In a psychological sense, heuristics are simple, unconscious rules of thumb that every one of us has created to make decisions and solve problems. They are “if this, then that” statements that we formulate to govern our actions when faced with choices.
Heuristics have been around as long as we have. But as the information revolution continues to flood us with more and more details about every subject imaginable, and our daily schedules get fuller and fuller, their existence has become more apparent. We need ways to make workable decisions without getting overwhelmed. And heuristics let us do that, at least most of the time.
The main features of heuristics are that they:
- tend to be simple and easy to mentally compute;
- are relatively few in number; and
- are often “surrogates” for other attributes/benefits
It is worth noting that a stumbling block of heuristics is that they may lead us into stereotypes or nonsequiturs that lead to wrong decisions. For example, “if it is popular, then it must be safe,” or “if it’s high priced, it must be better” may not serve as good heuristics, since the first quality has no relation on the second. Overall, though, the benefits of using heuristics outweigh the risks, because they help us simplify our decisions into manageable proportions and more often than not give us workable, if not great, results.
So heuristics help us navigate an increasingly complex world on a day to day basis without going crazy from all the stimuli that come at us. What does that have to do with marketing?
Your customers and prospects use heuristics every day when making buying decisions, and that includes the decision about buying from you. The use of heuristics, and common use of familiarity as one of the rules (as in “I know this brand, so I’ll trust it), is what makes branding and positioning so important. In the services arena, concepts like “mind share” and “thought leadership” are important because buyers of intangibles such as services will buy from companies they perceive as experts. During my tenure at a Fortune 500 technology corporation, we constantly faced the challenge of selling our enterprise IT services to the customer’s executive suite in spite of great value and expertise. Why? Because we were competing with far more recognizable names than ours, and we discovered that a common executive heuristic is “If it’s a well-known company, the board will easily approve and I won’t get into trouble if it doesn’t work.”
What heuristics does your market use when deciding whether to buy your products or services? Better yet, what heuristics do you want used to lead to a buying decision in your favor. If you market to meet the right criteria, you are more likely to get and keep the right kind of customer for your business.
For example, my own company is a virtual service business, which means that I want clients who are comfortable obtaining the kinds of services I offer via the Internet with little, if any, real time interaction. So I market where there are service companies that want to work virtually with a marketing consultancy.
I also target what I think of as “personality” heuristics. The header of my coaching website, Success in Sweatpants, is a prime example: It is a good reflection of my attitude and inclusion of humor in my approach. Anyone who finds the header dumb or unprofessional is not very likely to contact me, which reflects a heuristic of my own: If you don’t think that purple sweatpants, pink bunny slippers, and a laptop belching money are at least a little bit amusing, you shouldn’t work with me.
I assert that it is worth the energy to figure out the buying heuristics that you want to appeal to and evaluate whether you are indeed meeting those criteria in your marketing. You may be surprised at what you learn, and it may make the difference between so-so marketing and breaking through to a new level of success.