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What Legal Marketers Can Learn From Behavioral Science – Q&A with Expert Nancy Harhut – JD Supra

It’s no secret that legal marketing often trails behind other industries in their use of existing marketing techniques as well as in adopting new methods of marketing. In this series – Lessons for Legal Marketing from Other Industries – I will talk to marketing leaders outside of legal who will share ideas to help you make your initiatives more effective.

My first interview is with Nancy Harhut, a recognized leader in the field of behavioral marketing.

Nancy is a friend, former boss and mentor who has developed integrated campaigns for some of the world’s biggest brands such as AT&T, American Express, Dell, H&R Block and Nationwide Financial. The Chief Creative Officer of HBT Marketing, she is known for her interesting and actionable insights that focus on the application of behavioral science to marketing. A top-ranked speaker, she has wowed audiences in London, Sydney, Moscow, Madrid and across the US.


People are inundated with so much information every day that it is getting harder and harder to reach them. How can you break through the clutter to get noticed by clients, and more importantly how can you encourage them to reach out?

…up to 95% of all purchase decision-making takes place in the subconscious mind

Scientific research has shown that we have developed instinctive behaviors to help us make decisions, and that these decisions can often be prompted. Read on to learn how to leverage the power of behavioral science in your legal marketing to help increase engagement and response rates.

Nancy, please tell us a bit about your background, and how you became interested in behavioral science.

When I was growing up, I had a very overprotective mother, so the desire to persuade came to me at an early age! Perhaps that’s what launched my career in advertising and marketing.

When I was working as an agency creative director about 15 years ago, I read Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini and that got me hooked. I immediately saw how behavioral science could be an awesome tool for marketers, and I began reading whatever the academics and practitioners published.

Along the way, I’ve been fortunate enough to work closely with some cognitive scientists and behavioral economists, field some proprietary research, and of course, conduct countless in-market tests for my clients. All of which has made me a firm believer in the power of behavioral science when applied to marketing best practices. So much so, that I’ve cofounded an agency, HBT Marketing, to focus on it.

Could you please explain just what behavioral science is, and how it applies to marketing?

Simply put, it’s the study of how people behave – specifically of how we make decisions, and why we do what we do.

…humans have developed decision-making shortcuts as a way to conserve mental energy

Social scientists have found that over the millennia, humans have developed decision-making shortcuts as a way to conserve mental energy, because we couldn’t possibly weigh every bit of data before making a decision or we’d never get around to making any. So we’ve developed these hardwired behaviors – these automatic, instinctive, reflexive actions that we rely on.

As a result, very often people default to these automatic behaviors giving a matter at hand little, if any, thought. And science has proven that these automatic behaviors can be prompted or triggered.

So as marketers, if we build certain triggers into our marketing strategies and executions, we can greatly increase the likelihood that people will take the actions we want them to take, including things like opening our emails, downloading our content, and choosing our services over our competitors.

I know that there has been quite a bit of research by social scientists into how people make decisions. Can you tell us a bit about that?

There is a large body of research that continues to grow, and much of it offers information that can be very useful to marketers.

For example, Richard Thaler, who recently won the Nobel Prize, co-authored a book called Nudge which talks a lot about the concept of choice architecture, or setting up choices and defaults that favor the decisions you want people to make.

This is a really fascinating subject. Nancy, can you please share some actual examples and ideas of how behavioral science can be successfully used in marketing?

It is a fascinating subject! In fact, that is one of the comments I often hear when I speak about the topic, quickly followed by “We could really use this approach in our marketing.”

And there are many ways marketers can benefit by adding behavioral science to their campaigns. For example, leveraging Social Proof or the Authority Principle can prompt clients to choose your firm, or employing Loss Aversion or the Scarcity Principle will encourage them to make a decision sooner versus later.

One of my favorite examples is when we used the “magnetic middle” to nudge members of the American Dental Association to purchase more insurance coverage.

The problem with marketing life insurance is that no one likes to think about the fact that they’re going to die. And if you do manage to convince someone to buy a policy, they typically have little desire to go back and update it as the years pass, even though that’s a really good thing to do.

So we sent dentists a chart with $0 dollars on the left (the least insurance someone could have) — and $3,000,000 on the right (the most coverage our client offered). We also indicated how much coverage the individual dentist currently had, which was always left of center.

Social scientists have proven that for the most part, people don’t like to feel as if they are lagging behind. And they don’t feel as comfortable out on the bleeding edge. They tend to gravitate toward the middle.

So we showed the chart, not thinking each dentist would increase their coverage all the way to $3,000,000, but that they would move closer to the center. And that is exactly what happened. The client saw a triple digit lift in response over their previous effort, with dentists buying more insurance as a result of our message.

