My three words for 2020

Every year, for the past nine years, I’ve been following a tradition started by Chris Brogan in 2006 to choose three words to guide my actions and choices for the year ahead. I’m not a big fan of New Year resolutions; if you’re going to make a change, any date is as good as any and the good intentions at the start of the year tend to wear off sooner or later

Of course 2020 isn’t just the start of New year but a new decade, too. Whilst I won’t choose three words for the decade, I would like my three words for 2020 to set the tone for how I’d like to proceed from this year and onwards. 
Before I outline my three words for 2020, here’s a quick review of my three words from 2019:


The ability to adapt to new roles and situations is incredibly important. Change is constant and that’s something I’ve experienced a lot in both my personal and professional lives over the last few years.

2019 was no different and started off with a bit of a bump from a professional perspective. Unfortunately things didn’t work out where I was working in January but I soon found a freelance opportunity and then a longer-term contracting role. In both instances I needed to adapt, and the latter required me to learn a completely new set of skills.


Taking a set back and realising what’s really important (such as friends, family and time away from work) is something many people struggle to manage effectively.

Whilst I still have work to do in this area (I always think there’s more to do before I can switch off), working for Nationwide Building Society has really helped me to balance my time at work and home. The office is closer to where I live, my wife works in the same place (meaning we could travel in together with the children) and the company has a very flexible working policy.


As with ‘perspective’, there’s definitely more I need to do to tackle my habit of overthinking projects, tasks and situations. The environment in which I’ve been working has helped me in this respect: there’s less pressure to get things 100% right straight away, although that doesn’t always stop me from feeling overwhelmed.

As with all my previous year’s words, I will continue to look back and reflect on the words I chose and why. But looking ahead to this year, here are my three words for 2020:


I’m very fortunate to have three wonderful young children, so it’s fascinating to see everyday the way they interact with the world around them. They’re endlessly curious without a trace of cynicism! 

It’s also been demonstrated that play can lead to higher levels of creativity, innovation and new ideas. When we get too used to certain ways of working we can forget how to think differently so I believe it’s important to constantly challenge our assumptions and preconceptions.

In 2020 I want to learn to relax and ‘play’ more in every aspect of my life. From a personal perspective, I’d like to use my time with the children to have fun and build my imagination, as well as learn the guitar and cook. And in my professional life, I’d like to continue working on not overthinking problems and use play to find my way to solutions.


When I reflect on what motivates and interests me, creating new things (such as writing a blog post or creating a presentation) is often top of the list. Although the concept of creativity doesn’t always fit naturally in what I do every day, I’d like to find ways to make this happen more often. 

On New Year’s Day I thought about some of the things I’d like to do this year: write more (and expand my range), learn to play the guitar (I can already play but I want to get better), work on new projects (a new website), all of which require a strong element of creativity and composition. 

Composition is a particular form of creativity. One of the definitions of ‘compose’ is “to make or form by combining things, parts, or elements”. The Beatles are an enduring inspiration for me and this is exactly how they worked as a band. They would take different musical influences (Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles) and combine to create a sound and energy of their own. I’d like to do the same and compose more of my own work in 2020.


I don’t think I’m alone in finding that my attention is constantly under threat from hundreds of different things. Whilst I’ve always struggled to concentrate, it feels like there are more distractions than ever to take my mind away from any given task or activity. 

Whilst I’d like to be more playful and creative in the way I approach life, I also need to commit to tasks and deliver on my promises (to myself and others). I take a lot of interest in learning about how others work, think and create, but at some point you have to stop thinking and start doing (one of my first three words from 2011 was ‘ship’).

So I’m going to identify the main projects I’d like to work on in 2020 and commit to giving these the time and attention needed to make meaningful progress.

My three words for 2019

The annual tradition of setting out my three words for the next twelve months seems to come around more quickly every year! Inspired by Chris Brogan, this is something I’ve practiced every year since 2011. I’ve found that it helps me to articulate my thoughts and ambitions for the year in a narrow, focused way.

Before I outline my three words for 2019, here is my assessment of my three words from 2018:


At the start of 2018 I found myself looking for new opportunities, which meant I never got the chance to continue building a presence within my previous role.

