Cue, Routine, Reward: 3 Steps to Optimize Your Sales

As a digital marketer, you’re always looking for ways to improve your selling strategy. You’re probably already using your customer’s behavior and psychological triggers in your marketing.

Behavioral marketing isn’t new, but did you know that habits have the most impact on consumer behavior?

As much as 95% of consumer behavior is on autopilot – because of habits.

Want to know the kicker? Only 9% of survey respondents knew that almost all of a consumer’s behavior was controlled by habits.

We all have habits – actions we’ve taken and brands we’ve purchased so many times. It’s become automatic and there’s no longer any conscious thought involved in our actions.

But, what does this mean for marketers?

You want customers to form habits around your product, driving repeat business, and increasing your bottom line.

Why Do We Form Habits?

Our brains are designed with a reward system. Actions that trigger feel-good brain activity give us an incentive to repeat the action. With repetition, habits form.

Habits are made up of three components: the cue, the routine, and the reward.

The Cue

This is the trigger that starts the habit. According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, most cues fit into one of these five categories:

  • A location
  • A time of day
  • An emotional state
  • Other people
  • An immediately preceding action

The Routine

The routine is the action that is triggered by the cue. For example, a moment of boredom while waiting for a meeting to start can become a routine of idly scrolling your Twitter feed, looking for something to distract and entertain.

The Reward

Habits don’t form without a reward. The reward is the pleasure that completing the routine gives you. For example, it might be the caffeine hit from your morning coffee or the satisfaction of sharing your opinion on Facebook about the things that matter to you.

What do Habits Mean for Selling?

When was the last time you thought about what brand of dish detergent to buy? Or where you purchased it from? Or in your business, you probably use the same domain registrar for new sites – and you probably don’t even give it a second thought.

Because so many purchasing decisions are out of habit, it can be challenging to break through people’s routines and get your product into their shopping carts.

But, if you can get your product to become part of customer habits, those same habits will protect your product’s position as their chosen brand.

Habits form around repeated actions. If your product or service is a one-off, it’s difficult to build a habit around it, and you’ll be better served by focusing on social proof.

For example, solopreneur and email marketer, Meera Kothand, shows new readers on her homepage the value that her lead magnet and products have as a way to build trust quickly and credibly.

This form of social proof can push a new visitor through the customer buying experience quicker. It also creates a stronger habit for new visitors around Meera’s brand and products when there is social proof.

When Habits Change

Habits aren’t easily changed. If you’ve ever tried to quit smoking, quit coffee, or stick with a fitness routine to lose (or gain) a few pounds, you’ll probably agree.

But, there are times when habits are more easily influenced.

When someone is going through a major life event, their habits are subject to change. For example, finishing school, going to college, pregnancy, divorce, a new baby, or moving house, are all major life events that throw existing habits into flux.

Companies that focus on reaching customers during these life events can grab hold of their habits and win their business. Target is infamous for its ability to identify customers who are pregnant and target those customers with advertising and coupons for things that they’ve identified the pregnant women buy.

Similarly, LifeLock – an identity theft protection service – is much more appealing to customers who have recently had their identity stolen. If you can find that life event to tie in your product to their needs, then you can effectively change the habits of your customers.

How to Use Habits to Optimize Your Sales

So, how do you use habits to optimize your sales and create demand for your product?

There are two ways to use habits in your selling strategy: you can encourage your customers to create a new habit around your product, or you can insert your product or service into an existing habit that they already have.

How to Create a New Habit

Creating a new habit is not easy. Just ask anyone who’s ever tried to start an exercise regime or a healthy eating program.

If it’s tough to make an impact on our own habits, how can we affect anyone else’s habits?

The key is to know how habits form.

Consistency is Key

It takes an average of 66 days to form a habit. Usually, when we fail at changing our habits, it’s because we lacked consistency.

Fitness activity trackers like Fitbit help their customers create new habits with their product. Some more recent Fitbit models like the Alta provide silent cues like “Reminders to Move,” if you’ve been stationary for too long. The cue helps you develop a routine of moving throughout the day.

It’s also easy to form a habit of checking your progress towards your daily step goal. Fitbit even rewards you for reaching your goal by vibrating and flashing when you reach it.

How do you create a new habit in your customers?

1. The Cue

Some potential triggers you can influence to get your customer to ultimately use your product is to direct them to your website. Once there, you can initiate a cue such as:

  • Push notifications for apps and websites
  • Promotional campaigns, competitions, or new updates

Push notifications have been described as the Pavlovian bell of the 21st century. Notifications, pop ups, and pings interrupt and compel your customers to check their phones, email, and social media accounts incessantly.

Using a push notification tool on your website allows you to send notifications to your visitors whenever you like.

Now, whenever you publish a new blog post, set a date for a webinar, or have a deal on a product, you can instantly notify your visitors via a push notification. These push notifications are not easily blocked and are relatively unrestricted, so you know that the messages you send will be delivered – and you can send as many as you need to.

2. The Routine

What action do you want customers to take once they receive the cue?

For example, if you’ve just sent out a push notification, you want the receiver to visit your website or open your app.

3. The Reward

What reward does your customer get from following the routine? Do they get a discount? Entertainment? Is it doing a good deed for the community or their friends?

If your product is an app or a game, add an element of novelty by changing the reward. This change in rewards cues a powerful effect called the Zeigarnik Effect. The change in the reward keeps the customer curious and wanting to find out what the reward is, encouraging them to come back for more.

