Why flipping Status Quo Bias is the key to B2B marketing success

Dan Monheit

  • Co-founder, Hardhat
Dan Monheit is cofounder of award-winning Hardhat, Australia's foremost creative agency built around Behavioural Economics. Dan consults to many of the country's largest brands, and has been invited to present on the topic at leading global events including SXSW in Austin Texas. His Bad Decisions podcast regularly features in the 'top podcast' charts and draws listeners from over 90 countries. His Behavioural Economics book, “Terrible Advice for Excellent Marketers” will be released in December, 2020.

As marketers, we’re in the business of asking people to change. But as the best minds in our industry will concede, changing ingrained human behaviour is incredibly challenging. 

Humanity’s most intelligent mind, Albert Einstein, even went as far as to say, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” So if you’ve ever felt like a complete failure after trying and failing to change something about your life or your circumstances, you’ll understand where Einstein was coming from.   

In truth, while our aspirational selves love the idea of change, our actual selves tend to fight tooth and nail to keep things the same. It’s almost as if, psychologically, there is something perpetually holding us back. According to behavioural science, there is.  

At the heart of the issue is a cognitive bias known as Status Quo bias, which refers to our preference for keeping things the way they are, even if it’s not the best option for us. The term was first introduced by researchers, William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser, in 1988 after a series of experiments revealed people show a disproportionate preference for choices that maintain the status quo.  

It makes sense from an evolutionary psychology point of view. Status Quo Bias is so powerful because our number one priority is staying alive. Even if the situation we find ourselves in is not ‘optimal’, it’s still a situation in which we’re here, living and breathing - all of which makes us reluctant to change.   

It’s the reason you hang in there in an uninspiring job, or why a CMO sticks with the same tired agency, despite the work being average for far too long. The mental load of searching for and appointing a new agency that you’ve never worked with before feels like a riskier proposition than staying with the safe yet boring option.   

Understandably, Status Quo bias tends to be heightened at work, where the high risk/low reward profile accompanying most decisions keeps business people on the straight and narrow. After all, if a deal goes badly, reputations and livelihoods are at stake, which makes it easier to just stay the course - especially in Australia’s ultra-conservative business environment.   

Consider this scenario. You’re heading up marketing for a big multinational. A new vendor approaches you, spruiking the next generation of email marketing software, trying to persuade you to switch from your archaic but reliable current system. Of course, they serve you all the upsides with fries on the side: It’s faster, easier to use, 10 times more efficient and crucially, it’s also substantially cheaper.   

So why wouldn’t you take the big but obvious step of convincing your colleagues to switch to the new platform, especially when you’re aware of the limitations of the current one, which is clunky, expensive and has long rested on its outmoded technology laurels?   

According to the ‘prospect theory’, an economics theory developed by researchers, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, in 1979, the reason you’re so reluctant to make the change is "losses loom larger than gains."   

That in itself is terrifying. As a marketing manager or a procurement officer, if you make a brilliant decision to switch over and things go swimmingly, the personal benefits are scant. Maybe there’s an encouraging fist bump from a colleague, or a good rating in your next performance review and the possibility of a pay rise if you can negotiate well.  

However, if things go badly, your reputation and indeed your livelihood are both at stake. The fear is that you become the team member getting exasperated side-eyes from your colleagues because your company couldn't send out a single sales email for the past three weeks. Revenues are down, stock is piling up and the rumour is the CFO has got you in their sights. It’s not hard to see why we are primed for disaster avoiding rather than opportunity maximising.  

Additionally, B2B sales can be extra tricky, as you try to overcome not just one person’s Status Quo bias, but the Status Quo biases of an entire, cross-functional decision-making team, all of whom need to sign off for a deal to get over the line. The more people involved in the decision process, the greater the resistance to changing the status quo, giving you an ever-diminishing chance of sealing the deal.   

So how do you cut through an entire business culture that inherently acts as a roadblock to buying anything new? While we can't eliminate risk, we can reframe it, and in doing so, help our audience to see that maintaining the status quo is actually the riskiest choice of all.   

If we revisit our email example, the risk of moving to a new system may seem high. But every day with the current system is a day closer to an inevitable privacy breach (due to the outdated tech stack) or a catastrophic user error (due to the clunky interface). Once a team is aligned on this, the wheels of change invariably start to turn.  

Our agency recently tapped into reframing to deliver a ‘first of its kind’ campaign for DocuSign eSignature, an electronic document signing platform. While using DocuSign eSignature is better on every front than using traditional paper contracts (quicker, more efficient, safer, saves money, better for the environment) we resisted the temptation to lead with the upside.   

Instead, we chose to reframe the risk by anchoring our ‘Next time, DocuSign’ campaign around the idea that the riskiest thing you can do is nothing. After all, there’s a lot that could go wrong using traditional paper contracts: They get lost in the mail, left in taxis, are fraught with privacy issues, susceptible to printers running out of toner at the last minute, and on it goes.   

In addition to a suite of creative assets that highlighted these risks, we engaged three iconic and Australian business influencers and entrepreneurs: Business Chicks Global CEO, Emma Issaccs, Boost Juice’s Janine Allis and Tribes’ Jules Lund, for a video series called ‘That Time I Screwed Up’.   

In each episode, one of our business leaders recounts a story about when things went catastrophically wrong in their career due to using paper contracts. In just three months, the campaign videos have been viewed over 650,000 times on YouTube and generated more than 15,000 new accounts for DocuSign.   

By reframing the biggest risk as sticking with paper contracts, we were able to shake people out of their inertia and overcome Status Quo bias.  

Tags: Neuroscience, brand strategy, unconscious bias

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