It was certainly a rocky start to the year, however 2019 offers a fresh new start and new opportunities to find my place and belong somewhere that aligns with my goals and ambitions.


I believe opinion flows from confidence and I’ve found that to be an on-going challenge. I have no doubt that I know my stuff, but it can be a difficult to express my thoughts and opinions confidently when countered with an assertive, counter view (whether this is based on evidence or not).

Nevertheless, I found that by recognising this trait I was more conscious of when I was not articulating a point of view in a clear, confident way, and was able to make corrections along the way. Sometimes this worked, sometimes it didn’t, but overall I felt I did make some progress last year.


The one area I was able to tackle with confidence in 2018 was testing my assumptions and broadening my mind. Whether marketing, politics, sport or business, I constantly tried to avoid getting caught in an echo chamber and questioned conventional wisdom.

A read and listened to new books that challenged my current way of thinking on politics and sociology, tried to argue for ‘the other side’ when discussing politics and the dreaded Brexit and learnt read stories about inspirational people and events (Richard Reed’s “If I could Tell You Just One Thing…” and Dave Trott’s “1+1 = 3” were particular favourites that really made me think).

I find it useful looking back at my previous three words and 2018 will be no exception. But with another big year ahead, here are my three words for 2019:


Once again I’m starting a year looking for new opportunities. I had already considered this word but ‘adapt’ feels more appropriate than ever as I think about the type of work that really resonates with me. I need to adapt to my changing situation and be prepared to be flexible and take on different types of roles that I may not have considered previously. That might be freelancing, job sharing or even a career change.

Change is constant so I must also adapt in my personal life, too. I have a young family and the children keep me on my toes! Routine is important but they grow up so quickly and it often feels as though my wife and I are having to adapt to something different every week, if not every day!


Whilst work is important and means a lot to me not only in terms of money but also my identity, I need to get better at putting things into perspective. When I really think about it I’m not driven by status and being the most important person in the room. I’m motivated by doing great work as part of a team and knowing that we’ve pulled together to produce something that makes everyone happier.

I’m going to take a step back in 2019 and make sure that the choices I make match my motivations:

  • Building my skills and expertise
  • Working with knowledgable, interesting people
  • Spending quality time with my family


I have always had a habit of over-thinking even the most basic of tasks. Whether it’s following recipe, decorating the house or responding to a marketing brief, I always question myself and let a million thoughts run through my head.

I love reading about successful business ventures, watching blockbuster movies and listening to great music. Although not always the case, I’ve found that some of the best work is also the simplest. George Ezra’s “Shotgun” was one of the biggest songs of 2018 but uses only four chords. Christopher Nolan’s films, including Inception and Dunkirk, are often seen as complex but driven by a simple story structure that the director sets out from the start.

In 2019 I want to ensure I take a moment to breath and reflect when faced with a difficult project. My goal will be to break things down to their core components to simply the task and tackle it with confidence.

My three words for 2018

Every year feels as though the last twelve months has raced by more quickly and frantically than the last and 2017 has been no exception! My role at PepsiCo has felt all-consuming at times but has meant I have been very busy but also learned so much about many things at the same time. Unfortunately this has meant that my personal bog writing and development has taken a back seat however I’m confident I’m developing many other skills in my day job whilst I have set aside plans to ensure my writing and education continues in 2018.

As I look forward to 2018 it’s another opportunity to outline three words to shape the year ahead, an annual tradition inspired by Chris Brogan and a practice I always find incredibly useful and motivating as an alternative to the standard New Year traditions that never quite work!

Before I outline my three words for 2018, here is my assessment of my three words from 2017:


Developing a bias for action is still a work in progress for me but something I have worked on consciously in 2017. I still believe I take more time than necessary to make a decision and it’s something I will continue to work in 2018 (and beyond), however inspired by entrepreneurs and big business leaders such as Jeff Bezos who talk about the importance of making decisions without being 100% sure, I have pushed myself to lead initiatives and instigate action over the last year.


Innovating within a large corporate environment can be difficult due to the natural hierarchies and bureaucracies that form within big businesses. Nevertheless I’ve ensured throughout 2017 that I’ve always asked the question “what could we do differently?” to push the boundaries of the content and campaigns we’re creating as well as the ways of working with different teams and agencies.


