Last week’s Behavioural Exchange 2015 conference provided a timely reminder that without social science techniques to help organisations deliver effective, evidence-based communications campaigns, the exciting new digital tools are often just new ways to measure the noise.
The common theme throughout was that we must have a better understanding of how people actually think and make decisions if campaigns are to be successful, whether they concern healthy eating, saving for retirement or encouraging greater use of public transport.
It follows that we shouldn’t be afraid to say we don’t know precisely what will work best at the outset of a campaign, but that we do have a robust process to find out.
This fundamental part of good consultancy too often gets lost in the pitch process, where shiny ideas and guesswork are more appealing than grappling with difficult questions.
For years, public relations has been in the business of raising awareness. But providing basic data and information alone is unlikely to have a major impact on people with limited interest in an issue and no time to think about it.
In fact, for campaigns attempting to stop bad behaviour, heightened awareness can even be counter-productive and encourage the very behaviour it is intended to stop.
Instead, we need to recognise the cognitive biases we all suffer from and the thinking shortcuts we use when making decisions – be that a preference for immediate gratification, a tendency to follow our peers or difficulties understanding probabilities – and apply the growing body of behavioural science insight to communications campaigns.
Much has been made of the success of governments around the world applying the nudge techniques first popularised by Professors Thaler and Sunstein.
HMRC is just one of many tax bodies to have used social science to speed up and increase tax take by personalising letters and making it easier to pay.
Similarly, public bodies in education, health, energy and the criminal justice sector have all successfully run randomised control trials to test the effectiveness of different communications techniques, often removing formal jargon and reframing requests for action and timing messaging for maximum impact.
But it's not just about specific nudges.
We also need to apply the lessons from other leading social scientists, including persuasion expert Professor Robert Cialdini, who has spent 60 years researching how to get people to say yes.
Cialdini regularly highlights the power of reciprocity, whereby a small act of unexpected generosity can trigger surprisingly good rewards in return, perhaps suggesting a whole new approach to in-house teams seeking additional budget and agencies seeking new projects.
Without doubt, science is the route to more effective, impactful campaigns.
New digital tools are a valuable part of the picture - the micrometers of the PR Lab.
But without the insights and approaches debated at Behavioural Exchange 2015, they are simply a new way to describe an old story, rather than a chance to change how the story ends.
Simon Maule is director at Linstock Communications