Why Change: Defeating Status Quo Bias

Credit: Tim Riesterer, Corporate Visions

Funny story: I saw Tim Riesterer speak at a conference in Scottsdale two years ago and I got so fired up by his presentation that when I got home, I ran to my CMO’s office smiling like a kid on Christmas morning.

Our conversation went something like this…

Devon: Hey Jeff, I just saw the best speaker I’ve ever seen. We need to do everything he talked about!

Jeff: Hold on, hold on. I just got back from Vegas where I saw the best speaker I’ve ever seen. We need to start doing everything he talked about.

Devon: Really? What’s his name?

Jeff: Tim.

Devon: Tim?

Jeff: Rosterler, I think?

Devon: Wait. Wait, wait wait. Tim Reistersher!?

Jeff: Is that how you say it?

Devon: I don’t know, but I think we’re talking about the same guy!

Sure enough, we were both talking about Tim Riesterer (last name pronounced “REECE-ter”, by the way, which took way too long to figure out).

It turns out I had seen him in Arizona and Jeff had seen him shortly after in Vegas.

If you have never had the pleasure of hearing Tim speak, his presentation is one of the few keynotes that once you’ve experienced it, you’ll immediately want to run out of whatever conference you’re attending to fly home and put it into action.

It’s not only an entertaining talk—it’s a game-changing content marketing strategy. There are a few versions floating around YouTube, but the one from LeadsCon is the best.

The essence of Tim’s talk is simple: your biggest enemy—the biggest threat to your success—isn’t your competition.

It’s the status quo.

Status quo bias is a person’s natural preference for inaction, for staying the course instead of doing something different.

In his research with Stanford, Tim found that up to 80% of people who work their way through a buyer’s journey end up making no decision at all.

This is the bane of every business’s existence.

Everyone thinks that generating revenue means taking market share away from their biggest rival, but the reality is your biggest opportunity is the 80% of people who thought “maybe I need to do something different” and ultimately decided not to.

Here’s a clip from when I interviewed Tim and asked him about it.

Cameo alert: That’s my hand holding the mic. You can also see my other hand holding up my arm because, apparently, I need to go to the gym.

Before we dive into the framework for beating status quo bias, here’s the science behind what it is and why it exists.

The Science Behind Status Quo Bias

Neuroscience points to four main reasons why people don’t change their behavior.

Picture it like a ball-and-chain effect. Each of these following four causes is shackled to a prospect’s legs making it difficult for him to budge.

The first ball-and-chain is called preference stability.

Preference stability is the idea that when you make a decision you establish a preference for that decision, and your natural tendency is to keep things stable.

“We hate uncertainty,” Tim says, “and so what we try to do when we hear something new—the first defense mechanism that kicks in—is what I call the ‘Liking Principle’. When somebody says, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, but I think it’s kind of like what I’m already doing. I think it’s kind of like what everyone else is talking about.’ The word ‘like’ is your enemy.”

The second ball-and-chain is cost of change.

People view whatever they are currently doing as free, while a change in behavior is viewed as costly.

“I’m going to have to rethink the budget.”

“I might have to get consensus with a whole committee of people.”

“It’s a lot of time and money to change things up.”

These are common objections, and you have an uphill battle convincing people otherwise. The trick is to show them there’s a cost to staying the same.

The third ball-and-chain is selection difficulty.

Selection difficulty is the result of being overwhelmed by information, and the defense mechanism is to think, “Geez, all of these options sound the same. I’m going to simplify things and make a decision based on price.”

This stems from the fact that your brain needs contrast to make a decision, and if everything looks the same, there’s no contrast. So the only way you’re going to switch is if you can create contrast, and the easiest way to do that is to compare pricing. To break free from selection difficulty, you need to show contrast between what you offer and what your prospects are currently doing without defaulting to price.

The last ball-and-chain is anticipated regret and blame.

Anticipated regret comes from anticipating the negative outcome of a decision and blaming yourself for it.

Essentially, you think, “Maybe things aren’t perfect right now, but at least I’m not dead yet. If I make a change and do something different, that could kill me.”

This last hurdle is key. Even if you do a good job addressing the first three balls-and-chains, you still have to overcome people’s fear of regret. The best way to do that is with a hero story. More on that in a minute.

Now that you’re familiar with the four elements of status quo bias, here’s how to defeat them with the perfect sales pitch thanks to proven neuroscience.

Step 1: Destabilize preference stability

How do you start your marketing message with a bang?

You have to lead with an unconsidered need.

“The most powerful tool you have,” Tim says, “is the unconsidered need. You have tell the customer something they don’t already know about a problem or a missed opportunity they didn’t know they had. That’s how you destabilize preferences.”

Most marketers ignore this approach.

Instead, companies start with customer research and craft their messaging around the needs their target market tells them about. The problem with this approach? You’re going to be delivering commodity messages (see the red box below) that won’t differentiate you because your competitors are likely doing the same thing.

So the next thing marketers tend to do is talk about their unique selling points. Unfortunately, when you start introducing new value-added services, people perceive these extra capabilities as adding costs and complexity, not value.

Instead, research says you should find unconsidered needs and lead with those.

An unconsidered need is exactly what it sounds like: a need that people haven’t considered. The key is that customers didn’t tell you about it—you surprised them. And by surprising them, you can have a dramatic impact on their decision making.