I found ‘Challenge’ quite difficult to accomplish in 2017, mainly due to the sheer amount of activities and priorities to juggle both personally and professionally. It’s been tricky to prioritise as effectively as I’d like sometimes however last year was about establishing my role as a digital leader at PepsiCo and I feel I accomplished a lot in this area by dedicating the vast majority of my time and energy to my job. This has come at the expense of my personal projects and goals although this is something I’m looking to tackle in new ways in 2018!


As always the three words from previous years including 2017 will always be relevant and require further work, however my three new words for 2018 to shape my focus for the year ahead are:


In 2012 I talked about confidence and building and maintaining confidence is an area I’m always working on. But related to confidence is the feeling of belonging and being a part of an organisation’s set up and culture.

Joining a big, established company can be daunting at first and at times I’ve suffered from impostor syndrome. But in 2018 I’m determined to feel, think and act as though I truly belong in the role I’ve now occupied for nearly 18 months and mentally fall back on all the expertise and experience I’ve built up over my career.


Having a clear opinion and point of view is something I’d like to develop and use to build my confidence and belonging in 2018. I’ve always held a point of view on everything from sport to politics, business and marketing but I believe this is something I can shape and channel more effectively.

Nilofer Merchant summed this up really well in a post from back in 2013:

“To have a point of view is to know why you’re there, to be able to signal your purpose and organizing principle so clearly that the “reader knows”, even before he or she dives into the details. It attracts talent, it creates allies, and it focuses the work… when you have point of view about what matters to you and why, your chances of “changing the world” rise exponentially”


Over the last few months I’ve been attempting to build my interest and understanding in subjects beyond business and marketing, including science and mathematics, areas I don’t directly use in my day-to-day work but something I believe important for developing my broader education.

Whilst I think having an opinion is important, it shouldn’t be set in stone and must always be open to debate and interrogation. The formulation and testing of a hypothesis is part of the scientific method, the approach scientists use when attempting to understand and test ideas about natural phenomena. Scientists are not driven by dogma and neither should any professional, including marketing. So in 2018 I want to broaden my mind further, test assumptions and discover new ideas and ways of working.

My three words for 2017

It’s been fascinating to look back on 2016. Many commentators would have us believe it was a bad year, what with so many celebrity deaths, political upheaval and widespread terrorism. However as rocky as it was at times, I also believe 2016 had a lot of positives, too. The Rio Olympics was a great success (particularly for Team GB!), the world of science experienced new breakthroughs and on a personal note I started a new job!

So as I look forward to the new year ahead I’ve once again thought about three words that will shape and guide my journey throughout 2017. Inspired by Chris Brogan, I always find this annual practice to be a challenging but fun exercise in really making me think about where my priorities and focus should be in my professional and personal life.

Before I outline my three words for 2017, it’s worth reviewing my three words for 2016 and how I got on:


I still struggle with the more limited amount of time in my life since I became a father. Juggling parenthood with a full-time job can be difficult at times but as I expected it’s forced me to be much more disciplined with how I spend my time.

Instead of watching too much TV or reading ‘light-weight’ articles or blog posts, I’ve focused on reading more long-form content from experts, books I hope will expand my mind and quality TV that is really worth it (although there’s nothing wrong with the odd bit of light-entertainment!).


Gaining more knowledge and a better understanding of the world is a never-ending process but something I enjoy tackling. I wanted to challenge myself in 2016 to build on my core skills and educate myself on new topics and areas of interest.

Starting work at PepsiCo has thrown me into the world of FMCG which has forced me to learn about the industry very quickly whilst working with some of the best minds in the business. On top of this I’ve continued to read about subjects beyond the world of marketing, including psychology, statistics and entrepreneurship, as well as start my first fiction book since summer 2014!


Last year I talked about having the patience to wait for the career decisions I’ve made over the years to pay off. Whilst at times I doubted myself, I always had the confidence that I’ve made decisions for the right reasons – to gain critical expertise, work with new and interesting companies and learn from different people.

Starting at PepsiCo was something I wouldn’t have imagined possible a few years ago. However I always felt I had the knowledge, drive and skills to make it and I now have an amazing opportunity to test my mettle in a very faced-paced industry with an organisation that is constantly challenging its employees to go one step further and better than the competition.


