behavioural science

The Scary Thing Is, Our Autopilot Is Terrible at Strategy


Everyone with a passing interest in behavioural science knows that we humans make most of our decisions using our ‘autopilot’, which bypasses our need to think too much about what we’re doing. In marketing strategy, we need to be wary of our autopilot in order to make good long-term decisions for our clients. In social marketing strategy, we need to be more than just aware of our autopilot – we need to be damn right afraid of its influence over our decision-making!

Why? Because our autopilot loves how social platforms work, especially how they feedback to us. They make it all too easy to make decisions based on misleading social cues that don’t necessarily help us to develop solid long-term strategy. 

Let’s think about this for a moment in terms of three behaviour heuristics – tangibility, immediacy and certainty – and how they apply when managing social content.

We’ll see that social media platforms work in a way that actively encourages autopilot thinking rather than the conscious thinking we require to develop effective strategies for our clients.


Each social platform has its own reward system in place. For Facebook it’s Likes, Shares and comments; for Twitter it’s RTs; Pinterest has Pins, and so on. We naturally know these things to be ‘good’ and we are rewarded when we see them. Even though we know that this isn’t necessarily an indication of marketing effectiveness, we can’t control our autopilot, which rewards us for receiving RTs and Likes. Try not to feel anything next time you see a Like on your content – not easy, is it?

To compound this problem, there is a less tangible and less measurable link between our social content and the business metrics of our clients. Sometimes you will never have the answer to how much social affected loyalty or brand preference; little wonder it’s easy to become preoccupied with Likes and follower numbers.

Finally, the costs of producing social content are relatively low compared to most marketing. This means that the tangible pain of spending money (for the client) is lower. What does this mean? That clients are more willing to approve larger quantities of social content as the perceived pain is lower than for other marketing channels. Quantity, however, does not guarantee quality.


Social strategists benefit from the power of immediacy more than their counterparts in any other marketing discipline. We can post something onto Facebook and within minutes (or even seconds), we have secured our reward in the form of likes and so on. This rapid feedback loop is potentially dangerous as it can blindside us to the truth. We are automatically programmed to obey our reward system which is concerned only with the here and now, rather than the bigger picture or longer term goals.

The immediacy of reward in social media therefore poses a threat to long-term and integrated strategy as it encourages us to focus on the short-term gains.


As the cycle of tangible and immediate rewards continues, norms are developed. Community managers learn from their experience concerning which content ‘works’ (and bear in mind that this could be based on tangible rewards such as Likes rather than less tangible business metrics) and begin to value the content strategy they have above the risk of developing a new content strategy, eve if it isn’t the most sound strategy to help meet the client’s business goals.

In addition, we evaluate our content in the context of competitor activity, and since this is also developed with the immediacy of tangible rewards (such as Likes) in mind, a social norm is set for how social content should behave. It’s one of the reasons you see so many pictures of cats.

Strategists need to be better than this if we are to avoid weak plans. We need to be aware of the limitations of our own autopilot whilst at the same time realising that we can use this understanding to create more effective content that affects consumer buying behaviour.

Isn’t it about time we seized the controls from our autopilot?

Olly Honess is a Senior Account Manager for social agency @cubaka.