Nancy, as you know, marketing for attorneys and law firms is usually business-to-business marketing, which is very different from consumer marketing. Can you share some behavioral science ideas, tips and tricks that would be appropriate for professional services/legal marketing?

At HBT Marketing, we have a mix of B2C and B2B clients. And while at the end of the day, we are marketing to humans, whether they are at home or at work, there are definitely some special considerations that come into play in the B2B environment.

…studies have identified certain words that have the power to leap off the page

For legal services marketers, there are a number of behavioral science principles you can take advantage of. For example, studies have identified certain words that have the power to leap off the page or screen and attract the human eye. I call these “eye magnet words.” Used in subject lines or content titles, they will increase your opening rate.

Researchers at BI Norwegian School of Business have found that questions in tweets or ad headlines outperform declarative sentences by 140-150%.

And social scientists at Cornell have proven that including a chart with your text can increase the credibility of your message — not because the chart adds more information or make the information clearer, but because it suggests scientific veracity.

I know that this is a bit of a stretch, but do you have any behavioral science tips that attorneys can use during telephone calls, face-to-face meetings, or in personal emails with clients and potential clients?

The wonderful thing about adding behavioral science to marketing is that it is fairly channel-agnostic. Many of these principles can be applied in letters, emails, social posts, phone conversations, and face-to-face meetings.

Earlier I mentioned the concept of Social Proof, which is the idea that when people are uncertain of what decision to make, they often look to others – especially others like them – and follow their lead.

For example, if an attorney were speaking with a prospective client, mentioning the number of other clients in that prospective client’s situation that the firm has already helped would be a good thing to do.

…people are more likely to do what you ask them to if you give them a reason why

Another helpful tip would be to include the “Reason Why.” Social scientists have found that people are more likely to do what you ask them to if you give them a reason why. And the wonderful thing is that research has shown that the reason given doesn’t need to be wildly compelling. For example, you can’t say “because we’ll win your case,” but you can say “because we’d like to help you” and still take advantage of this psychological effect.

Client testimonials are often used in legal marketing – it’s great to know that there is an actual scientific principal why they are successful. And it seems amazing that with a simple shift in language from “I hope you will hire us” to “I hope you will hire us because we would like to help you” you can help nudge someone from prospect to client!

Do you have any other tips to help legal marketers influence the behavior of potential clients, to help them to become clients?

Yes, I can think of a number of ways behavioral science can be added to legal marketing to help influence prospects to become clients. One would be to offer a choice of some kind, perhaps between attorneys, starting dates, desired outcomes, etc.

Research from Tulane University found that people were four times more likely to make a decision if they were presented with options.

Another tip involves how the firm displays fees. Research has shown the making the dollar sign half the size of the numbers it precedes has the effect of making the amount seem smaller.

Nancy, you have given us a lot of great ideas to think about. What would you say are your top three behavioral science tips for legal marketing?

That’s a great question Linda! Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. It would depend on what the marketer’s goal is/what action they are hoping their target will take, as well as what the primary barriers to that action are. With that information, a marketer using behavioral science will create a hypothesis about which behavioral science triggers will be most effective, and then test them to determine which delivers the best response.

This has been such an interesting conversation Nancy. Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Adding behavioral science to marketing best practices delivers an extra advantage to companies and organizations that do so.

It is important to remember that no one in marketing can offer a silver bullet and make someone do something they don’t wish to do. Behavioral science will prompt, nudge and influence people who, very often, are operating on autopilot.

As such, I always encourage marketers to use these techniques responsibly, in a way that helps people make decisions that will be beneficial to them. When used properly, these techniques can trigger someone to consume information that will be valuable to them, or to stop delaying a decision that they need to make.

Behavioral scientists note that up to 95% of all purchase decision-making takes place in the subconscious mind, so strategically adding behavioral science to your marketing can have considerable impact.

Nancy, thank you so much for all your interesting insights, and for helping to kick off this series on Lessons for Legal Marketing from Other Industries! What are some of your upcoming speaking engagements, and how can you be reached?

I’ll be presenting at Inbound in early September, Connect to Convert in late September, the Marketing Profs B2B Forum in mid-October, and Digital Growth Unleashed/Berlin Germany in late November. You can reach me at, follow me on twitter at @nharhut, or connect with me on LinkedIn.


Linda Pepe is a legal marketing expert with a results-driven focus. As Director of Marketing at Mintz Levin she launched a new brand and website, created their social media presence, and developed their marketing analytics program. At Greenberg Traurig she built the creative services team from the ground up, creating and implementing the firm’s visual brand. And as Director of Business Development at Murtha Cullina she developed their thought leadership initiative. Connect with Linda on LinkedIn; follow her latest writings on JD Supra.

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