My three words for 2016 are still relevant and I will refer back to them over the year. However it’s right that I select three new words for 2017 to help me focus on what matters most for the year ahead:


I’m someone who naturally likes to stop, think and reflect. I enjoy learning new things, processing information and finding ways to implement this in the right way. I can’t change who I am however I recognise that I do have to adapt and learn to act when it matters.

Sometimes there isn’t the time to ruminate and thrash – a decision needs to be made to get the ball rolling and start making progress. Whilst I believe that hastiness is not an option, I do believe that a balance between weighing up the options and making a decision in good time is right in order to take advantage of new opportunities. As Facebook say: “Done is better than perfect”!


The world is a noisy place and attention is at a premium. The only way to make an impact is to stand out and find new ways to get your message heard, otherwise you’ll be lost amongst the clutter (email, social media, TV etc.).

Finding a new way to be heard isn’t easy but it involves experimenting and looking for innovations. This is something I’d like to practice professionally, both with my colleagues (e.g. to demonstrate and educate them on the value of digital marketing) and in the work I do (e.g. innovative campaigns to build the brand). However I’d also like to innovate outside work, for example with my blog, fitness and personal education. What can I do differently to stand out, drive change and add value?


In order to develop myself personally and professionally I need to challenge myself to go further. I don’t mean working more hours, exercising excessively or putting myself under undue stress. Building on Prioritise from 2016 and Innovate for 2017, Challenge is about choosing the right projects and priorities to really make them count.

I’d like to challenge myself to inspire people to think about their work in new ways, to put the things I learn into practice and to make meaningful changes inside and outside of work. I’d also like to challenge myself to learn something new but also to stop and reflect on my achievements instead of getting too bogged down in the nearest and next priority.

Developing a test and learn programme

As part of any digital transformation agenda, the ability the test and learn gives businesses the opportunity to experiment, iterate and grow skills and competences throughout the organisation. For digital marketers, this opportunity is becoming increasingly important as technology continues to advance and larger companies face new and emerging threats from more nimble, innovative competitors.

To drive meaningful digital transformation at scale, businesses must therefore be open to the adoption of a test and learn culture, which will enable marketers to optimise digital media activation, create first-class digital experiences and develop learning across the organisation. Much of this will be dependent on each organisation’s stage in the digital transformation journey:


Three big digital trends

The importance of developing a test and learn culture is reflected in the numerous digital trends impacting businesses today. However, I’d like to highlight three that I believe are particularly significant and should influence test and learn planning for digital marketers across all types of businesses:

‘Big data’ has grown up

The concept of ‘big data’ has been a familiar theme within the marketing world for at least the last five years, and yet with some predicting that 2016 would be the ‘year of the customer’ there has been an increased emphasis on customer-centric marketing, meaning data must be used intelligently to drive results.


Advanced analytics, better consumer profiles and the right market and customer insights are becoming essential in tying marketing campaigns together to create more integrated experiences.

Mobile continues to dominate


Source: Benedict Evans, 2016

More than half of our waking time is spent on media and much of that time is now consumed on mobile devices. Mobile is an increasingly ubiquitous presence in our lives (49% of Millennials check their phones within 5 minutes of waking up in the morning!) – we’re now in a truly ‘mobile-first’ world.

As with big data, mobile advertising has come of age:

  • Mobile accounts for over a half of ecommerce traffic and a third of sales
  • More than half of Facebook’s base is mobile-only
  • App usage (90% of time) dominates browsers in mobile usage

As Benedict Evans from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz demonstrated last year, ‘mobile’ no longer means mobile – consumers regularly consume media on mobile devices more within the home than outside, highlighting the importance of developing a first-class mobile customer experience.

‘Content shock’ is real


Source: business2community

Content shock’ (coined by Mark Schaefer in 2014), is the result of consumers rejecting brand content due to exponentially increasing volumes intersecting our limited consumption capacity. Basically, people are fed up of poor quality content and are finding ways to filter this out so they can consume what really matters to them.

We can see examples of content shock in Facebook’s decision to dramatically reduce organic reach and the continuing rise of adblocking across all device types:


Source: KPCB, 2016

The average person is exposed to over 400 messages a day. Attention is at a premium and brands must respond accordingly by producing genuinely high quality, relevant content to earn this increasingly precious commodity.

