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How a Hand Washing Study Can Help Pinpoint the Motivation of Your Customers


A recent New York Times article talked about the problem most hospitals have with doctors and nurses washing their hands. It seems that even though hand washing could lead to “limit(ing) the spread of sickness — and could potentially reduce the nation’s hospital health care bill by billions of dollars,” compliance was only at 40%!

That means that 6 out of every 10 doctors or nurses were walking around with someone else’s germs and then applying said germs onto other things and patients. Obviously that is nasty and scary and creepy.

A study was conducted by the journal Psychological Science to find out what was the most effective message on the sign to get doctors and nurses to wash their hands. An A/B/n test was performed with 3 messages:

“Hand Hygiene Prevents You from Catching Diseases.”

“Hand Hygiene Prevents Patients from Catching Diseases.”

“Gel In, Wash Out.”

The result was very interesting. The message that was patient-focused outperformed the other two. Go and read the full article and what the study hypothesized was the reason here.

The differences are in the motivation levers

When you take a closer look at the three headlines tested, you will see that all three of them have the same end-goal: Get people to wash their hands. In fact, if a 4th sign simply read, “Wash Your Hands…or else,” it would be worthy of testing (and certainly exciting to monitor the results). But while the similarities in these headlines serve the same goal, their differences lie in how the motivation is positioned.

The first headline, “Hand Hygiene Prevents You from Catching Diseases,” says to wash your hands because you could get sick. This is ineffectual because it imposes the motivation that you will catch a disease. Someone could easily say, “Nope, I’m healthy,” or “I don’t get sick,” or “I’m a doctor gosh darn it, I know how to keep myself healthy!” No doubt, it’s this opportunity for the person to overrule the sign warning that hurt response.

The second headline, “Hand Hygiene Prevents Patients from Catching Diseases,” on the other hand, focuses the motivation on the patient: the helpless person that trusts you to make them well. The study talks about how this messaging appeals to the Hippocratic oath, “Do no harm.”

The third headline which served as a control was very tactical and void of motivation other than a slight hint of time-savings and efficiency. While this approach may work on the Exit Door of a falling airplane, it will not work on something less urgent like washing your hands.

What this can teach you about focusing your value propositions

Know your audience and tap into their most important motivation! It is easy to get caught up in testing different ways to write a call to action. But instead of always testing “Buy Now” with “Add to Cart,” try testing messages that keep the desired action consistent and test the motivation to perform the action. Something like, “Buy Now—The Must-Have Toy Your Kids Want” vs “Buy Now—The Big Toy this Holiday Season.” Testing motivation can yield great results and key learnings for your business.