Implementing change series: Timing is everything

“In most cases, our direct mail piece is worthless. But in the hands of someone who just found out  they need new windows? It’s priceless.”

An owner of a window company made this statement when one of my colleagues asked him how he thought direct mail was working for him. Obviously, we’d need a lot more data to prove that it is, indeed, providing good return on investment (ROI), but the implication of timing is dead-on.

If it’s raining and there’s a crowd, it’s a good time to sell umbrellas and ponchos. If there’s a party or event without food being served, the timing is perfect for a food truck. But, for most large change initiatives (where we’re asking for a big change and/or a long-term change), it can be much more difficult to know when the timing is perfect for two main reasons:

1. The timing isn’t the same for everyone you’re trying to reach.

In the window example at the beginning, not everyone needs new windows at once. There may be parts of the year when it’s more likely someone will find out they need new windows, but it’s still scattered throughout the year.

Similarly, in my work promoting Open Educational Resources (OER), every faculty member doesn’t consider new textbooks and alternatives to textbooks at the same time. They may consider new books every year, every three years, or whenever they decide it’s a good time to. There’s no set formula.

2. The timing depends on external factors (usually beyond your control).

For someone to decide to make a change, usually there’s some sort of event that precedes that decision. Again, looking at our windows example, a homeowner considers new windows when they are told they need them by a home inspector or if their current set of windows is damaged somehow.

With OER, the event could be a complaint of the high cost from a student, or a publisher raising their prices again, or a technical error with the publisher’s system, or a discussion within the department of how to reduce high drop/fail rates.

Sometimes you’ll be able to anticipate these events happening, like monitoring publisher prices, but many times you may not even know they’ve occurred.

Being in the right place at the right time

A young man jumping off of sand. The timing is such that you see a trail of sand.
“jump” by Barry Badcock, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

The simple solution would be to shout from the rooftops about the change you’re encouraging all the time. But, in practice, this is not only costly, but can leave those that you are trying to reach tone-deaf to your message. Think about that person who sends you too many irrelevant emails, do you read them all anymore? I’m guessing not.

The better solution is a pulse schedule. This is where you keep a low hum of communication about the change out there at all times, but you amp-up your messaging around those critical events and external factors you can predict.

A great example of a pulse schedule is candy manufacturers. In the U.S., candy manufacturers are always advertising, but for a couple of weeks (lately a few months!) leading up to major holidays (Halloween, Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day)? They are everywhere, there’s no escaping the barrage of marketing from them. These are their pulse times.

With OER, the pulses are around the academic calendar. The first pulse to encourage faculty to consider OER should happen when the faculty come to the welcome back event for faculty at the beginning of the fall semester. They are refreshed and ready to start a new year. The second pulse comes mid-way through he semester, faculty are in between their busy start-up period and exam periods. Similarly, there’s another great pulse time mid-way through the spring semester, leading up to the bookstore deadline for Fall (usually early-mid April).

By keeping a constant hum of communication about the change initiative and ramping-up (pulsing) when people are most open to the change, your can maximize your efforts for encouraging change.

“Mindless Eating” book provides helpful insights into food marketing/research

in reading the book, I found it was also a very helpful guide to many of the food marketing tactics that we see used today. I’ve provided some examples below.

I originally picked-up Brian Wansink’s book, Mindless Eating: Why we eat more than we think, to learn more about ways I could positively impact my personal diet. But, in reading the book, I found it was also a very helpful guide to many of the food marketing tactics that we see used today. I’ve provided some examples below.

He discusses anchoring in terms of calories:

If you ask people if there are more or less than 50 calories in an apple, most will say more. When you ask them how many, the average person will say, “66.” If you had instead asked if there were more or less than 150 calories in an apple, most would say less. When you ask them how many, the average person would say, “114.” People unknowingly anchor or focus on the number they first hear and let that bias them. Kindle location 329

How packaging impacts our choices:

The bottom line: We all consume more from big packages, whatever the product. Kindle location 810

…they could cut the size of their meat and cheese in half, and as long as they added enough garden greens to make the hamburger look just as big, they’d feel as full as if they’d eaten the real deal. Kindle location 614

The power of timing:

At one point in the 1980s, Campbell’s developed a series of commercials for radio stations called “storm spots.”25 These radio ads referred to the rain and pointed out that soup is a cozy, warm, comfort food; that it goes so well with sandwiches that are easy to make; and that—not coincidently—the listener probably happens to have a number of cans of Campbell’s soup in the cupboard right at this minute. Radio stations were instructed that if it were raining or storming between the hours of 10:00 A.M. and 1:00 P.M., they should play these radio ads. The expectation was that people would dutifully eat their soup and buy more the next time they went to the store. Kindle location 1499

The power of smell:

Smell is big business. There are companies that exist solely because they can infuse (the word they oddly use is “impregnate”) odors into plastics. This is because odor can’t reliably be infused into food. Sometimes it doesn’t last; at other times it changes the shelf stability of the food itself. But if you infuse the odor into packaging, it’s a different story. Some day you might heat up your frozen microwavable apple pie and smell the rich apple pie aroma. Even if it’s the container that you’re smelling, you’re primed to enjoy that apple pie even before you put your fork in. Kindle location 1440

Expectation Assimilation and Confirmation Bias:

Psychologists call this “expectation assimilation” and “confirmation bias.” In the case of food, it means that our taste buds are biased by our imagination. Basically, if you expect a food to taste good, it will. At the very least, it will taste better than if you had thought it would only be so-so. Kindle location 1567

Consider two pieces of day-old chocolate cake. If one is named “chocolate cake,” and the other is named “Belgian Black Forest Double Chocolate Cake,” people will buy the second. That’s no surprise. What’s more interesting is that after trying it, people will rate it as tasting better than an identical piece of “plain old cake.” It doesn’t even matter that the Black Forest is not in Belgium. Kindle location 1604

…foods with descriptive names sold 27 percent more. And even though they were priced exactly the same, the customers who ate them consistently rated them as a better value than did the people who ate the same dishes with the boring old names. Kindle location 1636

And much, much more. If you are interested in learning about food marketing and research as well as learning about realistic ways to control your weight and eat healthy, I highly recommend this book.