Most 2020 candidates are either actively A/B testing messaging and imagery or evolving their website experiences to be increasingly effective at generating support, usually in the form of revenue. Using publicly available information, I’m going to piece together what behavioral science strategies each campaign is using to convert visitors into donors.
This is not a post about specific A/B tests or experimentation being done on the candidate websites, but rather a catalog of various behavioral science concepts that are being applied by each. There will be in-depth reports on each candidates website experimentation coming over the next few months. Reach out on Twitter if you have any specific questions.
What is Behavioral Science?
Behavioral science is about anticipating how people will behave in response to a given stimuli. For example, why do so many SaaS businesses show their yearly pricing plans by month? Why do ecommerce sites always cross-out the original price and show the sale price in smaller font? These are all well-worn strategies that take advantage of inherent biases and subconscious decisions that we make all day long without realizing it.
Science has been researching behavioral science for decades and today’s web experimenters are now using this treasure trove of research to great effect. Just look at what the Trump 2016 campaign were able to achieve through A/B testing.
Now let’s see how the 2020 Presidential candidates are applying various behavioral science concepts to turn website visitors into donors. The timeframe for this analysis is February 15-22 2020. It’s a snapshot in time as we head to Super Tuesday on March 3.
Goal Gradient Effect
The goal gradient effect is the idea that people (and rats) will try harder the closer they are to reaching a goal. The most commonly cited study that backs up this theory was done on cafe-goers who were given loyalty stamp cards. There were two key findings:
- The closer that cafe customers got to completing their card of stamps, the more frequently they ordered.
- Those who were given the illusion of a head start completed the required number of stamps for a free item faster:
From the study Kivetz, Urminsky & Zheng (2006) The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected: "The illusion of progress toward the goal induces purchase acceleration. For example, customers who receive a 12-stamp coffee card with two preexisting 'bonus' stamps complete the ten required purchases faster than customers who receive a 'regular' 10-stamp card."
How 2020 Candidates Are Using It:
The most blatant — and perhaps effective — use of this concept was implemented by Elizabeth Warren’s campaign. Just before the Nevada debate on Feb 19, this was what her homepage modal looked like on Feb 15:
Then, 5 days later and after an apparent bump from her debate performance, this is what the modal looked like on Feb 20:
Then, one day later, on Feb 21 (note the increase of the goal amount from $10 to $12 million):
And taking things a step farther, the Warren campaign appears to be validating the use of the progress bar vs the more typical donation buttons as part of an A/B/n test against this variation. Below is a screenshot taken on Feb 22, prior to the caucus:
A similar test is taking place on the homepage. Screenshots taken Feb 22:
Something that may be counteracting the potential benefits of the fundraising progress bar is the impression being given by the bar’s current design: it looks like the goal has been reached. Could that be having a negative effect on campaign contributions for the Warren campaign?
Regardless, either there is a best practices newsletter going out from the DNC or the campaigns are freely — and rightfully — borrowing ideas from each other.
Soon after the update to Warren’s entry modal and homepage, the Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg campaigns followed suit.
The Biden campaign was using the following progress bar on Feb 20. Note the use of percentages instead of a specific Dollar goal. The potential advantage of this approach is that the bar can move as the campaign wishes since it’s never right or wrong: the percentages can mean whatever they want them to mean.
Then, two days later, Feb 22, Biden had reached 66% of the fundraising goal (still unclear what that is):
The Biden campaign is also testing the above approach to a modal without the progress bar. However, I noticed a potential variable that wasn’t controlled for: the aspect ratio on the Vice President’s image is different.
The Pete For American team had this version of their modal running on Feb 22 as well as a nearly identical homepage test as Warren. Either the DNC are proposing best practices, the campaigns are copying each other (perfectly fair game in the world of experimentation), or it’s all a big coincidence:
Social proof is self-explanatory: we tend to trust things that many others like us have also trusted. This may be especially true in situations of indecisiveness. Hello, the Democratic Party! Whichever candidate can demonstrate a critical mass of support may be the one to start a snowball large enough to make it to November (and beyond?).