How do you find unconsidered needs? Look for the following:

  1. A need that customers under-appreciate. This is likely a problem they don’t understand the size of—or the speed at which it’s hurtling toward them. Example: Artificial intelligence could replace them in the next 5 years.
  2. A need for which people have done workarounds. Look for areas where they’ve hidden an underlying problem that will eventually catch up with them.
  3. A need that your prospects don’t even know about. This is the one that Apple tends to lean into. It’s a type of need that people didn’t know existed because they didn’t know there was something to fix it.

Once you’ve unearthed your unconsidered needs, you need to tie them to your value-added services. In other words, don’t lead with services—lead to them.

By leading with unconsidered needs and tying them to your value props, research shows that you can generate a 50% increase in the perception of differentiation and a 10% increase in persuasion. (Corporate Visions)

Step 2: Cut the cost of change

According to Prospect Theory (the theory that earned Daniel Kahneman a Nobel Prize), people are 2-3x more likely to do something different in order to avoid a loss than go after some sort of gain.

Let that sink in.

People are two or three times more likely to do something in order to avoid a loss than achieve a gain. And yet virtually every company leads with the gain!

To test this out, Stanford and Corporate Visions recruited executives and split them into two groups. Each group was given the choice between two scenarios.

GROUP 1: You’re the CEO of a company that’s going through tough times. Option A: You can save one-third of all your workers and let go of two-thirds. Option B: You can hire a risky vendor that has a 33% chance of saving everyone’s job but a 66% chance of losing everything.

GROUP 2: You’re the CEO of a company that’s going through tough times. Option A: You can let go of two-thirds of all your workers and keep one-third. Option B: You can hire a risky vendor that gives you a small probability—a 33% chance—of losing nothing. Unfortunately, there’s a high risk that the vendor could lose everything.

The results?

In group one, 74% of executives chose Option A and 26% chose Option B.

In group two, 55% of executives chose Option A and 45% chose Option B.

If you haven’t figured it out, the math in the experiment is the exact same.

The researchers were able to generate a 70% increase in persuadability simply by changing the wording.

“Your words and story matter,” Tim says. “It seems like a subtle tweak, but for a 70% increase in persuadability, it’s time we all pay attention to how we frame things. It just uses brain science to your advantage. It doesn’t lie about anything. It simply repositions it in a way that affects a person differently.”

Step 3: Eliminate selection difficulty

Marketers have a tendency to view their prospects as damsels in distress.

They think their “new-and-improved” products are going to swoop in and save the day, so the company ends up sounding like a pretentious superhero.

But prospects see right through it. Inside, they’re thinking, “Oh, you’re saying I’m doing something wrong just because you’ve got something new? Screw off.”

Tim says you need to make people feel smarter because they heard your message, not make them feel stupid. And they feel stupid if you put them in a position of seeming like they need to be rescued.

What you need to do is invoke the most powerful form of persuasion known to humankind: self-persuasion.

To leverage self-persuasion, you have to use contrast.

Start by describing the concerns, questions, limitations, and flaws in someone’s current approach BEFORE you talk about your capabilities.

When it’s time to bring up your company, the key is to create contrast with visuals.

Here’s an example of how we created contrast at Vendasta with our landing pages:

It shows contrast between our hosting platform vs. WPEngine with comparison tables and imagery depicting that the grass is greener (literally) on our side of the fence.

Why do visuals perform better than words? Because the part of the brain responsible for decision making—the limbic system—doesn’t use language. It relies on imagery.

If you do a good job describing the challenges of your prospect’s current approach AND use imagery to show the differences between their current state and desired future state, they will better understand why you do what you do.

Step 4: Tell a good hero story

Congratulations! If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve been able to beat the first three obstacles of status quo bias. The last step is to tell a compelling hero story.

A good hero story is more than a customer success story.

One of the best storytelling frameworks was established by Alcoholics Anonymous.

“In Alcohols Anonymous,” Tim says, “they identified that you can’t tell someone they’re an alcoholic and have them take the course. They have to persuade themselves, but they only persuade themselves when they hear a story of someone like them. And that story can’t just be, ‘Hey, here’s how great my life is on the other side.’ That story must start with where I started. What it looked like, what it sounded like, what it felt like, what it smelt like, what I dealt with. So when you tell a customer success story, don’t just talk about the upside on the other end. Talk about where the customer started and what they were dealing with.”

What this boils down to is that great success stories are before-and-after stories.

You can’t just talk about your customers’ success. You need to start by painting a vivid picture of where they started, and only then will others self-identify and relate.

Now go back and look at your case studies and testimonials.

Do you lead with detailed, emotional descriptions of your customers’ challenges? Or do you dive straight into solutions? If it’s the latter, go back and rework them.

Summary: How to beat the status quo

If there’s one thing to take away from the research on status quo bias, it’s to think more about your “why change” story than your “why us” story.

From there, the framework for an effective content marketing strategy is simple:

  • Destabilize preference stability with an unconsidered need. These can be needs that customers underappreciate, needs for which they’ve done workarounds, or needs they didn’t know they have.
  • Show prospects the cost of staying the same, as well as potential gains
  • Create clear, visual contrast between people’s current state and desired future state
  • Tell a before-and-after story that prospects can identify with, particularly with their challenges upfront—not just a story that focuses on results.