Introducing a test and learn approach

Every test and learn programme will differ based on each business’s appetite to testing and their use of digital marketing in general. However one approach I’m currently adopting takes into account two aspects:

1. Continuous improvements – running trials to optimise day-to-day activations)
2. ‘Big bets’ – to gain operational lessons and strategic insight to apply across the business


According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter writing in HBR in 2006, successful innovators use an ‘innovation pyramid’, with several big bets at the top that get most of the investment; a portfolio of promising mid-range ideas in test stage; and a broad base of early stage ideas or incremental innovations. This concept allows ideas and influence to flow up or down the pyramid.

For the purpose of this post, I thought I’d bring this approach to life by providing examples of two areas of continuous improvements and one ‘big bet’ to demonstrate:

  1. a) how these areas relate to the digital trends highlighted earlier in the post
  2. b) how these areas could fit into a digital test and learn programme

The following examples are just a sample of many others that could be used and I’ve tried to keep these fairly broad so they can be applied to different businesses, small and large, across B2C and B2B.

Two areas of continuous improvement

Continuos improvements will involve the type of tests that can be run on a day-to-day basis and don’t necessarily require huge levels of investment.

1. Mobile optimisation

Although 2016 cannot be regarded as ‘the year of mobile’ (that came and went at least two years ago!), mobile strategies are maturing and it is essential that brands take a ‘mobile-first’ approach to meet consumer expectations. Mobile cannot be a less-than-web experience – it has to be the experience.

Take advantage of micro-moments


Source: Google, 2014

Mobile has fundamentally changed consumer behaviour and as consumers we think, search and buy differently from five years ago. Mobile gives marketers the opportunity to take advantage of what Google refers to as ‘micro-moments’, those intent-rich moments where decisions are made and preferences shaped.

Test and learn opportunity:

Mobile has fractured the consumer journey into hundreds of real-time, intent-driven micro-moments. Consumers are more loyal to their need rather than a brand so it’s important to test being present at the right moments, e.g.:

  • Deliver targeted advertising during key events
  • Prompt potential consumers ‘in-store’ with targeted promotions
  • Provide help and guidance when it’s needed, e.g. specific searches on YouTube or Google

Reach consumers where they’re spending their time


Source: KPCB, 2016

One of the insights that stood out for me from KPCB’s 2016 internet trends was that advertising currently remains over-indexed to legacy media despite the rapid increase in mobile usage.

Test and learn opportunity:

There is an opportunity to increase ad spend in mobile channels to reach consumers where they appear to be spending most of their time. This will not only improve ad performance but potentially provide a competitive advantage over slower-moving rivals who have failed to respond to this trend.

Establish a presence across multiple platforms


Source: Benedict Evans, 2016

Mobile has led to an ‘unbundling’ of the web. We now consume content across browsers and apps, although the trend is moving more and more towards native apps which could signal the death of the hyperlink.

A mobile-first approach means that mobile must be the ultimate experience, with the web becoming merely an add-on (a complete 180° shift from where this was before).

Test and learn opportunity:

Establish a presence across multiple platforms, including responsive/ adaptive design that works across desktop and mobile, as well as native mobile apps. How is your audience consuming mobile content? What channels and platforms work for them? Where are the optimisation opportunities? Mobile apps don’t work for everyone but if there is an opportunity to test without too much risk it may be worth looking into.

2. Measurement and analytics


Effective analysis and insight should underpin everything we work on as digital marketers. Without a thorough understanding of what is and isn’t performing, you will not have the right actionable insights to make correct decisions.

Establish a measurement framework

A measurement framework/ model is a way to structure your thinking, prioritise goals and organise the KPIs and metrics you’ll use to measure performance.

Avinash Kaushik is a leading thought leader on this subject and as he explains:

“The root cause of failure in most digital marketing campaigns is not the lack of creativity in the banner ad or TV spot or the sexiness of the website. It is not even (often) the people involved. It is quite simply the lack of structured thinking about what the real purpose of the campaign is and a lack of an objective set of measures with which to identify success or failure”.

