Understanding Human Behavior: The Ultimate Job Skill

"Technologies can take us further than ever before, and we can do more with them than ever before, but it is always humanity that generates meaning." -Damon Horowitz
"Technologies can be more and more interesting, but it is always human behavior that drives their uptake." -Kaila Colbin

There is a reason ads perform significantly better on Google Search than on the display network. There is a reason CPMs at Google are 100 times what they are at Facebook -- just as there's a reason Facebook logs more minutes than Google does.

If you spend any time at all observing the way people behave, you'll already understand those reasons. When we're searching on Google, we're focused on finding an answer we're likely not already familiar with, and if an ad supplies said answer, we are at the exact moment of greatest receptivity to the message. When we're on an AdSense-supported website, we are already at a destination, and much less likely to be looking for an answer that will take us to a different destination. And the ultimate destination, of course, is Facebook: nothing fuels our schadenfreude like a couple of hours spent on good old-fashioned peer-to-peer voyeurism.



Every significant phenomenon of society -- from online behavior to trends to religion to war -- is an opportunity to better understand the human condition. I don't know what your job is, but I'll bet you a dollar that the more you understand the way people behave, the better you'll be at it. It doesn't matter if you're the outgoing marketing chick or the hardwired programmer -- because the trick here is not that you have to be good at relating to people, or engaging with them, or being their friends. You just have to understand their behavior, or, at a minimum, the specific segment of their behavior that interacts with whatever it is you do.

And yet we're notoriously bad at this. In the superb usability reference "Don't Make Me Think,", Steve Krug manages, in the space of just two sentences, to expose both our unwarranted optimism about the thoughtfulness and attention span of our fellow human beings and our complete failure to make optimal choices:


When we're designing [Web] pages, we tend to assume that users will scan the page, consider all of the available options, and choose the best one. In reality, though, most of the time we don't choose the best option -- we choose the first reasonable option, a strategy known as satisficing.


Not only do we not research every decision; we barely research any of them -- and, once we feel an issue is in any way resolved, we don't start analyzing options again from scratch unless we absolutely have to.

This aspect of human behavior is behind my prediction that exactly nobody will change their search engine usage following revelations by Harvard professor Ben Edelman that Google favors its own sites in search results. TechEye may be accurate that "this calls into question Google's credibility as an impartial medium," but Google's credibility isn't currently up for review by the webgoing population.

The thing is, the sites they're putting at the top do the trick, even if they are Google's own sites. If you go to Google for stock results, and you get accurate answers from Google Finance at the top of the SERP, do you really care that Yahoo's Finance site gets more traffic than Google's? Of course you don't. What you care about is whether the stock has gone up or down. Admit it: you didn't even notice it was Google Finance and not Yahoo, did you?

Human behavior also tells me you're more likely to leave a comment or send me a tweet on @kcolbin if I ask you a question. Do you think that's true? And, if not, what would make it more likely?

7 comments about "Understanding Human Behavior: The Ultimate Job Skill ".
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  1. Gregory Olinyk from Point Of Reference, November 30, 2010 at 11:07 a.m.

    Excellent insight! Very valuable. Sometimes us humans are a little too smart, a little too quick on the trigger. Malcolm Gladwell comes to mind.

  2. Jason de Boer, November 30, 2010 at 11:41 a.m.

    Great observations|! My very first sales manager said these words to me on my very first day of selling -"Metrics drive behaviour". He went on to say that a mans metric is directly correlated to the amount of energy and focus he puts towards an initiative, no matter how silly that initiative may be to me. Learn the man through his metrics and you will learn the man"

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 30, 2010 at 1:39 p.m.

    Learn the man and you will learn his metrics, Jason. Each client, that is person, has a measure of what is important to them with variables from personal experience. The more you try to sell something to your client, the more the wall of resistance appears. One of the first things I learned from learned salespeople was to know the clients kids names and birthdays, so to speak. (Also, reading upside down, but that's another topic. ;)

  4. Kate Lafrance from Hartford Woman Online Magazine, November 30, 2010 at 2:09 p.m.

    This may be the BEST article I've read in all of 2010! Well done!

  5. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, November 30, 2010 at 4:29 p.m.

    Wow, Kate, that's a huge compliment! Thank you! And thanks Paula, Jason & Gregory... Jason, I'm interested in understanding the "metrics drive behaviour" comment a bit more. We say what you measure determines how you will behave -- is that what you're meaning? Or is it something else?

  6. Donna DeClemente from DDC Marketing Group, November 30, 2010 at 10:27 p.m.

    Great post Kaila. I spoke to a high school business class today regarding social media marketing and I wish I had read this before hand. I think this is some great advice to give to those just entering the business world. I did speak about some of the basics and will now definitely incorporate your insights into my future talks to pass on. Thanks.

  7. Sheryl RothRogers, December 1, 2010 at 5:16 p.m.

    Well done post..., and this is why social media relationship building with PEOPLE has emerged as an accelerant to paid media media buys, pr campaigns, and promotional tactics. Our best clients understand the value of their integrated marketing campaigns, and evolve the positive perception of their brand in advance of purchasing, understanding that this will not always be an immediately measurable metric. Yes, understanding how to motivate and move people matters!

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