‘Interrupt the Autopilot’: Two Distraction Strategies To Stop Customers Buying From the Competition.

Anyone seen my wheel?

Anyone seen my wheel?

Interrupt The Autopilot

Two Strategies To Stop Customers Buying From the Competition And Buy From You Instead

Every person has a hamster in their brain.
Yes, you heard right. Every person has a hamster in their brain. 
This hamster goes happily round its wheel in people's heads, without thinking, day in, day out.
Otherwise known as the brain’s autopilot, it makes us behave in the same ways, eating the same sandwiches, buying the same clothes, watching the same TV programmes.
Purchasing on autopilot is how most customers buy.
Customers choose the same (and often big) brands that they've always bought. This is because their little brain hamster is running on autopilot, making them do what’s easy, safe and familiar.
If someone chooses Persil for their laundry, typically their brain hamster will make them buy Persil every time.
If someone always buys Volkswagen cars, the brain hamster will most likely send them toddling off to the nearest Volkswagen garage next time they need a new one.
But what if you're a small business trying to get more customers to choose you instead?
How do you distract the brain hamster from the more familiar and bigger brands? How do you get into customers’ heads, interrupt their behaviour and stop that hamster wheel from running so they choose you instead?

There’s a lot of juicy stuff to cover, so let’s get cracking…
So why do customers’ brains run on autopilot when buying?
As humans, we are conditioned to form certain habits. We do things so often that we do them without thinking, like driving a car or saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.
The same conditioning kicks in when we buy things.
TV advertising, big social media campaigns and wide availability of products in stores condition us to notice and buy their products repeatedly. We know them, we like them, and we trust them. Often, we don’t want to spend extra time or energy looking for new ones.
The evidence behind why this happens lies in neuroscience. 
If we are repeatedly exposed to the same thing, we become familiar with it. Say we see TV ads about Coke over many years, Coke gets embedded in our brains. It’s not just the brand name that sticks: the can, the colour of the drink inside, the sound of the product being poured, the packaging colours, the logo, the tagline, the feeling of happiness, the jingles – some or all of these stay in our head.
These elements may seem disconnected.
But they are chosen precisely by Coke and repeated day in, day out because they build strong associations in people’s heads about what Coke represents. When someone hears or sees the word Coke, they instantly recall certain images, words and feelings.

Over many years, Coke has spent millions on extensive advertising and product distribution to build memories around these elements, so that when one thinks of a cold refreshing drink, Coke automatically springs to mind and is first choice for many. The brain hamster can continue merrily round on its wheel without having to stop.
Now you’re probably thinking, ‘this is all very interesting, but how does Coke’s domination relate to me getting my small business noticed?’
Can David really beat Goliath? 
The answer is yes, there is a way in.
You can distract a few of the ‘big brand’ customers. Enough of them to get your business growing how you want anyway. As a small business, you have more advantages than you might think. You don’t need as many customers as the bigger brands to cover your basic costs or to even to make a profit. You just need to interrupt a few customers when they’re buying and tempt their brain hamsters off their wheels.
There are two strategies to make this happen.
Firstly, interrupt them well before they decide to buy. 
And secondly, interrupt them when they are in the process of buying. 
Let's look at the first of these strategies, Distraction Strategy no.1.

Distraction Strategy no.1: How to distract customers from the competition before they decide to buy

Often we only think we should try to sell to customers when they’re in 'buying mode', i.e. right at the point of sale. But the truth is, customers are in buying mode or 'thinking about buying' months or even years before they actually make a purchase.

Many businesses know this, so they spend a lot of effort making sure they are always top of mind, so that when customers do eventually come to buy, they remember the brand and choose them over others.

But many less established and smaller businesses don't do this leg work, because resources are tight and they don’t see sales  immediately. Investing the effort however into getting into customers' brains early and well before they buy is critical to a business's survival.

So how do you do it? 
Let's read on...

When I worked in research and ran focus groups, I used to visit people’s homes to interview them about a new product or advertising campaign. 
What I noticed was how similar many of these people's homes looked. Many had the same neutral walls, with the same minimal furniture, laid out in the same way.
The problem was that they all blurred into one image in my head, because their similarity made them deeply unmemorable.
Because people’s homes were a copy of what they had seen in homeware stores and catalogues, there was very little individual imagination or interest. Each house ended up looking similar and therefore unmemorable. Not one stood out.
The same applies with a brand. Before we even begin to communicate it, we must create an interesting brand first if we are to distract a few customers away from the big familiar ones.

So, why must we 'craft interesting' first?
You may have read elsewhere that in order to distract customers away from their usual familiar brands, the recipe is often a list of tactics like:

  • Advertise on social media 
  • Use Facebook Groups 
  • Start a blog or vlog 
  • Guest post on other people’s blogs 
  • Use webinars 
  • Run free events 
  • Contact your email list 
  • Find new contacts on LinkedIn 
  • Restrict numbers of products for sale 

Now, these tactics are all good and I’m not saying you shouldn’t use them. 
But what I am saying is that they are mostly just channels to communicate your business. They are vehicles to communicate. But they aren’t your brand. They are like a cinema, and your brand is the movie.

