How can you convince people to change their minds or behaviors? In his new book The Catalyst, New York Times bestselling author (of Contagious: Why Things Catch On) Jonah Berger wants you to take out your chemistry notes and become a catalyst: an agent of change that works by removing the barriers to change.
Image by marian anbu juwan from Pixabay
The Catalyst isn’t quite as groundbreaking as Robert Cialdini’s Influence (and I am surprised it isn't mentioned) but is a good refresh for ecommerce merchants--sometimes an idea needs to be restated in a context specific to the intended audience, to resonate. The example on how Zappos convinced people to buy shoes online in the early 2000s, narrowly avoiding bankruptcy is instructive. So are the stories on Acura gaining market-share in the US and Brexit (excerpted below):
…in slightly smaller font, [Dominic] Cummings placed the rallying cry for the entire Leave campaign. The slogan started as just two words: “Take control.” Cummings loved its simplicity but felt something was missing. So he played around with different variations.
Cummings was well versed in loss aversion and the status quo bias. He knew that people prefer to stick with things they’re already doing. And while “Take control” was fine, it implicitly agreed to the premise that leaving the EU was action and staying inaction. Which played right into his opponents’ hands.
If only he could flip things around… make it seem like leaving was the status quo… So, in a stroke of insight, he changed the slogan. just an extra word in between “Take” and “control.” But it completely changed the reference point. He added the word “back.” As in “Take back control.” “ ‘Back,’ plays into a strong evolved instinct—we hate losing things, especially control.”
“Back” triggered loss aversion. It made it seem like something had been lost; leaving the EU was a way to regain that. A survey showed that four times as many people preferred the “Let’s take back control” language. And when votes were tallied on June 23, there was a shocking result: Brexit.
Although Berger doesn’t directly mention much of the research that demonstrates that facts don’t effectively change people’s minds, he brushes up against that body of research often. Below are the ways you can change anyone’s mind, loosely organized under five principles. Tide Pods and Teen Rebellion
One of the text’s most fascinating sections appears early on, when Berger discusses the rise of the Tide Pod Challenge. For those unfamiliar, Procter & Gamble released Tide Pods, a form of laundry detergent capsule that was inadvertently shaped and colored like candy. Viral memes and jokes about wanting to eat Tide Pods quickly turned into a spate of young people actually attempting to eat them on video, in a risky bid for internet clout.
By issuing a public warning against eating Tide Pods, though, the brand only further contributed to the popularity of the Tide Pod Challenge. Procter & Gamble had run up against the age-old problem often encountered by parents: stating that an activity is off-limits can make that activity look even more appealing. Sometimes, warning people against something will only make them want to do it more.
Berger makes the claim that it’s a desire for control, not rebellion, that makes people like the Tide Pod-eaters so contrary to advice. However, this seems to miss an important facet of the Tide Pod Challenge: it was mostly done by teenagers, who are a naturally contrarian population. Although people do want a sense of control, simple rebellion can also play into behavioral choices among certain demographics.
If you’re trying to sell to rebellious younger buyers, you’d be wise to keep the parable of the Tide Pod Challenge in mind. Retailers can’t speak to every age group in the same way, and messages that resonate with one group can have an entirely opposite effect on another. The Value of Common Sense
As Berger moves on, he uses a host of other interesting examples and anecdotes to support his claims (although not all of them are so modern). But when it comes to the claims these anecdotes support, it often seems like he’s stating the obvious.
Of course people like to feel that they’re in control of their lives. It seems to go without saying that establishing trust will help you change people’s minds, as he mentions later. Still later, he discusses the ways people are creatures of habit and reluctant to change. None of this is groundbreaking. Throughout the book, Berger’s claims often aren’t particularly bold, although the language used suggests that he thinks they are.
That said, there is a need for his suggested approach in the marketing world, common-sense though it seems to be. How many brands are still inundating customers with pushy marketing content, when they should be establishing trust or offering options that provide a sense of control? If anything, Berger’s book is a treatise against pushiness - an issue that still plagues modern marketing. His claims might seem obvious, but many people would love it if brand marketing actually adopted his tactics.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay Political Catalysts
At the end of sections, Berger throws in a case study: a longer-form example of how the tactics discussed in that section can work in practice. These stories are interesting, although they may seem a little redundant, since the chapters themselves are also packed with real-world examples.
The case studies do serve to make the book more skimmable: you could get the gist of most of the arguments simply by reading the beginning of each chapter and then skipping ahead to the case study. However, in doing so you would miss some of the most entertaining parts of the book, which are the shorter real-world examples tucked into each chapter, keeping the read lively.
A number of those examples hinge on something to do with politics. But midway through the book, Berger gets way more political with his examples: he brings up the contentious concept of Democrats and Republicans “reaching across the aisle.” After all, although much of it focuses on marketing, The Catalyst isn’t really about selling products: it’s a book about changing minds. And changing someone’s mind to the opposing political viewpoint is arguably the pinnacle of success.
This is another segment of the book that feels hyper-modern, as Berger delves into the growing gap between Democratic and Republican values. He can’t fully dive into the subject without mentioning the algorithm-driven “filter bubble” that’s been hashed to death in countless thinkpieces, but thankfully, he doesn’t spend much time discussing it. Instead, he quickly turns the discussion to an interesting study of 1,500 Twitter users who followed accounts with opposing viewpoints.