How to Insert Your Product Into an Existing Habit

It’s easier to insert your product into an existing habit than to create a new habit. For example, everyone has habits that automate our basic everyday tasks like driving to work and taking a lunch break.

Proctor and Gamble’s product, Febreze, is an example of using existing habits to market your products. Their story is especially interesting because they didn’t get it right straight away.

Febreze’s first marketing effort targeted bad smells on clothing. It was using the cue of a bad smell to create a new habit for their customers.

But it didn’t work.

After careful research, Proctor and Gamble found that although their target audience had bad smells in their homes, they weren’t aware of them. They’d become desensitized to the smell. Trying to sell Febreze as a cure for bad smells wasn’t going to work for the customers that needed it the most.

What they also found was another customer who used Febreze like an air freshener after cleaning up a room. The smell of Febreze was a mini-celebration for this customer. Proctor and Gamble took this and ran with it. They changed their marketing to position their product as a reward for a cleaning job well done.

The cue was a clean room. The routine was spraying the room with Febreze. The reward was “the smell that says you’ve done a great job.”

Sales which had been falling immediately started to rise.

How do you model Proctor and Gamble’s success with habits?

1. Identify the Habit

What’s the habit you’re trying to insert your product into? It might be easy to identify, or, like in the case of Febreze, it might take some research.

If you can talk to your customers in their environment it will help you get a clear picture of their lives and how your product fits in. However, visiting your customers isn’t exactly realistic when your brand is digital and you serve an international audience.

What you could do instead is arrange to speak to customers on a video call over Skype or Google Hangouts. A video call is ideal so you can pick up on your customer’s nonverbal cues. This can help you assess their emotions when speaking about your product and can give insight into their state of mind.

At the end of your conversation, you could offer your customers a freebie or a discount in exchange for their participation.

Some things to ask on your call:

  • What is your product used for? This sets the scene for where your product is used so you can more easily identify habits. Is your product used in the home? On your buyer’s commute? While camping? The habits consumers have around each of these situations is different.
  • How do your biggest fans and buyers use your product? Ideally, you want more fans who love your product. Repeat customers provide the most value to your business, and you want your customers also to recommend your product and use it frequently. You might even find that your biggest fans are using your product differently than your less enthusiastic buyers.
  • Are there any other uses of your product you haven’t considered? Remember, Proctor and Gamble hadn’t initially considered that Febreze could be used as an air freshener and it’s now a billion-dollar brand.

If it’s not an option to speak to your customers directly, you can adapt these questions and ask them via a survey. One option is SurveyMonkey, a free tool for unlimited surveys with up to 10 questions.

2. Identify an Opening for Your Product

Where does your product fit in? Is it the cue, routine, or reward?

For example, you can increase registrations or sales of your offering by having an exit pop-up on your landing page – and capturing a visitor’s email address before they leave your site.

You can customize your message and the design of your exit pop ups.

3. Reach the Right Audience at the Right Time

Large companies, like Target, have a real advantage with the amount of data they have on their buyer’s purchasing history. They can use it to predict what their customers need, and they also have the advertising budget to act on it by sending tailored catalogs and coupons.

But, what if you don’t have the same purchase history data or the budget of a company like Target?

You can use Facebook advertising to even the playing field.  Facebook has access to terabytes of personal information that you can use to target your ads to reach the right audience at the right time.

If you’re looking to increase your subscriber list, one of Facebook’s ad types allows you to gather leads quickly and easily. All a Facebook user has to do is click Sign Up and their email address is yours.

Getting the leads out of Facebook can be a hassle, but tools like LeadsTunnel integrate with your autoresponder to get your leads into your list, eliminating the need to manually transfer your data from Facebook to your CRM.

Wrapping It Up

Your customers are making purchasing decisions on autopilot. They’ve chosen “their brand,” and no longer think about the alternatives.

Habits form when we repeat the same action over and over. To form a habit there needs to be a cue, a routine, and a reward. Miss any one of these parts, and you won’t form a habit. This is why most people fail to keep their New Year’s resolution to get fit; they fail to create a consistent cue, routine, and reward.

As a digital marketer, you want your customers to form habits around your products. Habits are difficult to change, however, during major life events habits are more flexible and able to be influenced. This is why large companies keep terabytes of purchasing data on their customers and invest in prediction models that allow them to predict what their customers need so they can win their business by providing coupons and advertising to them at the right time.

There are two ways to use habits to optimize your selling strategy. You can either influence your customers to form new habits involving your product, like Fitbit. Or, you can insert your product into an existing habit, like Febreze. Either way, you’ll need to pay close attention to the cues, routines, and rewards your customers are responding to.

While you may not have the budget that the big brands do, you have access to a lot of data through Facebook advertising that will allow you to precisely target potential customers. If you’re collecting leads through Facebook ads, take advantage of the highly-targeted nature of the leads and place them in automated email marketing campaigns.

Based on your experience, have you thought about customer habits when marketing your products to them?

Let us know in the comments below!

Jimmy Kim

Jimmy Kim

Founder & CEO at Snaptactix
Jimmy is not only our founder and the CEO here at Snaptactix, but also the CEO of Sendlane and COO of KNYEW. Over the past 8+ years, Jimmy's influence as an Internet Marketing Consultant and Coach have helped over 30,000 students start their own online businesses in over 68 different countries.
Jimmy Kim


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