Nobel Laureate economist Richard Thaler once said, “If you want to change someone’s behavior, simply tell them what other people are doing.”
Honestly, it’s true: humans are highly social creatures. What’s more, we’re all pretty self-aware of this fact on some level. Yet it’s still astonishing how hive-minded we can be when it comes to decision-making.
Think about all of the products you’ve bought, movies you’ve seen, or songs you’ve downloaded simply because a group of friends, acquaintances, or influential internet personalities recommended it. It’s probably a lot.
And that’s ok. Going with the crowd doesn’t make you lazy or unintelligent; it makes you human.
We’re faced with the conundrum of wanted choices, yet not always wanting to make those choices for ourselves. This risk aversion coupled with a healthy fear of being left out results in us choosing what appears to be the default or popular option.
For marketers, understanding this phenomenon is crucial because it reveals an often overlooked truth about the nature of trends. That truth is this: Virtually anything can become popular if enough people perceive it as such. In behavioral econ, this is known as “Status Quo Bias.”
So, What’s The Big Deal About Status Quo Bias?
When an option is framed as the status quo, its odds of actually becoming the status quo increase astronomically. Popularity is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. Trends are born and kept alive by people calling them trends.
In behavioral econ, this is known as “Status Quo Bias” and it can occur in sports, music, fashion, social media, finance, education, nutrition, and even politics.
If you think back to early March of 2020 (a veritable lifetime ago), you’ll probably remember hearing the term “Joementum” thrown around a lot in political conversations.
Despite a slow start in the early primaries, after just a few wins (and a Super Tuesday boom) the Biden campaign became synonymous with winning. His candidacy was instantaneously defined (and rebranded) by this nonstop cascade of Ws.
By seizing the momentum and the narrative, the Biden campaign assumed the de facto title of “mainstream option” for Democratic voters, thus rendering everybody else either “fringe” or “alternative.”
This, as anyone who’s studied business knows, is a death sentence in any competitive market.
Once an option is presented as the default, people feel compelled to choose it.
There’s safety in numbers, and most people are willing to overlook minor differences between options if it means being on the winning team. Therefore, nothing is more harmful to a candidate (or a business) than the perception that people are abandoning them in droves.
If this feels a bit like deja vu, it’s because it actually happens all the time—even in politics. Back in early 2004, John Kerry was an underperforming Democratic candidate. In the leadup to the Iowa Caucus, his campaign was as good as dead. People couldn’t have been less excited about our old buddy John.
Then, he somehow won Iowa… then he won New Hampshire, then Arizona, then Delaware, then Missouri, and then New Mexico. On and on his victories snowballed until he was catapulted out ahead of his competition. Kerry became the default option for voters for no reason other than he was perceived that way.
UPenn sociology professor Duncan J. Watts commented as much on John Kerry’s 2004 primary run, saying,
“When everyone is looking to someone else for an opinion, we get a cascade of imitation that, like a stampeding herd, can start for no apparent reason and subsequently go in any direction with equal likelihood.”
People heard through the grapevine that their peers were voting for him, so they followed suit. All it took was one or two herd members to get the stampede (or, Johnmentum) going.
How Does Status Quo Bias Impact Marketing?
The lesson here is simple for marketing professionals: One of the easiest ways to influence people is to tell them what other people are doing. Period.
Whether that’s achieved through social proof like user reviews or influencer endorsements, the goal is to broadcast to potential customers that people are choosing you over your competitors.
Convince someone that their friends, competitors, coworkers, peers, or neighbors are doing something, and there is a strong probability that they will at least consider following suit.
Always Feel Like… Somebody’s Watching Me
In addition to the Status Quo Bias, people often experience something called the Spotlight Effect; we believe that everybody is constantly paying attention to what we’re doing even though they’re definitely not.
We think that people are watching our choices, so we don’t want to choose wrong.
Therefore, if we’re under the impression that everybody has chosen one option – and we’re also under the impression that those people are watching our every move – we will probably go along with whatever that group has decided.
So it’s not exactly peer pressure… it’s more like (as Watts put it) herd pressure.
This concept is at the very core of what we do as marketers. As I said in my post about conversion rate optimization, it’s our job to be choice architects and use content to frame our product or service as the default.
We want to convince consumers that we’re either the new normal or the existing one. Or, at the very least, that their friends are our customers.
Heavy is the Head that Wears the (Marketing) Crown
Being the big thing is better than being the next big thing. It doesn’t matter how awesome your new mobile app is if nobody’s using it. It doesn’t matter how cool your new clothing line is if nobody’s wearing your clothes.
Brilliant ideas that end up failing are a dime a dozen, especially in the startup world. As Calvin Coolidge once said, “Nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent… Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.”
My point is, ideas don’t succeed because they’re genius; they succeed because everyday people start using them every day. They become presented or “framed” as the popular option.
You could invent a cellphone tomorrow that is waterproof, bulletproof, shockproof, has an everlasting battery life, and STILL, everybody would buy the new iPhone as soon as it came out.
Why? Because everybody and their mother already have an iPhone, and nobody wants to be the one “green text” in the group chat.
This is the power of the stampeding herd. And If you can somehow create the illusion of mainstream popularity without outright lying, then you might be able to influence where the herd stampedes to next.