If you’ve ever had to name a button on a website, app, or landing page, then you’ve probably had the moment where you’re going back and forth between options. Do I name the button “Sign up” or “Register”? Do I use “Donate Now” or “Be a Donor”?
Is there a way to word requests, or buttons that encourages people to take action?
Gregory Walton at Stanford studies connectedness and affiliation between people. In a series of experiments, he tested how different labels affect behavior. We tend to think that preferences and attitudes are stable. People like opera or they don’t. People like to go dancing or they don’t. Walton thought these attitudes and preferences might not be so stable after all. Maybe how people think of themselves—and how that influences their behavior—is more temporary and fluid. And maybe whether they act, or not, can be influenced by labels.
He conducted a series of experiments to test this out. In the first experiment, participants evaluated the preferences of others described with noun labels or with verbs:
“Jennifer is a classical music listener.”
“Jennifer listens to classical music a lot.”
He tested a wide variety:
- X is a Shakespeare reader.
- X reads Shakespeare a lot.
- X is a coffee drinker.
- X drinks coffee a lot.
- X is a chocolate eater.
- X eats chocolate a lot.
- X is a PC person.
- X uses PCs a lot.
- X is an Austin Powers buff.
- X watches Austin Powers a lot.
- X is a classical music listener.
- X listens to classical music a lot.
- X is an indoor person.
- X spends a lot of time indoors.
- X is a dog person.
- X enjoys dogs a lot.
- X is a Pepe’s pizza eater.
- X eats Pepe’s pizza a lot.
- X is a night person.
- X stays up late.
- X is a baseball fan.
- X watches baseball a lot.
Walton tried to use statements that are used in conversation, for example, “Beth is a baseball fan,” and “Beth watches a lot of baseball.” He didn’t use “Beth is a baseball watcher,” even though that’s technically a better word match.
He found that when people read nouns to describe other peoples’ attitudes they judged those attitudes to be stronger and more stable than when the attitudes were described with the verbs.
In a second experiment, he used similar sentences and had people describe themselves. People would fill in the blanks, for example:
- I’m a ___ lover. (chocolate . . .)
- I eat ___ a lot. (chocolate . . .)
- I’m a ___ person. (Mac/PC)
- I use ___ a lot. (Mac/PC)
- I’m an ___ person. (outdoors/indoors)
- I spend a lot of time ___. (outdoors/indoors)
After the participants had filled in the blanks, Walton asked them to rate their strengths and preferences. For example, on a scale from one to seven:
- “How strong is your preference for this topic?”
- “How likely is it that your preference for this topic will remain the same in the next five years?”
- “How likely is it that your preference for this topic would remain the same if you were surrounded by friends who did not enjoy what you prefer?”
When the nouns were “regular” (i.e, not made-up words or phrases) then participants evaluated their preferences as being stronger.
To vote? Or to be a voter
Christopher Bryan and Gregory Walton (2011) conducted additional studies to see if this idea of nouns and verbs would affect voting.
They contacted people who were eligible to vote, but hadn’t registered yet (in California in the United States). The participants completed one of two versions of a brief survey.
One group of participants answered a short set of questions that referred to voting with a noun:
“How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?”
Another group answered similar questions worded with a verb:
“How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?”
The researchers’ hypothesis was that using the noun would create more interest among the participants, and that they’d be more likely to register to vote. After completing the survey, the participants were told that to vote they would need to register and they were asked to indicate how interested they were in registering. Participants in the noun group expressed significantly more interest (62.5 percent) in registering to vote than participants in the verb group (38.9 percent).
Bryan and Walton didn’t stop there. They recruited California residents who were registered to vote but hadn’t yet voted by mail. They used the same noun and verb groups the day before or the morning of the election.
They then used official state records to determine whether or not each participant had voted in the election. As they had predicted, participants in the noun condition voted at a significantly higher rate than participants in the verb condition (11 percent higher).
They ran the test again in New Jersey for a different election and, again, the people in the noun group voted more than those in the verb group.
Invoking a group identity — I have a theory about this, too. In How to Get People to Do Stuff, I wrote that everyone has a need to belong. Using a noun invokes group identity. You’re a voter, or you’re a member, or you’re a donor. When you ask people to do something and phrase it as a noun rather than a verb, you’re invoking that sense of belonging to a group and people are much more likely to comply with your request.
- When naming a button on a form or landing page, consider using a noun, not a verb: “Be a member” or “Be a donor” instead of “Donate now.”
- When writing a description of a product or service, use nouns instead of verbs. For example, say, “When you’re ready to be an expert, check out our training courses,” rather than “Check out our training courses.”
- Use common nouns. Don’t make up words just to have a noun.
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