80% of your Facebook friends have already read this post

There’s a sign that inhabits the bathroom of almost every hotel. It informs you that by indicating you don’t wish to have your towels replaced, you can help save the world. By reusing your towels, you’ll save them from being washed. Washing would require detergent, which once used will end up in our drains, our rivers, and eventually the ocean. Baby seals live in the ocean. Did you know that? THINK OF THE BABY SEALS.

This is of course, all true. I haven’t seen the sums on how much detergent the average towel wash takes, or how much detergent makes it from the washing machine to the ocean, or the levels of detergent that are required to slaughter a baby seal, but on some level, there’s no denying it. Of course, as a cynic, I would point out that the main benefit is the money that it saves the hotel on detergent, but either way we all have a vested interest in reusing towels and in doing so reducing detergent consumption.

However, despite the imagery, these signs are not a very good way of stopping people from demanding fresh linen. Baby seals may be cute, but they have surprisingly little emotional hold on the average hotel guest. People don’t feel that bought into the idea, even if they like baby seals, and don’t feel that they will have much effect on the World in general. Some people recycle their towels, but many don’t.

With the fate of baby seals and hotel margins at stake though, not to mention a situation that the average consumer can easily relate to, a couple of pop scientists saw the perfect opportunity to run a few experiments and write them up as a chapter in an intriguing book [LINK] on behavioural change. I found it super interesting, and hence a quick summary…

The base case in this hotel example is a sign informing guests that they have a choice over whether or not their towels are washed every day. The details of the sign are then changed to try and increase the proportion of guests that actually do reuse their towels. How did the effectiveness of different messages go? Well, from worst to best:

  1. “You can reuse your towels”
  2. “Reuse your towels to help us save the environment”
  3. “Most guests staying in this hotel reuse their towels to help save the environment”
  4. “Most guests staying in this room reuse their towels to help save the environment”

[Note: room vs. hotel in last two]

The interesting thing is that effectiveness of the message increases significantly with seemingly trivial statements about social norms on towel reuse, and that referring to the room that people are staying in is much better than just referring to the hotel (you can buy the book if you want the actual percentages).

It all sounds a little odd until you realise that by referring to the room, the sign is creating a social group that the guest is a part of, which is smaller than by just referring to the hotel. Fewer people have stayed in whichever room the guest is in than in the hotel as a whole. Because the social group is smaller the bonds between members are stronger – there are fewer members to diffuse the responsibility amongst. Should one person fail in their “duty” – in this case reusing their towels – then the performance of the group as a whole will be dragged down that much more. Of course, the sign in each room could be the same – guests will only read one – the point is not that the guests ARE part of a small group, but they feel like one.

Translate to advertising

This form of influence is only just beginning to permeate advertising. Traditionally advertisers have spent huge amounts of money on celebrity endorsements, and understandably given the effect that such endorsements can have. But could brands get a similar or even better effect by placing consumers in tight social groups, and then defining the normal consumption patterns of the group? This is effectively what the Facebook “like” button does. Brands may only be tapping into this psychology crudely at the moment (many brands do not currently translate well online), but it certainly seems like a tactic that will much more popular as social networks become even more ingrained to our way of life.

Wrap up

It’s obvious stuff that our behaviour is influenced by those around us. What is slightly less obvious is that placing individuals in smaller groups has a bigger effect than putting them in larger ones. Rather than convincing people that “we’re all in it together”, influencers should try to persuade people that “us few are in it together”.


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