Nudge nudge


Loft insulation makes huge sense. The subsidies provided by Government mean that within sixteen weeks of installation it has paid for itself and thereafter you save money every month. Then there’s the little matter of helping preserve life on the planet, not to mention the patriotic satisfaction of making the nation more fuel efficient, less dependent on imported energy sources. It’s not often we get the opportunity to make ourselves better off financially whilst also being virtuous. So why were so few people taking it up?

This was the riddle the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) within the UK Cabinet Office set out to solve. BIT is sometimes referred to as The Nudge Unit. Nudge theory, initially championed in the fields of economics and psychology, seeks to explain why in particular instances people do not always take decisions which are in their apparent economic or other best interests.  Nudgers discovered diverse factors can get in the way. A lot of this sounds like applied common sense but the genius is often in being the first to point this out then finding a way to fit it into an intelligible framework which allows for its wider deployment as an analytical tool.

Nudging people towards change

Thus, to achieve changes in people’s behaviour it might not always be necessary to regulate or legislate. A particular end can be more surely achieved via a different route e.g. if you tell everyone that the great majority of people in their neighbourhood are doing x this nudges those who aren’t already doing x to start doing so. Alternatively, there might be a small or not instantly obvious reason why something that is clearly desirable is not happening. Call for the nudgers.

It didn’t take BIT long to make headway with the loft insulation challenge. They found the answer was laziness. Inertia. Before you can get your loft insulated you have to shift all the rubbish that has gathered up there over the years.  People just kept putting it off and putting it off. Eventually they forgot.  Earth gets closer to total burnout killing us all but nobody has to miss Match of The Day. Hey ho.

What did the Government do at this point? What they did not do is say

We’ve given everybody the opportunity but we cannot force them.

No, the Government decided their wider obligation – in this case to tackling global warming and reducing the UK’s energy consumption – meant it had to look for more and better ways of getting people on to the better path despite their apparent cussed determination to avoid it. Some might say this was the nanny-state-gone-mad. Others could see it as highly responsible. I favour the latter view.

Loft clearance becomes part of the service

Back to those uninsulated lofts. At the suggestion of BIT the Government persuaded the insulation companies to offer to clear out the junk from people’s attics and get rid of any unwanted stuff. Within weeks take up had increased threefold. When the clearance service was provided at cost and rolled up into the total price of the insulation the numbers multiplied by a factor of five.

I wonder if BIT could have a look at take up levels in the field of internet filtering and perhaps online child safety generally?

Explaining the gap

Whenever you speak to parents about using technical measures to prevent access to age inappropriate content overwhelmingly they say they can see the value of them. Yet the actual levels of take up fall a long way short.  The reasons for this are evident from interviews with parents: they find the technology intimidating and the presentation bamboozling. No surprises there but, given what’s at stake is their children’s safety, what would it take to get the numbers up?

No way am I suggesting the proportion of households with kids under the age of 18 should exactly equate with the number of households using filters but I would expect them not to be massively out of line. Indeed we know from the mobile space that lots of adult customers choose to leave the adult bar (filters) turned on on their handsets because they simply don’t want all the porn or what have you appearing on their little screens. That would suggest the numbers using filters in the family home if anything should be appreciably higher than the number of households with kids.

Faced with this conundrum TalkTalk went in for a bit of nudging.

TalkTalk shows the way

TalkTalk is one of the UK’s largest ISPs. It developed a package of protective technical measures. They were bundled together in a product called HomeSafe. There are three components: web filtering, time management and anti-virus.

TalkTalk introduces HomeSafe to every new customer at sign up. It’s very simple. All you have to do to activate it is tick a few boxes. Roughly 1 in 3 new customers joined HomeSafe and this broadly equates to the number of households across the UK that have kids. Moreover 60% of those who opted in to HomeSafe acknowledged that they probably would not have done so were it not for the fact that TalkTalk prompted (nudged?) them.

It will stand to the eternal credit of TalkTalk that they pioneered such an approach. The children’s organizations had been arguing for something like this for years but our pleas fell on deaf ears. It was quite clear that ISPs as a whole had decided it was likely to be bad for business to talk about safety too much or too aggressively because, in effect, you would be reminding people there were issues of that kind and it might put some off altogether. Like they don’t read newspapers, watch TV, listen to the radio or their children.

Alternatively, and here I hope I am not going to be accused of being over cynical, ISPs figured a rising tide lifts everybody’s boats. In other words ISPs really didn’t need to do very much to attract new customers. People were flocking to the internet in large numbers anyway because they had to. However, once you reach or get near to market saturation, and if we haven’t in the UK we are not far off, you have to start to differentiate yourself from the competition on other grounds. 

The caveats

The TalkTalk example, quite rightly, influenced the Government in a major way when they were thinking about how to improve online child safety. TalkTalk was seen as a positive form of Active Choice, and indeed it was. But it has a fatal flaw.

TalkTalk’s system is all on or all off. In other words within a  HomeSafe household everyone using the internet has identical access rights. If HomeSafe is on, 7 year old Jennie, 17 year old Jonnie and granddad all get the same. This is how filtering used to work back in days of yore. It was the primary reason most families quickly abandoned it. True enough TalkTalk make it easy to turn HomeSafe on and off but if families have to do that too often, in the end, they tend to give up. 

In my view unless and until every family member has their own individual log in with their own age appropriate tailored access rights, and we have developed a strong culture around the importance of only logging in using your own account, TalkTalk-type solutions ultimately will fail.

Now here’s another thing: as a matter of fact TalkTalk do not know how many families with kids are using HomeSafe. The correlation mentioned earlier (the number of UK households with kids and the number of sign ups who join HomeSafe) might be misleading, and see again my earlier reference to the experience with mobiles.

Neither does TalkTalk know how often or for how long  HomeSafe users are turning it off, either as a whole or maybe  just the web filtering part of the package. And if they are turning HomeSafe off, how long does it stay off?

The company does not know how many customers abandon HomeSafe completely and after what period of time or intensity of usage. You would expect some falling away as kids get older but what of the “early abandoners” more generally?

If you sign up for any one of the three elements within HomeSafe you show up in the stats as a HomeSafe user. In theory it is possible, therefore, that a high proportion of the people who are reported as being HomeSafe users might only be utilising the anti-virus software. Who wouldn’t? TalkTalk recently announced that the anti-virus part will be turned on by default so we may soon see how many new customers opt for either or both of the other two components in the HomeSafe offering.

Again to their credit TalkTalk are researching all these points. I await the published results with great interest. I am sure they will illuminate some of the remaining dark corners of our collective knowledge.

What about ISPs’ existing customers?

UK ISPs will shortly be coming forward with their final proposals, à la TalkTalk, to make things easier for people to turn on safety measures when they first join up. The idea is then, as far as possible, for ISPs to put their existing customers in a position similar to that which new customers encounter i.e. inter alia they will be forced to make a decision about whether or not to take up web filtering.

Given that the average annual rate of “churn” among ISP customers is around 15% it is extremely important that this works well. One ISP was heard to say all they were planning to do was send letters and emails to the people who already had accounts with them. That would fall a long way short of being acceptable. Almost certainly such missives would be interpreted as being junk mail or spam and even if some people managed to open them think about loft insulation.

There are any number of ways in which, for example, a persistent pop up could be constructed or, better still, the whole new Active Choice package could be delivered to existing customers via a software or firmware update. Even so, I have a niggling feeling some nudge theory might well help us all see a way forward.