There are a few ways to achieve the effect of social proof. One is through words, precise numbers and relevance (e.g. “Join 8,993 other Californians who contributed to our campaign.”). Another — possibly more potent — method is to use imagery.
How 2020 Candidates Are Using It:
While all campaigns are doing this in some shape or form, Bernie appears to have gone the extra mile. The campaign has gone all-in on social proof by combining the following:
- Imagery (hero image at top of page)
- Data (chart showing Bernie vs Trump poll result)
- Slogan (“Not me. Us.”)
Here is what the Bernie Sanders homepage looks like at the moment, a few hours after his win in the Nevada caucuses on Feb 23:
Below are images from campaigns that apply this concept:
Elizabeth Warren uses video to show a variety of supporters at rallies:
Tom Steyer also uses video to make use of social proof, albeit with some awkward staging:
Steyer also includes a clip of him on The Daily Show to get the Trevor Noah bump:
Michael Bloomberg’s campaign is also using video. This is one clip:
On the other hand, Klobuchar, Biden and Trump have imagery that focuses on the candidate instead of their supporters:
The real question is whether we’ll see a come-back of the Trump image that was a consistent winner in many A/B tests: the two thumbs up in front of the flag shot. It’s currently on the expired membership donation page, but not on the candidate’s primary donation flow. Perhaps it’s being kept fresh for the right time or being used for specific channels like email?
While not a behavioral science concept in itself, a desire to take action now rather than later can be created by combining two elements: scarcity and fear of missing out (FoMO). This is best witnessed on limited time discounts on ecommerce sites.
The challenge with applying the idea to a political campaign is that, well, there’s rarely a time when the need to raise money runs out, so the next best thing to do is to create mental milestones:
- “Help us raise X by the next debate.”
- “We will not make it if you don’t chip in $2 right now.”
- “Time is running out.”
Scarcity has to be presented in a way to avoid the appearance of desperation, while making it clear that the campaign is riding on the support of contributors. I don’t have any first-hand knowledge, but I imagine that the campaigns have to hold back on making every email message sound highly urgent and instead reserve the most urgent communications for the times when they are either most needed or to be timed with a key milestone.
How 2020 Candidates Are Using It:
The Pete Buttigieg campaign may be doing the best job among the Democrats when it comes to creating a sense of real urgency, while the somewhat questionable practice of Trump’s daily “your time is expiring” method may actually be more effective. Presenting a countdown to a deadline can create a sense of danger that your chosen candidate will no longer be in the running if you don’t take action soon.
Directional cues are more of a good design practice than a behavioral science concept, but I will put it here for now. Directional cues are simply anything that will guide a visitor’s eyes and attention to a designated location.
There are a few ways to achieve the intended outcome of guiding someone’s eye to a specific location. You can use blunt objects like arrows or more subtle methods like imagery — specifically people’s faces can guide your website visitors’ eyes to a specific location. It turns out that humans are engineered to lock on to any faces (or things that look like a face) we recognize.
How 2020 Candidates Are Using It:
The candidates have gotten the message: use images that give a strong directional cue to your key web forms. I’d be curious if it’s a DNC directive or best practices handed down from previous campaigns? Is ActBlue consulting with candidates?
Pete Buttigieg seems to be using directional cues to the max:
Anchoring is the idea that once we show people a choice that they definitely don’t want, that they’re more likely to choose one of the other options. The catch is that they will be more likely to choose at least one option when there is at least one option that they definitely don’t want. And if executed correctly, it can “help” people select a higher value option than they would have selected otherwise. Dan Ariely explains it much better than I can.
How 2020 Candidates Are Using It: While it’s something that could be a strategy for candidates, it is not a concept that most appear to be taking advantage of at this time. It’s likely that setting up complex contribution plans is a deterrent to testing this. To illustrate the difference between approaches, take a look the the 3 donation pages below:
There are many more behavioral science concepts to review and candidates are mixing and matching them in various ways. I plan to do more in-depth reviews of each candidate and their strategies in the months to come.
If you liked — or disliked — this post please let me know: find me on Twitter