Test and learn opportunity:

Before jumping into a digital campaign or project, consider creating a measurement framework to structure how all of the following work together:

  • Business objectives
  • Macro and micro goals
  • Key performance indicators (KPIs)
  • Targets
  • Segments

The example above shows how goals, KPIs and segments are flow from the high-level business objectives that have been set out. The key is to understand how this framework might apply to your business and test a similar approach.

Run regular A/B testing to improve relevance


A/B or multivariate testing should form a key part of your ongoing test and learn programme. By experimenting with different types of content versus a current experience across web pages, social channels and/ or apps, you’ll be able to more accurately determine which variant performs better for a given conversion or goal.

Using the data from A/B testing removes guesswork and subjectivity, giving you the confidence to make more informed, data-driven decisions.

Test and learn opportunity:

A/B testing doesn’t have to be a complex or expensive process. Start small and experiment using particular pieces of content that have generated discussion or debate internally.

If you’re testing something more experimental or risky, take ‘controlled risks’ by showing the new content to only a small proportion of the audience (e.g. 10% of traffic). As you build an understanding and confidence in your hypothesis you can begin to increase the scope of your testing ‘landscape’.

One big bet

‘Big bets’ can be anything that has the potential to enhance or optimise the organisation across multiple levels. Unlike the more operational continuous improvements highlighted above, ‘big bets’ often require more planning and investment, but if successful have the potential to future-proof a business.

Dynamic content and personalisation

For this post I’ve chosen to look at dynamic content and personlisation as an example of a ‘big bet’. This is closely linked to all three of the trends highlighted at the start of the post (data, mobile and ‘content shock’) and as I’ve tried to do throughout the post, this idea can apply to large and small businesses alike.

Optimise content to drive action

The essence of personalisation is about using content that is most relevant to the audience in order to generate higher engagement and conversion. One method of doing this is to use dynamic content, essentially showing the same web page to two people but serving different content within that page based on what we know about them:


Test and learn opportunity:

First and third-party data can be used to create more relevant and compelling experiences, and iterative platform testing can be used with or alongside A/B testing tools to learn about what is/ isn’t working. Take the time to find out what type and quality of data you have and run small tests initially to optimise content for different audience groups.

Create personal video and TV experiences


Source: Google/ DoubleClick, 2016

The way people consume content has fundamentally changed. Whilst ten years ago many of us would watch a show live on one television in a living room, the use of many different devices and streaming services such as Netflix mean that we now watch TV shows across a variety of media and it’s therefore become increasingly difficult to reach audiences with traditional methods of advertising.

However, this challenge has given brands a new opportunity: to develop personalised advertising strategies.

The concept of addressable TV advertising enables brands to reach fragmented, time-shifted audiences and to show different ads to different households who are all watching the same programme.

Test and learn opportunity:

Whilst TV is not a marketing channel open to everyone, and the nascent technology involved in addressable advertising has a number of challenges (including effective measurement and achieving reliability at scale), I wanted to include this example to demonstrate how advertising can be smarter through the use of data.

The emergence of addressable advertising may even give smaller businesses the opportunity to experiment with TV advertising in a way that they couldn’t before. Businesses no longer have to book media to reach millions of people. Instead spots can be bought to target specific groups of people watching certain types of programming at certain times of the day.

Deliver tailored advertising with programmatic


Source: Google, 2016

A core goal for marketers should be about producing content and communications that matter to the audience. Programmatic marketing is something we’ve covered previously, but in a nutshell it’s about enabling brands to be responsive to their audience in real-time, with highly relevant messaging and creativity. The objective is to tailor messages to the right person, at the right moment, in the right context.

Test and learn opportunity:

Depending on device, location and weather, content can be delivered programmatically to different audiences and this is something that can be tested across different campaigns.

Google offers an excellent guide to getting started with programmatic marketing, with a useful checklist of key steps:

1. Organise audience insights
2. Design compelling creative
3. Execute with integrated technology
4. Reach audiences across screens
5. Measure the impact


With so many major trends beginning to take shape and impact the work we do as marketers, we must look to adapt and find the best ways to take advantage of these changes.

Whilst it would be both unwise and costly to carry out tests for every trend that arises, an effective test and learn programme can enable us to carry out tactical and strategic experiments to build learnings and help us understand what works for our business.

