The Science of Behavior: How to Get the Response you Want from Customers

Science of Customer Behavior

We marketers have traditionally been experts at convincing our prospects and customers to buy our products and services. In recent years, these behavior persuasion techniques have become less effective as empowered customers, who have grown tired of producer-centricity and hard sells, turned a deaf ear to conventional marketing messages. Our prospects and customers still have needs and desires that they want to address, however. If they believe that we can help them meet their goals, we may be invited into their purchase journey, where we have the opportunity to authentically and simultaneously meet their goals. However, our customers and prospects may still need non-intrusive prompts that encourage them to act quickly.

An understanding of the emerging discipline of behavior design, which is being pioneered by innovator and social scientist Dr. B. J. Fogg, can help us create customer interactions that more effectively help our prospects and customers scratch their itch or finish the job they set out to do, while also prompting them to take action sooner rather than later. Fogg’s work in this promising field incorporates insights from the Persuasive Technology Lab that he directs at Stanford University, where he explores the relationship between computing technologies—everything from websites to mobile devices—and persuasion. In Fogg’s experience, these inherently neutral tools can be powerful instruments.

Under Fogg’s leadership, the lab develops insights into how technology can positively change what people believe and do. Projects are designed to help people take action to bring about essential changes in health, business, education, and safety. Changes that they want to make, as opposed to manipulating them to do things they do not want to do.

The Secret to Eliciting a Target Behavior

The first step in designing effective customer experiences is being clear about the target behavior we are trying to elicit. For instance, looking to improve the health of their patients, a health-care provider asked Fogg to design an experience to help reduce their patients’ stress. The goal of reducing people’s stress was too broad and difficult to measure to be successful; however, focusing on a smaller, near-term objective, proved more useful.

What would qualify as a smaller, near-term objective? Early testing found that the health-care provider’s patients could be prompted to do 20 seconds of stretching a day. While the goal of stretching for 20 seconds a day may not sound like a very impactful way to reduce stress—wouldn’t a more aggressive goal such as running two miles a day seem more appropriate?—it was the foundation upon which more advanced behaviors would eventually be built. In Fogg’s experience, if we ask people to do something that they will not be able to successfully complete, we will adversely impact their future motivation to act.

Next, we have to create the conditions under which the target behavior is likely to be elicited. Fogg has found that for a target behavior to occur, three factors must be present simultaneously and in sufficient quantity:

1. motivation, or the desire to act;
2. the ability to act; and
3. a trigger to act now.

These three factors are summarized in the Fogg Behavior Model, represented by the formula:

B = mat

B: desired target behavior
m: motivation
a: ability
t: trigger or prompt

A dynamic relationship exists between motivation and ability, which allows one factor to be traded off for the other.

Fogg Behavior Model

^ The Fogg Behavior Model

Truly useful customer experiences help our customers meet their goals, whether those goals are purchasing a new pair of eyeglasses, becoming more fit, discovering new authors, or nurturing leads. When our prospects and customers have confidence that we can help them meet their goals, we have tapped into something powerful: Motivation. They have a reason to act.


Fogg has identified three core motivators with opposing dimensions:

1. Sensation, marked by pain and pleasure
2. Anticipation, marked by hope and fear
3. Social Cohesion, marked by acceptance and rejection

By creating conditions that impact these motivators, marketers can influence people’s motivation.

Marketers have traditionally spent the lion’s share of our efforts trying to influence our prospects’ and customers’ motivation. Ironically, Fogg has found that motivation is the hardest of the three “mat” factors to influence. It requires careful design and caution as experiences that impact motivation often result in people feeling manipulated. Indeed, research shows that efforts to impact people’s motivation can lead to the exact opposite behavior, a response known as reactance.10

Here is the good news: In many cases, attempting to augment our prospects’ and customers’ motivation may not be necessary. If they are already using search engines and social networks to seek out solutions when they discover us, the requisite motivation may already be present. In those cases, focusing on increasing their ability to act, or creating a well-timed trigger to encourage them to act now, may be a more effective use of our time and resources.

This was the case with Fogg’s stress-reducing intervention. Because people were already motivated to reduce tension by daily stretching, the experience did not have to try and increase the group’s motivation by showing graphic images of stress-induced heart attacks or even compelling personal accounts of improved health. Instead, Fogg turned his attention to examining the group’s ability to stretch for 20 minutes a day.


