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Hacking Your Community's Subconscious

Written by Molly Talbert | on January 28, 2016 at 8:30 AM


You’re not lazy, but sometimes your brain is. It has so much to compute and process each millisecond that it needs all the extra help it can get. To do this, brains have developed little mental shortcuts we’re often not aware of but influence our decisions instantly. Many of these hardwired tricks are survival tactics that helped humans evolve to be the species we are today, but can trip us up in the modern world sometimes.

Think fight or flight response. When we were hunter/gatherers, fight or flight response was critical for survival -- should I fight the lion or try to outrun? When that response kicks in, it’s because your brain doesn't think you have time to assess the whole situation. You just need to move. Now. Or the lion will eat you.

We still have fight or flight response, and it can be handy when you’re hiking and there’s a bear or you’re attacked at night. Except now it can also kick in when it’s really not helpful, like if you’re nervous to present at a meeting -- you either want to run away or become very defensive. Our brains invest the fewest resources possible to quickly solve a problem, so sometimes we end up in awkward situations because of it.

How does this play out in a community? Since communities connect people, we still encounter these shortcuts and biases online. Anyone involved in community, from the community manager to an ordinary member or customer, can benefit from knowing some basic psychology. It can help you understand why someone responded a certain way, or it can help you ‘trick’ people into behaving in a productive way.

Here are a few basic psychological biases and heuristics to keep in mind:

First impressions matter.

It’s common for people to say first impressions matter yet brush them off. But they do actually matter. Anchoring is the common tendency for people to rely heavily on the first piece of information they receive -- regarding a person, an idea, your community. So, for better or for worse, first impressions do matter and can have a lasting impact on how someone thinks about your community.

Anchoring shows the importance of your every, welcoming move as a community manager -- from community launch to the first email you send a new member/customer. Whether or not a member/customer has a positive or disappointing first impression could color their entire experience -- making them lifelong promoters, ambivalent participants or even detractors. The same could be said for prospects. When someone is deciding whether or not to join a community or buy a product, the first impression could make or break their decision -- and makes changing their minds later difficult.

We know behind the scenes in community management isn’t always smooth or easy, but you don’t want new members/customers to feel that internal friction. Good user design, accessibility, a smooth onboarding process and strategic automation rules will help your members/clients have a good -- and lasting -- first impression.

Paint a vivid picture.

Which is more dangerous, a shark or a horse? For many people, when we hear the word ‘shark,’ we think of the movie Jaws and shark attacks. Horses, on the other hand, are cute, soft and do tricks. But when you look at statistics, more people each year are hurt or killed by horses than by sharks.

That’s availability heuristic, where a person makes judgements based on how they visualize the information they received (i.e. what you visualize hearing ‘shark’  ‘horse’). It may not be accurate, but it’s what your gut tells you and influences your decisions instantly.

Unless you’re a shark protection foundation or an equestrian supply company, you probably don’t deal with horses or sharks on a day-to-day basis. So how does availability heuristic fit into your community? Here’s an example: Would you rather fill out a ‘quick’ survey or a ‘30 second’ survey? I’d rather fill out the 30 second one, because I don’t know what ‘quick’ means to you -- for me, it’s five minutes, for you it might be three -- but we both know what ‘30 seconds’ means.

When creating a call to action for your members/customers, you should paint a vivid picture so their availability heuristic doesn’t take over. If you want someone to add a profile picture, don’t just say, ‘Adding a picture increases responses.’ What does that tell your new member/customer? Is it worth the time and effort to maybe get just a few more responses? Say something specific, like, ‘We saw a 43% increase in responses if the poster had a profile picture.’ Now they know exactly what to expect and why they should upload a picture.

Humans are emotional.

Although it’s nice to think we guide most of our decisions with reason, the truth of the matter is humans are very driven by emotion. This is called an affect heuristic, where people judge something based on the emotions it prompts. For example, as a kid you used to love eating apples, but one day you bit into an apple and found a worm. It grossed you out and now you can never eat apples again. It’s not that you’re allergic or don’t like the way they taste, you just can’t get over the worm-in-the-apple experience. It doesn’t need to be a negative experience, though. Maybe you don’t particularly like the way apples taste, but they remind you of your grandmother, so you always enjoy them.

In your community, being mindful of the affect heuristic is a little nuanced but important. Affect heuristics run rampant through every part of the community -- from homepage design to email communications and even the information on an event or profile page. Don’t just think of what you’re saying or doing -- think about how it will land with members/customers. For example, in your welcome email, don’t just give a rundown of all the dos and don’ts. It may come across as curt and off-putting, especially to someone nervous about online communities. Cushion the email with positive, welcoming language and highlight easy steps members can follow, like introducing themselves on an ‘introduce yourself’ thread.

Make members work.

Chocolate chip cookies are the best dessert, but they taste even better when you’ve made them yourself. Why is that? It’s because of effort heuristic, the phenomena where people judge something’s worth based on how much time it took to create -- i.e. if it took a long time to do, people value it more. It’s similar to the IKEA effect, where consumers value products they had a hand in making more than something preassembled (another reason why handmade cards are always a win).

In your community, effort heuristic plays a large part in motivation and gamification. If badges are a dime a dozen, they’re not impressive and members won’t be motivated by them. But if it takes a little time and effort to earn certain badges, then their value increases and it’s motivational. Think about boy scout badges --some are easy to get, some are more difficult and then there’s the Eagle Scout badge that everyone knows to respect. It’s important to take it with a grain of salt, though. Although you want members/customers to sweat a little, you don’t want to set them up for failure. Badges and acknowledgements should be earned, but not so difficult to earn that no one tries.

Another way to use this in your community is to brag a little. When launching your community, tell people ‘We worked hard for six months and are excited about this new tool.’ It’s impressive and proves to people how important and valuable those six months of hard work were. You can also use effort heuristic when giving stats to members/customers. Don’t say, ‘Many people posted this month,’ but rather, ‘550 people posted this month, which was a 10% increase. Way to go!’ Those specific and impressive numbers quantify how important community is.


Not only is it powerful to notice these subconscious decisions in other people, but it’s also powerful to notice them within yourself. Maybe a member/customer’s first post was a critique of the community. Talk about some negative anchoring on your part (i.e. bad first impression). Don’t hold onto that one grudge forever -- try getting to know the member a little more before deciding. Maybe they had a bad day but actually love community. Or maybe you had a bad day and misinterpreted.

If you learn how to spot these biases and how to trigger them, you can hack your members/customers’ subconscious to your advantage. We all use our guts to make decisions, so phrase your messages and shape your site to help everyone’s gut make the decision you want them to make.

What are some of your favorite psychology hacks?

Topics: Online Community Management, Engagement, Member Experience

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