Harnessing the power of behavioural economics


Consider the following puzzle:

A bat and ball cost £1.10.
The bat costs one pound more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

The number that many people arrive at is 10p, dividing up £1.10 neatly into £1 and 10 pence. However, the correct answer is 5p (if the ball costs 10p then the total cost will be £1.20 – 10p for the ball and £1.10 for the bat).

Now consider another question:

How many animals of each kind did Moses take into the ark?

This question is commonly referred to as the ‘Moses Illusion’. Moses took no animals into the ark; Noah did.

The incorrect answers many people give to these questions offers just a glimpse into the overwhelming evidence that indicates that one of the underlying assumptions of social science, that humans are generally rational and their thinking normally sound, is flawed.

Many of us believe that we know how our mind works, which often consists of one conscious thought leading in an orderly way to another. However, according to the social psychologist Daniel Kahneman, most impressions and thoughts arise in our conscious experience without knowing how they got there. Therefore, the mental processes that produces impressions, intuitions and many decisions goes on in silence in our minds.

The judgements, choices and decisions we make are therefore not always in our complete control. Sometimes we make decisions in the blink of an eye, whilst on other occasions we follow the crowd or co-operate rather than compete. Recent studies have suggested that over 90% of our decision-making takes place in the subconscious mind.

The mental shortcuts people use to form judgments and make decisions are called heuristics and whilst they work under most circumstances, they can lead to systematic errors known as cognitive biases. The theories of heuristics and biases have been used widely and productively in many fields, including government policy, legal judgement, medical diagnosis and finance. However, for a number of years marketers have been experimenting with behavioural science and economics to better understand and change consumer behaviour.

Introducing behavioural economics

The concept of behavioural economics has grown in popularity and prominence over the last decade. Books including Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ and Richard Thaler and Cass Senstein’s ‘Nudge’ have captured the public’s imagination.

Many of the theories of behavioural economics can be applied to marketing in a different ways. Ogilvy have even established a specialist behavioural economics practice called Ogilvy Change which employs ‘Choice Architects’ “to investigate and apply principles from cognitive psychology, social psychology and behavioural science to create measurable behaviour change in the real world”.

5 top nudges

Choice architecture is the practice of designing different ways in which choices can be presented to consumers to ‘nudge’ or steer them towards better decision-making. As mentioned above, many of principles choice architects apply have worked in other fields so we thought we’d pick out five nudges, along with examples, that can be applied within a digital marketing context:


What is it?

This is based on the theory that people tend to value things more highly when they believe they are scarce.

Following the lead of many luxury good marketers, Apple, creates the illusion of scarcity to build up the hype of many of its products to fuel desirability and demand. The stories of limited supplies of iPhones and people queuing for days to get their hands on the latest model live long in the memory.

How is this applied in digital marketing?

Scarcity and urgency is a tactic that’s commonly used within eCommerce, using messages such as ‘limited availability’ or ‘only X left in stock’:


Using the fear of scarcity to drive demand and sales can be considered to be an unethical and manipulative tactic when used irresponsibly. Scarcity should therefore only ever be used in a transparent and positive way, for example by being honest about what stock is left and whether any more is likely to be made available.

The anchoring effect

What is it?

The value of something is often set by anchors or imprints in our minds, which we use as mental reference points that influence our decision-making. The anchors can be completely arbitrary and still have an impact.

Anchoring is particularly common in situations that involve negotiation. For example, when valuing a house, experiments have shown that the listing price, regardless of the ‘real’ value, can have a powerful effect on someone’s own perception of the value.

How is this applied in digital marketing?

In a digital marketing context, anchoring can be seen in the use of subscription plans:


In this example, we can see the different subscription options for Crazy Egg’s heatmap tracking software. There are two factors at play here:

  1. The ‘Pro’ plan is listed on the left where visitors are likely to see this first
  2. The ‘Pro’ plan is priced at $99, setting the anchor against which the value of all the other plans (including ‘Plus’, the ‘most popular’ plan) is compared.

Loss aversion

What is it?

We will often go to greater lengths to avoid the loss of something we already have rather than to gain something new. People can find it twice as painful to lose something they own in comparison to how enjoyable it was to acquire it in the first place.

