How to Use Framing to Make Marketing Content More Persuasive

Imagine that your community is preparing for the outbreak of a serious new disease that is expected to kill 600 people if no action is taken. Officials are considering two programs to combat the disease. Suppose that the estimated results of these programs are described as follows:

•If Program A is implemented, 200 people will be saved.
•If Program B is implemented, there is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that no people will be saved.

Which of these two programs would you favor?

Now suppose that the estimated outcomes of the two programs are described as follows:

•If Program C is implemented, 400 people will die.
•If Program D is implemented, there is a 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.

Which of these two programs would you prefer?

If you’re like most people, you preferred Program A over Program B in the first scenario, and you preferred Program D over Program C in the second scenario. But here’s the catch: The outcomes of Program A and Program C are identical, and so are the outcomes of Program B and Program D. So, if you preferred Program A in the first scenario and Program D in the second scenario, your preferences aren’t logically consistent.

The above hypothetical restates a classic experiment conducted by psychologists Daniel Kahneman (who won the Nobel Prize in economics) and Amos Tversky and illustrates a psychological principle known as framing. The framing principle holds that the way information is presented influences how we respond to that information. More specifically, changes in how information is presented will often cause us to respond differently, even when the changes aren’t logically relevant. The framing effect is an attribute of human decision making that marketers can use to make their messages more persuasive.

The framing effect involves how we perceive gains and losses when making decisions. The research by Kahneman and Tversky established three core principles of human decision making:

•When choices are framed in terms of gains, most people are risk averse. They will usually choose a certain benefit rather than a gamble that may produce a greater benefit of no benefit at all.
•When choices are framed in terms of losses, most people become risk seeking. They will resist a choice that will result in a certain loss and will prefer a gamble that may result in a greater loss, but also may result in no loss at all.
•As humans, we are more sensitive to losses than we are to gains. We are more likely to act to avoid losses than to win gains.

These principles apply to all aspects of B2B marketing, but they are particularly important when you are developing content for early-stage buyers, where your primary objective is to loosen the grip of the status quo. Business buyers, like all humans, often prefer the status quo, even when an available alternative is superior on a purely rational basis.

Because buyers tend to focus more on losses then on gains, they will be more aware of the “benefits” of their existing practice or solution, and any drawbacks or weaknesses associated with the proposed alternative. In addition, buyers are likely to overvalue the benefits of their existing solution simply because they already “own” it – a psychological phenomenon known as the endowment effect.

So, how can marketers leverage framing to create content that will help break the grip of the status quo? The first key is to frame the flaws or weaknesses of the existing practice or solution as a loss that is immediate, significant, and, most importantly, certain. This will tap into our human psychological desire to avoid losses. To use a medical analogy, the objective is to frame the status quo as a chronic, progressive disease that is already doing harm, and will only get worse if left untreated.

The second key strategy is to frame your proposed solution as a low-risk alternative to the status quo – one that has a low probability of producing a worse outcome and a high probability of producing a significantly better outcome. This helps to neutralize the risk that potential buyers inevitably associate with making a substantial change.

Today’s marketers are understandably focused on how to use data and technology to improve marketing effectiveness. The power of framing should be a reminder that leveraging human psychology is also still critical for successful marketing.

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