The Sweet Spot At The Intersection Of What And Why

We spend a lot of time trying to figure out why people do things.

Why don't they shop on social networks? Why do they use Google for vertical searches? Why did we get 30% clickthrough on the last email campaign, but only 3% on this one?

We ask these questions in the hope that a "true" answer will shine a light on the path we must take. It will clear the way for conversion and engagement, and reveal the secret to marketing success. Unfortunately, there is no "true" answer here. Most people have no idea why they behave the way they do, and when they think they know, they're usually making it up.

Mark Earls has devoted his latest book, "Herd," to exploring the ways in which our actions are based on the actions of others, rather than on any independent decision-making. Further, he describes experiments at Harvard and MIT, which show that our mental "decision" to perform a certain behavior actually occurs after



This seemingly backwards effect-cause phenomenon is substantiated by other bodies of research. As U.K. behavioral scientist Howard Lees points out, most of us presume a cause and effect relationship between an antecedent and a behavior. The reality, says Lees, is that consequences have a much greater impact on human behavior than antecedents: the fear of a speeding ticket is a more powerful motivator than a 30 MPH sign.

Lees' work with behavioral science is focused on the "what" rather than the "why." He doesn't particularly care if you were coddled by your mother or neglected by your father. He wants to know what you are doing and whether it can be influenced.

All this isn't to say that the question should never be asked. There's an old fable about a girl who asks her mother why she cuts the end off the roast before putting it in the pan. "I don't know, honey; that's the way my mom always did it." So they call the grandmother, who doesn't know either. Finally, they visit the great-grandmother in the rest home and ask her the question: "Why did you always cut the end off the roast?" "My pan wasn't big enough," she replies.

When you're thinking about throwing a few million at yet another search start-up, you'd better ask yourself why the world needs one. But sometimes the why just doesn't matter. Keyword testing is a prime example. It doesn't really matter why more people respond to "Nicole's baby daddy" than to "Harlow's father." The results are still going to influence your campaign.

If you don't ask why, you could be wasting time, unnecessarily cutting ends off roasts. If you don't ask what, you risk ignoring behavioral reality in favor of often-inaccurate explanations of the past. The sweet spot, at the intersection of what and why, is where you want to be.

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