Many times people may really want to do something, but are unable to because they do not have the necessary ability. They may want to buy a new car, but do not have the cash. They may want to read a whitepaper, but they do not have the time to fill out the contact form. In Fogg’s experience, in addition to time and money, ability also includes having resources like the necessary skills, the physical or mental capability to act, or the strength to go against a social norm or engage in an activity that is outside of one’s normal routine. Experienced designers often overlook the ability factor, assuming their audiences are more capable than they really are.

Make Action Easier

How can we increase our prospects’ and customers’ ability to act? One of the most successful techniques is to make acting easier for them. For example, if people have high motivation to do something that they find hard to do, by simplifying it in a meaningful way, we increase the chance of evoking the target behavior. By bundling their automobile services into an integrated service, USAA made it easier for their members to purchase a car, secure a car loan, and obtain insurance coverage.

Similarly, Starbucks’ app allows their customers to purchase coffee with their phones (no cash or card required) and automatically manage their loyalty points and offers. Amazon’s 1-Click Shopping option and Amazon Prime make purchases almost effortless. According to a recent article in Time, on average people spend as much as 150 percent more at Amazon after becoming Prime members.11 They also “stop shopping anywhere else,” preferring to take advantage of Amazon’s free and speedy shipping.11 As Fogg says, “Simplicity impacts behavior.” Indeed, the success of most mobile apps can be linked to their ability to make things easier for people.

Simplifying can be complex

Fogg has found that everyone has a different simplicity profile. What may be simple for a 15-year-old girl may be different than for a 15-year-old boy, or for a 50-year-old and vice versa. To enhance our target customers’ ability to purchase or use our products or services, we have to understand their perception of simplicity. In Fogg’s experience, this perception is a function of their scarcest resource at the moment—time, money, physical or mental effort, or their ability to go against the grain or try something new.


Perhaps the easiest way to elicit a target behavior is by providing a well-timed trigger that gives people a prompt to act now. A handshake is an effective trigger in many cultures; it encourages people to respond. A ringing phone can be an effective trigger, if people can hear it and are able to pick up. Effective triggers can also be an event, a call to action, a request, or an offer delivered via phone, email, text, post, pin, and more.

To be effective, people must be familiar with the technology that delivers the trigger.

As Fogg cautions, “The combination of a new behavior and a new channel never wins.”

As the Fogg Behavior Model image illustrates, triggers must fall above the motivation/ability threshold to be effective. If we ask people to do things that are too hard and for which they have little motivation, even the most exceptional triggers will fail. Similarly, if we continually offer triggers to people who may have the ability to act, perhaps make a donation to a cause, but have very little interest in the cause, our triggers will amount to nothing more than annoyances. In these cases, the triggers are cold; they do not produce positive results.

In the case of the stress-reducing intervention, Fogg chose text messaging on mobile phones as a daily trigger to remind people to do their stretching. Because the target population was already in the habit of texting, this channel was an effective choice. Had the group not been adept at texting, a different trigger would have to be employed. Did the intervention work? Yes. The majority of people successfully completed the two-week challenge and were willing to continue. In Fogg’s experience, simplicity is how long-lasting habit change is born. He also encourages us to start small and experiment quickly, building on each success, rather than being too ambitious upfront.

Facebook and LinkedIn are quite adept at designing triggers. To encourage users to log in, Facebook sends e-mails notifying them of updates to their page, such as friend requests and messages.

Facebook Activity Email

Similarly, LinkedIn delivers updates to their members when one of their connections changes jobs or has a birthday, or when they receive a new connection request or endorsement. Through LinkedIn Pulse, which was created by one of Fogg’s students, the network dispatches personalized news content based upon members’ professional interests, prompting further engagement.

LinkedIn Activity Email

Using B = mat to Understand What Works

In recent years, the use of software to create persuasive experiences has spread well beyond the confines of Fogg’s laboratory. Consider how the fuel gauge in the Toyota Prius inspires eco-conscious car owners to drive more efficiently, reinforcing its brand promise. Or how simple widgets that are well-placed on a blog post encourage people to share compelling brand content with their friends on the social networks of their choice. Similarly, by improving its customers’ success in meeting their fitness goals via its runners’ app and Fuel-Band, Nike simultaneously prompts their customers to purchase more athletic shoes and gear, while also creating a brand preference for Nike. These are “win-win” scenarios for brands and their customers made possible by creating the necessary conditions for eliciting mutually-desired behaviors.