So, if you don’t have an interesting brand, product or service first, you’ll struggle to distract the hamster off that wheel in customers’ brains.
This means that before you even think about, ‘what channel should I be on?’, spend time crafting how you can be interesting enough to distract people in the first place, and worry about the channel later. 
The easiest way to be interesting is to ‘Find Your Fuel’. If you missed it in previous newsletters, email me at simon@thebigapricot.com and I'll send it to you.
The principle of Finding your Fuel is to ask yourself first, ‘what change do I want to make to the status quo in my industry?’ Or ‘what’s got to change?’

Let’s give you some examples about how to start to 'find your interesting’:
If your competitors are selling low-quality ‘get-rich-quick’ schemes, then go against the grain and offer ‘get-rich-slow’ schemes (and explain the better way that you do it).

If your competitors sell thousands of places to holiday (meaning choice paralysis for many), create a product that offers only 20 places to go on holiday (and explain the way you do it).

If your competitors sell amazing coffee in their cafes but are snooty know-alls, then create a cafe that sells delicious coffee without the snootiness (and explain the way you do it).
That might all sound good, but how does all this distract people?
Simply, it’s about grabbing people’s curiosity.

Our brains are built to spot what is different from what is familiar. When something is different to what is expected, the cells in our brain form new attachments and become familiar with this difference.
Say for example, for people that see a lot of ‘get rich quick schemes’, a 'get rich slow’ message stands out as a new take on what is familiar.  

Being that little bit different and interesting to people means you have a greater chance of interrupting the autopilot (i.e. the brain hamster) and making people think.
When you are interesting, you’ll get noticed no matter what channel you are on (be it Facebook, emails or in press ads).
And all brands, no matter how big they might be now, will have once been small and will have had to start somewhere.
So why is it important to put in the groundwork early and interrupt people’s brains well before they decide to buy?
Why not just interrupt them when they are at the point of buying?

Because when customers are in ‘buying mode’, they tend to stick to what they know.
It’s a hard habit to break, so you need to invest time in building up people’s trust and familiarity with your brand long before they dust off their credit card and look to buy. 
However, it’s never too late and there is a way to distract people when they’re in buying mode.

Let's look next at Distraction Strategy no.2...

Distraction Strategy No.2: How to distract customers from the competition when they are about to buy 

Nothing beats that feeling of when we make a sale. We feel so happy that what we have created has a commercial value. However, when we see our ideal customers buying from our competitors, it feels like all hope is lost. But don't despair. It isn’t.

There is a strategy to find out how to interrupt customers right before they buy from your competition. It ain’t pretty but it works.
At an airport, have you noticed how far away the duty-free shops are from the boarding gates?
There’s good reason for this. When we have plenty of time to kill, we are much more open to exploring different products. Waiting an hour or so for a flight means there’s plenty of time to browse perfumes, chocolates or sit down for a relaxing cuppa.
But when it’s announced that the plane is boarding, our brains shift dramatically.
We get ‘tunnel vision’ and the thought of grabbing a bargain from the duty-free shop goes right out of our minds and all-we-can-think-about-is-getting-to-the-boarding gate-so-we-don’t-miss-our-plane.
When customers are close to making a purchase, they also get tunnel vision and anxiety.
People go from considering many possible brands to just one or two. And in the end, they usually resort to brands they know and feel safe with. Which is good news for the hamsters in our brains and bigger, more established brands.
But if you’re not one of these big brands on customers’ 'to-buy' list, it’s very hard to get on it at the last minute.
Yet believe me, it’s still possible.
The way to make it happen is by 'hard interruption', with direct offers such as via radio, press ads, phone calls or online, through social media or Google advertising. 
Examples could be:

  • PPC display ads that come up with your brand name when someone types a competitor's name into Google 
  • Free trials 
  • Introductory offers 
  • Testimonials 
  • Brochures 
  • Live or recorded demos 
  • Face-to-face meetings 
  • Webinars 
  • Countdown timers 
  • Limited time offers 
  • Limited product volume 
  • Free implementation, servicing or ongoing support offers 
  • Bonus items 
  • Phone calls 

Some brands avoid this style of advertising because it’s direct and has a pushier ‘buy now’ feel.
But a study in 2013 looking into over 760 brands (The Long & The Short Of It) found that a business will grow if 40% of your efforts are spent on more direct ‘buy now’ marketing.
This approach works because you can capture people in 'buying mode' who might not have thought of buying from you previously.
Even though it might not feel like it, every day there are hordes of people buying products or services that are similar to the ones you sell. This means there are opportunities every day to do a 'hard interrupt’ on customers’ minds.
If 40% of our effort is spent on pushier sales / ‘buy-now’ marketing at the point of sale, then the other 60% should still be spent building up familiarity and trust with customers over time, when they (and also you) are relaxed.

That’s because when people’s minds aren’t in a buying frenzy, surrounded by pushy sales techniques, they are more open to noticing you. They’ll be more likely to trust you and ‘buy into’ your brand, even if they're not quite ready to get their wallets out.
The sooner you start, the easier it will be to really distract the brain hamster from spinning on that wheel and instead be top of mind when customers come to buy.
I hope you’ve found this mini-series useful. I always like to know what you think, so do drop me an email at simon@thebrainwheel.com or post on The Lab.

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