Consumer behavior plays a significant role in marketing. After all, marketing is about understanding what consumers want and then finding a way to give it to them. And while various marketing strategies have been developed to influence consumer behavior, operant conditioning is one of the most effective. Operant conditioning is a type of learning based on a behavior's consequences. For example, if a behavior results in a positive impact, it is more likely to be repeated. On the other hand, if a behavior results in a negative consequence, it is less likely to be repeated. In marketing, operant conditioning can be used to influence consumer behavior in several ways. One common way is through the use of rewards. For example, a company might offer a free product or service in exchange for brand awareness. Another way that operant conditioning can be used in marketing is through the use of punishments. For example, a company might charge customers a higher price if they want a Technician outside of normal operating hours. This punishment will then motivate the customer to complete the job to avoid paying the higher price. Operant conditioning can be a powerful tool for marketing professionals, as it can influence customer behavior. However, using these techniques ethically and responsibly is vital, as they can be used to manipulate customers. So, how can you use operant conditioning in marketing ethically? Let's first go back to the basics of operant conditioning and how it works.
What Is the Origin of Operant Conditioning?
Dating back to the end of the 19th century, the concept of operant conditioning was heavily influenced by Edward Thorndike's Law of Effect. Derived from Thorndike's research on animal behavior, the Law of Effect suggests that positive outcomes increase the likelihood of repeated behavior. Conversely, negative outcomes decrease the likelihood of repeated behavior. Behavior is influenced by its consequences. Driven by Thorndike's Law of Effect, American psychologist, B. F. Skinner developed the operant conditioning theory while studying rats in 1937. Built upon Thorndike's research, Skinner showed that animals (and humans) could be trained using reinforcement or punishment. Since Skinner's time, however, this theory has evolved and expanded. Today, psychologists and marketing experts alike use operant conditioning principles to describe and influence human behavior. This is because marketing relies on creating desired behaviors in consumers, which operant conditioning can explain. Using B. F. Skinner's operant conditioning theory, business owners and marketing professionals can more effectively influence customer behavior. However, it is essential to note that better marketing tools exist than operant conditioning. At Wizard of Ads®, we research and utilize the best marketing strategies for our clients and their industry. Book a call with Ryan Chute today to learn more about operant conditioning and how it can benefit your marketing.
Operant Conditioning vs. Classical Conditioning
While operant conditioning can be a powerful marketing tool, it’s essential not to confuse it with other marketing tactics. Classical conditioning, for example, is another marketing tool that can be used to influence behavior. Classical conditioning occurs when a person or animal associates a particular stimulus with a desired response. For example, if someone hears a song on the radio and feels happy, they may associate it with happiness. As a result, they may start seeking out that song more often to experience joy again. This can be closely related to how energy drinks make consumers feel energized or how coffee makes consumers feel awake. In marketing, classical conditioning can create positive associations with a brand or product. For example, if a consumer sees a commercial and then likes that product or service, they have been classically conditioned. Classical conditioning can also create negative associations with a brand or product. For example, if a customer has a negative experience with a commercial or ad, they may have poor sentiments. As a result, they may be less likely to purchase that product in the future. It is crucial for marketing professionals to understand classical conditioning and how it can impact customer behavior. By creating positive associations with a brand, businesses can encourage customers to keep coming back. On the other hand, if companies create negative associations, they may scare customers away. Like classical conditioning, operant conditioning can easily cause businesses to lose consumers and profits if used incorrectly. Here are some key things to keep in mind when using operant conditioning in marketing:
When is FREE bad?
So, is operant conditioning suitable for every industry? Unfortunately, no. While operant conditioning is excellent for consumable goods and services, it is less effective for one-time products. This is because operant conditioning relies on customers returning to purchase more of the product or service. If a customer only needs to buy the item once, then there's no opportunity for operant conditioning to take effect. For example, if an HVAC company offers a "free" air conditioning unit, it will lose a significant amount of money. This is because the customer will only need to purchase the unit once. In other words, there's no way to ensure that they'll continue using the company's services in the future. For example, offering loyalty programs or discounts for repeat customers is a great way to encourage repeat business. Operant conditioning, however, is not an effective strategy for companies that don't rely on ongoing services. So how can industries that can benefit from operant conditioning profit from it? Here are a few examples:
Daily Operant Conditioning Examples
When it comes to psychology, reinforcement is often divided into four main categories:
- Positive reinforcement rewards a behavior in exchange for the desired behavior being displayed.
- Negative reinforcement removes an unpleasant condition after the desired behavior is displayed.
- Punishment involves bringing an unpleasant consequence after a behavior is displayed.
- Extinction is when a behavior stops occurring after it is no longer consistently reinforced.
When it comes to operant conditioning, we all experience it on a daily basis, even if we're not aware of it. Think about it: Why else would you brush your teeth every day? Because, if you don't, you'll have to face the unpleasant consequences (punishment) of bad breath and tooth decay. And, if you're anything like most of us, you probably learned this lesson through operant conditioning. Here are a few more operant conditioning examples at work:
Positive Reinforcement Examples
Positive reinforcement is a very common operant conditioning technique. In many cases, it is the most effective way to shape behavior. One example of positive reinforcement is when a parent gives their child a toy after they eat all their dinner. The child is being rewarded (with the toy) for displaying the desired behavior (eating their dinner). In marketing, an example of positive reinforcement would be giving a discount to customers who make a purchase. The desired behavior (in this case, making a purchase) is reinforced with the reward (the discount).
Negative Reinforcement Examples
Negative reinforcement is when a desirable behavior is increased by the removal of an unpleasant condition. In other words, it is a way of incentivizing someone by taking something away. A common example of negative reinforcement is when a dog is given a treat after it has stopped barking. In this case, the dog is rewarded for the desired behavior (stopping their barking) by having the unpleasant condition removed. In marketing, a popular example of negative reinforcement is the use of coupons. In this case, the desired behavior (customers making a grudge purchase) is reinforced with the reward – a coupon. Negative reinforcement can effectively increase desired behaviors, but it should be used with caution. Too much incentive can lead to customers being conditioned only to purchase when there is a discount. This will hurt your bottom line in the long run.
Punishment is the opposite of reinforcement; it is a way of discouraging someone by making something unpleasant happen. A typical example of punishment is when a child is scolded for misbehaving. The child is less likely to repeat the behavior because they associate it with the unpleasant consequence (being scolded). Other examples of punishment include:
- Jail time
- Loss of privileges
Extinction is when a behavior is no longer reinforced (rewarded) and eventually goes away. For example, if a child anticipates getting candy when they cry, when the parent stops, the tantrums will eventually cease. This is because they are no longer being reinforced. Extinction can also be used with punishment, where the punishment is no longer given after a particular behavior is displayed. For example, if a child stops misbehaving, they will no longer be scolded. Other examples of extinction include:
- Withholding attention
- Withholding compliments
- Withholding rewards
And more. Whether using operant conditioning or another marketing strategy, it's crucial to identify how that tool will impact your business. What are the risks and rewards? What could happen if it's not used correctly? What could happen if it's used too much? At Wizard of Ads®, we don't believe in one-size-fits-all solutions. Backed by our marketing experts, we'll work with you to find the best tools for your business goals. And, as always, we'll be there to help you every step of the way. If you're ready to take your business to the next level, book a call with Ryan Chute of Wizard of Ads® today.