Using the Fogg Behavior Model as a guide, we can create experiences that are likely to elicit target behaviors. We can also evaluate why our customers or prospects may not be responding to our marketing efforts. For example, if our customers are not sharing our content, it could be they do not have the ability (add share buttons), they do not have the motivation (create content that they are inspired to share), or they do not have an effective trigger (ask them to share or interact with them in a more preferred channel). If we want to stop or reduce a behavior, we can use the Fogg Behavior Model, only in this case, our focus will be on removing one of the three factors (mat).

B = mat Explains the Success of Instagram

Another one of Fogg’s former students, Mike Kreiger, is the cofounder of the popular photo-sharing application Instagram and a self-proclaimed behavior geek. A snapshot of the company shows the thoughtful use of behavior science.

When Instagram was introduced to the marketplace, it was not a novel idea. People were already in the habit of sharing photos online through other vehicles like Flickr and Shutterfly. In this case, the presence of competitors was a benefit; they had already built the market. In terms of the Fogg model, Instagram’s prospects already had the necessary motivation and ability to use the new app.

To encourage prospects to switch, Instagram addressed all three variables of the Fogg Behavior Model. Its multiple filters made photos taken on mobile devices appear to be professional quality—so much so that during a recent Fashion Week, Vogue conducted photo shoots exclusively via Instagram13—increasing the value and fun of the app relative to those that people were already using. The ease and speed that photos could be uploaded and shared across multiple networks made taking pictures simpler than its competitors, enhancing people’s ability and motivation to use the app. Finally, seeing friends post their filter-adjusted pictures on Facebook created triggers that prompted people to download the app and get snapping and sharing right away. Did it work? Eighteen months later the app was sold to Facebook for a quick $1 billion. Today the company has over 150 million active members and over 16 billion photos have been shared.

To continually improve its customer service, Instagram creates new uses and activities while being careful to maintain its simplicity. As Fogg cautions, “Each time you add something to your customer experience, you increase the likelihood of failure.” Users can now post videos and choose to share photos and videos privately with selected friends through Instagram Direct. On Thursdays people participate in one of the most popular hashtag-based games: Throwback Thursday. Instagrammers are encouraged to post nostalgia-inducing photos of days gone by and tag them with the hashtag #TBT. People love the game: over 63 million pictures have been tagged with #tbt or #throwbackthursday on Instagram.14

Instagram Throwback Thursday

That was a lot of information! To sum it up:

In order for a target behavior to occur, three factors must be present simultaneously and in sufficient quantity:

  1. motivation, or the desire to act;
  2. the ability to act;
  3. a trigger to act now.

This is B = mat

  • Motivation is the most difficult thing to illicit, but may not be necessary if you get the other two right
  • Ability can be positively affected by keeping it simple
  • A well-time Trigger is the easiest way to inspire action

To learn more about Fogg’s work, see and read his books: Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do and Mobile Persuasion: 20 Perspectives on the Future of Behavior.

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About the Authors

Larry Weber and Lisa Leslie Henderson are the cowriters of this Digital Marketing guide. Larry is the CEO of Racepoint Global, an advanced marketing services firm. A globally known expert in public relations and marketing services, Larry has successfully built companies and brands and is passionate about the future of marketing. Lisa is an observer, synthesizer, and writer who draws extensively from her background in marketing and consulting. Lisa and Larry have collaborated on two guides to date, The Digital Marketer, and Everywhere: Comprehensive Strategy for the Social Media Era. To stay current on their thinking, frequent and follow them at @TheLarryWeber and @ljlhendo.

Buy on Amazon: The Digital Marketer: Ten New Skills You Must Learn to Stay Relevant and Customer-Centric

10. For more information on reactance, see Dillard, J., & Shen, L. On the nature of reactance and its role in persuasive health communication. Communication Monographs, 72, 144–168 and Bushman, B.J. Effects of warning and information labels on consumption of full-fat, reduced-fat, and no-fat products. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83, 97–101.
11. Brad Tuttle, “Amazon Prime: Bigger, More Powerful, More Profitable than Anyone Imagined,” Time ,
13. For more information see:
14. For more information see:

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