Followers of the news may not be surprised to learn the outcome of that study. Rather than shifting toward the middle after seeing the opposite point of view, the Twitter users were pushed even further to the left or right of the political spectrum. Exposure to conservative viewpoints made the liberals become more liberal, and vice versa. But while that effect may not seem surprising, Berger goes on to try to discover the reasons behind it.
Can marketers learn anything from this political talk? Berger doesn’t fully connect the dots here, but there are certainly some eCommerce lessons hidden between the lines. Buyers exist on their own belief spectrums, too, and changing their viewpoints can also change how they shop. But putting your message in front of buyers that aren’t already open to your brand may have the negative consequence of pushing them further away. Leaving the Comfort Zone
As mentioned above, facts are a bad way to get people to change their minds (and here, Berger does briefly touch on the research that supports this notion). Give someone with false beliefs the truth, and they’ll just hold onto those false beliefs tighter.
Political opposition works in a similar way, it seems. Berger suggests that people have a limited amount of new political beliefs that they’re open to before they reach their “region of rejection”: the category for ideas they’re firmly opposed to. Give people information that falls into their region of rejection, and they’ll only become more committed to their comfort zone.
Although the content in this section is valuable, the “region of rejection” idea ends up being an unfortunately clumsy metaphor. Berger’s argument gets bogged down by silly terms and a football field visualization, where a simple spectrum would have sufficed.
And, ultimately, Berger’s conclusion from all the political talk is a bit disappointing: he doesn’t offer many creative ways to open someone’s mind to opposing viewpoints. Instead, he again states the obvious - that swing voters, or the “moveable middle,” are a far easier target if you want to change minds. It’s a little unfortunate that, in a book about how to change minds, his top recommendation in this section is simply to aim for the people who are already open to change.
Later, though, he does offer some advice to those who might want to sway the more polarized thinkers. The best way to do this, Berger says, is to “ask for less.” Make the requested change smaller and more palatable, and people will be more likely to comply. Over time, these small asks can gradually tiptoe people toward a shift in their viewpoints. Incremental changes are far easier to make, and more sustainable over time, for both voters and shoppers. The Power of Discovery
The section on politics can feel a bit tiresome, if only because it’s rehashing subjects that have already been hashed out many times in the news. However, Berger soon moves back to the less-political realm. Although the section on the value of “freemium” (providing something for free to let consumers try a product) isn’t particularly exciting, things get interesting again when he suggests innovative ways to build brand awareness.
Advertising is often seen as the prime way to get consumers to try a new brand. But in Berger’s example, that isn’t actually the best solution. Instead, strategic partnerships that get people to experience a brand in person are a much more effective driver of interest. (They also cost much less than traditional advertising.)
This, in fact, is one of the most valuable claims in the book: that in-person discovery blows ads out of the water when it comes to getting consumer attention. Brands can stop throwing away money on ads, and start looking for ways to get their products into the hands of real people. Make your brand discoverable, and new customers are suddenly easy to come by.
Image by Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay Social Proof by Any Other Name
In the book’s final section, Berger tackles the idea that people tend to especially resist changing their strongly-held beliefs.
Here, Berger says that for strongly-held beliefs, “More proof is required before people will change.” In some ways, this seems to run contrary to his important earlier points that facts, rationalizations, and pushiness don’t do a good job of changing minds. However, he then offers an important way to shift those strongly-held beliefs without using facts: the power of social proof.
Oddly, he never actually uses the term “social proof.” But he does offer some valuable advice about this tactic, such as the fact that not all sources of social proof are weighted equally in our minds. We’re most likely to value the opinions of people similar to us, because we believe they’ll do a better job of telling us what we might like.
That said, we don’t want all of those recommendations to come from people who are too alike, because then each new recommendation becomes redundant. Also, getting multiple recommendations within a short period of time creates a snowball effect of social proof, making us more likely to join the crowd. Brands that publish user reviews alongside information about the reviewers can benefit from this snowball effect, and from our desire for reviews from the groups we find most relatable. Final Thoughts
Overall, Berger offers many good points and great anecdotes throughout this read. Some of them aren’t especially revolutionary, but together, they make up valuable advice.
However, the book does suffer at times from a sense of disconnect. While the topics and examples are interesting, they are flipped through in such rapid succession that not all of them seem to flow together well.
In the book’s epilogue, Berger misses his chance to neatly wrap up the book by linking these disparate ideas under an overarching concept. Instead, he uses this last section to add entirely new information about Seeds of Peace, a summer camp that brings teens from Israel, Palestine, and Egypt together to reduce animosity across the different cultures.
This section, it seems, is meant to serve as a case study for the entire book, showing its overall claims in action. The information about Seeds of Peace is absolutely interesting. However, tacking it onto the end of the book in place of a proper conclusion feels a bit sloppy, even lazy. Although Berger uses the Seeds of Peace example to reiterate the book’s main claims, the text feels incomplete without a fully-fleshed-out concluding section to wrap things up without adding new evidence. Instead, right down to the last pages, Berger is still offering new anecdotes.
The epilogue would have also been a good place for Berger to pinpoint who, exactly, this book is for. While it has clear utility from a marketing or political perspective, the book is largely a collection of disparate information. Some of that information will work better in certain applications than in others. It is all about changing minds and behavior, of course, but that’s an immensely vast subject.
The Catalyst is a fun, easy, engaging read, and most people in the eCommerce world will probably find something useful in its pages. But it does miss some chances to synthesize that information into big-picture takeaways for the reader, and to speak directly to those who can best use the concepts within. Instead of reading like a complete synthesis, The Catalyst serves more as a collage of ideas, from which you can take what works for you and leave the rest.
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