How is this applied in digital marketing?


It’s no surprise that many companies, such as Netflix, Moz and Dropbox, offer free trials in order to leverage loss aversion.

By giving prospective customers the opportunity to use a product or service for free for a decent period of time, they begin to feel a sense of ownership. Once the trial period has expired, the thought of losing the product, plus the minimal effort it often takes to sign up and pay, means that many people are convinced to commit to a purchase.


What is it?

Years of societal convention have led us to place an often irrational trust in the judgment of experts, even if their judgements are not always correct or moral. A famous example of the obedience of authority is the Milgram Experiment, where 65% of people were prepared to administer a 450-volt electric shock to another person hidden from them just because a doctor told them it was OK.

How is this applied in digital marketing?

The practice of brand endorsement by well-known figures such as sports stars, musicians and other celebrities is a perfect example of how authority can be used to influence customers’ decision-making. Much of Nike’s success within the golfing arena is credited with their decision to associate themselves with Tiger Woods, who at the time was the best golfer in the world.

Digital marketers can use authority through the use of thought-leadership, content collaboration and expert analysis to build credibility. As a digital marketing thought leader, Click-Through Marketing utilise Dave Chaffey’s authority on a range of topics.

The paradox of choice

What is it?

Offering customers more choice is not always the best course of action. When we’re paralysed by too many options, the likelihood that we pick the ‘most suitable’ choice is reduced and we procrastinate for fear of making a bad decision. Therefore, when fewer options are presented, there is less chance of making a mistake and decisions are speeded up.

How is this applied in digital marketing?

From an eCommerce perspective, companies like Amazon, Etsy and House of Fraser implement effective filtering techniques to provide the most suitable choices to customers.

A good use of filtering to optimise relevant results can also be seen in this example from Lloyds:



The bank offers nine different credit cards although a consumer arriving at the site might be a little overwhelmed as to which to choose from. Filtering by the cards by different needs states, in this case Balance Transfer, Large Purchase, Everyday spending and Rewards helps to simplify the number of options and help the consumer choose the right option.

Social proofing/ herding

What is it?

The concept of ‘social proof’ was made famous 30 years ago by psychologist Robert Cialdini’s in his book Influence. Social proof describes our tendency to run with the herd and make decisions based on what those around us are doing. We often validate our choices on whether others were following a similar course of action, which is why books are marketed as ‘bestsellers’.

How is this applied in digital marketing?

There are many different ways to leverage social proof online and data from Smart Insights from 2014 indicates that there is a purchase uplift from tactics such as social sharing and reviews.

Ratings and reviews are an excellent way to aggregate sentiment from past purchasers and give prospective customers confidence in the products they’re browsing online. They’re particularly effective when sourced from a large population and managed by a third-party, such as this example from travel site On The Beach, which uses reviews from Trip Advisor:


Another popular social proof tactic uses numbers to convince people that a product or service is popular. Moz makes it very clear that their software is used by tens of thousands of companies:


And this popularity is backed up by massive following some of their guides are receiving which supports the authority they have built up in their field of expertise:


Closing thoughts

Many of the principles of behavioural economics can have a powerful and profound impact on consumer decision-making so it’s therefore essential that the nudges highlighted in this post, and the many others that haven’t been covered, are used ethically. There are examples of websites that use manipulative UX practices that exploit consumers’ cognitive biases and this will only ever erode the relationship between the consumer and the brand in the long run. When Richard Thaler signs copies of ‘Nudge’, he always writes “Nudge for good” next to his name and explains that nudging is like giving people GPS: “I get to put into the GPS where I want to go, but I don’t have to follow her instructions”.

Nevertheless, behavioural insights should be considered by digital marketers when crafting strategy as the practices we’ve covered illustrate how marketers can improve the content and overall user experience to improve consumer decision-making and provide better digital experiences.
Marketers can take inspiration from the public sector in how to nudge for good. The government utilised status quo bias, the theory that people prefer to carry on behaving as they have always done, for the UK workplace pensions scheme. Nest automatically enrols employees in a workplace pension yet gives them the opportunity to opt out, resulting in a greater take-up than if employees were required to opt in, which takes more time and effort. Through a subtle change in how the choice is presented, the output results in a win-win for everyone concerned.