Rapidly growing a user base is as important as ever. Now that ten million users is the new one million, focus has been shifted to developing intuitive ways to reach a wider audience through today’s hottest platforms. It’s called Growth Hacking and is essentially marketing through the eyes of an engineer. And while it’s a great development, it only helps you get people to look at your product, not use it. So how do you turn a person into a user?
Think for a second about what you’re asking someone to do by getting them to use your product. You want them to take time out of their day to change the way they carry out a specific task. In other words: you’re trying to change their behavior. It’s obvious then that learning the mechanics of behavioral change is vital to engaging and retaining people as users. Let’s call it Behavior Hacking; so while Growth Hacking is a great way to systematically draw eyeballs, Behavior Hacking is how to get those eyeballs to stick and stay.
One of the most popular theories on the phases of behavior change is known as the Transtheoretical Model. It outlines five phases that lead to an alteration in one’s behavior: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. Here is a quick overview of each phase:
- Precontemplation: Individual is unaware that their behavior is a problem.
- Contemplation: Individual is aware that their behavior is an issue and is ambivalent as to whether action should be taken.
- Preparation: Individual plans to take action in the near future – a “window of opportunity” has opened.
- Action: Individual has made specific overt modifications to their lifestyle.
- Maintenance & Relapse Prevention: Individual take steps to avoid factors that increase the risk of relapse.
I saw strong parallels between these stages and those of an action potential in that both models contain phases of varying gradations and thresholds, and that repeated cycling through each set of steps results in sustained change. I then rearranged and regrouped the 5 stages listed to more closely resemble an action potential spike:
Introduction: The Mechanics
The Behavior Potential illustrates the common cycle of awareness, motivation, action and frustration we often experience when trying to change our ways, with each spike representing a single attempt. The goal is to manipulate the phases of the Behavior Potential so that:
- The incidence of Phase 1 is increased.
- The duration of Phase 2 is increased.
- to keep attempting to use your product and
- to use it for as long as possible once they’ve started.
Phase 0: Precontemplation – Get Views
During this phase, no one has seen your product, and so the goal is to get it in front of people, which is where Growth Hacking comes into play.
Phase 1: Contemplation & Preparation – Present The Problem & Solution
So you’ve finally found someone to look at your product. Now your goal is to convince them they have a horrific problem and that you have a remarkable solution. This is something I see less and less. Startups will often litter their landing pages with all the great features they’ve developed, which gains them absolutely nothing if they’ve not yet convinced the viewer there’s actually something in their life that could be improved. To do this, there are 4 basic principles:
- Describe the problem in your viewer’s terms.
- Walk through examples of life with and without the problem.
- Outline a plan of attack.
- Socially validate the legitimacy of the problem with user feedback.
Individuals in these stages are often ambivalent as to whether they should actually put forth effort into changing. Individuals in this stage go back and forth between reasons for concern, and justification for lack of it, with awareness of the pros for changing and an acute awareness of the cons. Show them that the benefits of switching outweigh the costs.
Phase 2: Action & Maintenance – Reward, Reward, Reward
You’ve convinced someone to start using your product, and now you want to ensure that they’ll keep using it. The way we lengthen Phase 2, or sustain a behavioral change, is by simultaneously reinforcing the behavior while recognizing the situations which create an increased risk of relapse.
Reinforcement strengthens behavior – a core component of operant conditioning. There are two types of reinforcement: positive and negative. Positive reinforcement is the introduction of a positive stimulus, while negative reinforcement is the removal of a negative stimulus. An example of positive reinforcement is a mother laughing at her child’s joke, positively reinforcing that particular behavior, and likely resulting in her hearing that joke a lot more often. And as for negative reinforcement, think of a teenager who gets straight A’s to avoid being disciplined by his parents. Most of the decisions we make on a daily basis are due to some form of reinforcement and operant conditioning. We make it to work on time to avoid the ridicule of our managers. We work to make money. We exercise to avoid putting pounds on. You get the point. Reinforcers are incredibly powerful influencers of behavior: so powerful they shape the way we live. It only makes sense that you incorporate them into your product.
Aside from positive and negative, reinforcers can also be broken down into two categories: short-term and long-term. Our brains are wired to better remember short-term rewards. Alcoholics who drink to loosen up and become more social remember the immediate, short-term effects of drinking – loosening up – more than they do the possibly harmful long-term effects. It’s what drives many of our addictive behaviors. The key is to implement reinforcement mechanisms that reward individuals for what would otherwise be considered small, trivial achievements, effectively giving them recurrent boosts of encouragement; then solidifying meaningful progression using long-term rewards.
Make your product addicting while reminding the user of how successful they’ve been using it. It doesn’t matter what industry your product is in; you can always find ways to reinforce your users.
Phase 3: Relapse – Your Rewards Aren’t Rewarding
Relapse prevention involves recognizing the factors that may lead to one reverting back to their old habits, so if you find your users becoming disengaged, then there is likely a flaw in your reinforcement mechanism. The user finds it easier to not use your product. You may have convinced them that your solution is better in theory, but in practice it isn’t. To prevent relapse, constantly measure user engagement and adjust your reinforcers accordingly.
Work towards bridging the gap between what you’re selling and what your users are experiencing.
And there you have it.
I think now more than ever startups should draw lessons from the behavioral sciences when developing their products and services; A/B tests won’t cut it for much longer. People are becoming more social, our networks are becoming more complex, and we’re interacting in new ways on an almost daily basis. And the only way to make sense of it all is if you learn how to hack behavior. In no time, it’ll be a requirement. I’m sure of it.
You can discuss this post on HN here.