why every marketer should make the Freakonomics Podcast appointment listening. Or, as I call it, the behavioral psychology and economics podcast.

A recent episode about Prudential’s award-winning series of ads starring Harvard Behavioral Psychology Professor Daniel Gilbert is a perfect example of what B2B content marketing pros stand to learn from Freakonomics specifically, and behavioral psychology in general.

The challenge Prudential faced is one nearly all B2B marketers face. How do I make talking about my product interesting and fun? Saving for retirement is like most B2B products: Something you need, but not something you necessarily want to think about.

Insurance is the perfect example of something everyone needs, but almost no one wants to think about.

And it’s much easier to make it interesting or fun. But both is really hard.

The easiest way to make an ad interesting, but not fun, is to scare people. Think Nationwide scaring the crap out of people with the spectre of their kids dying.

Josh Bullmore has made and studied British road-safety adverts that try to frighten people into being safer through horror and gore. Bullmore says the shocking public-information films linger in people’s heads, but they don’t alter behavior much. According to the Economist, if the consequences seem too extreme, the threat may seem too far-fetched.

The easiest way to make it fun, but not interesting, is to use humor. Think the Geico gecko.


Whether humor works to sell products is still unclear. But in the B2B space, attempts at humor are usually too bland and risk-free to work, or get the brand in hot water.

And then there are brands that try to do both. Think of the Dean Winters commercials for Allstate where he plays “Havoc.”

Behavioral psychologists study the ways people are wrong about what they need. This kind of psychological research reveals where and why people make poor choices today based on miscalculating the future. They’ve found that people make the same kinds of mistakes consistently, based on certain cognitive biases.

Marketers are also interested in where and why people are wrong about what they need.

Both marketers and behavioral psychologists want to teach people how to overcome their cognitive biases in order to more accurately predict the future, and realize what they need to do today to make their best future happen. Basically, behavioral psychology is a marketer’s bestie.

Nowhere is this connection more explicit than in the Prudential ads. To create them, Collin McConnell, Chief Branding Officer for Prudential Financial worked with Ray Del Savio, a Group Creative Director at Droga5.

The two began with an insight.

There are consistent cognitive biases that prevent people from planning for their financial future. From there, it just made perfect sense, work with someone whose job it is to understand, and combat, those cognitive biases.

But the two still had a challenge. Why would a Harvard Professor want to work with Prudential? In fact that’s exactly what Gilbert told Del Savio. Gilbert was, to quote, “not gonna be a shill for Prudential.”

To sell Gilbert on them, Del Savio and McConnell said they wanted to make a set of “think pieces,” rather than ads. Rather than selling Gilbert on selling, they sold him on his passion — teaching.

And teach he did. Since starting in 2013, they’ve produced five ads so far. Each is aimed at helping Americans to better understand and prepare for retirement.

The ads use visually compelling experiments to show why saving for retirement is more pressing than people often assume.

Further adding to the ads’ emotional punch is the fact that the ads are actor-free. Everyone in them is either an untrained participant interacting authentically with the experiment or Gilbert himself. In addition to the experiments visualizing the idea conveyed, the ads use actual numbers on the screen to further illustrate the point.

Second in the series, after “Mirrors,” the “Stickers” ad aired during the 2013 Super Bowl.

An AmericanScience post explains how the ad teaches, and challenges, a cognitive bias.

“Temporal discounting is what accounts for our failure to invest in Prudential save for retirement.”

And how to do you combat it? “If you think you might live to a hundred, you’ll sock more away (with Prudential) today. And remembering Grandma’s 93rd birthday puts us in that frame of mind.”

The partnership between Prudential and Gilbert highlights “the power of (academic) science in the marketplace.” Companies are becoming increasingly interested in putting scientific ideas about discounting to work.

A 2014 installment in the series, “Dominoes” broke a world record.

A pointed barb from AmericanScience serves to show the brilliance of the commercials. “Prudential isn’t interested in furnishing data for making informed decisions.” Herein we find the biggest lesson for marketers from behavioral psychology. Giving people facts is not enough to make people change their behavior.

Marketers have known this for a long time. Though they haven’t known the specifics of how and why. “People are irrational,” they’d say. They’re “emotion-driven.” Advertising has always exploited people’s irrationality

Irrational, however, doesn’t mean unpredictable. People’s behavior is, in fact, predictably irrational.

Finding the patterns in the way people make emotion-based, irrational decisions is the subject of books like Predictably Irrational. Over and over again, researchers in behavioral psychology finding that certain cognitive errors render facts moot for behavioral change.

These patterns in behavior should be of extreme interest to all marketers, not just brand managers for insurance companies.

By teaching people about behavioral psychology, Prudential is effectively teaching people why they need insurance more than they realize.

To use the insights of behavioral psychology to sell you need to start with this question: Who isn’t buying who should be, and why?

Despite sounding simple, the question is quite complex. First, it requires that you know who should be buying. The answer is not “everyone.” If you’re selling to everyone, you’re selling to no one. If you don’t have a good picture of your target audience, creating a buyer persona is a good exercise.

Then it requires understanding your buyer’s objections better than they do. If you ask people why they don’t save for retirement, you’re not likely to get the truth. That’s because people tend to back-rationalize decisions. People make decisions based on a complex mixture of factors, most of which they are not aware of.

For example, changing a retirement saving plan from opt-in to opt-out increased participation rates, as much as 90% in some cases. It was especially effective for increasing participation of women and minorities.

But if you ask them people why they choose one way or another, they will list a series of facts. People don’t understand why they make the decisions they make. So asking them to explain it to you will be fruitless at best, and misleading at worst.

Instead of asking people why they don’t save enough for retirement, Prudential looked at the research to understand the subconscious reasons people behave irrationally.

You need to do the same. Familiarize yourself with the relevant research on why people who need your product don’t buy it.

You need to understand the subconscious assumptions and cognitive biases that stop people from doing what’s best for them.

Knowing the patterns of irrational behavior helps you predict how people will act, which helps you plan accordingly.

B2B content marketing has traditionally been about identifying a target audience, figuring out what information will help them do their jobs, and getting it to them so that you’re top of mind when they’re ready to make a purchase.

Behavioral psychology teaches that information isn’t enough.

Telling people why they should save for retirement isn’t as effective as telling them why they aren’t saving enough or making it easier for them to save than not save.

People don’t always know what they need to do today to make their best future happen. Behavioral psychologists and marketers should work together to help people overcome their cognitive biases in order to make better choices.

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