The Psychology of Behavior Change: a Guide for Link Development Professionals

As marketers and link development professionals, we spend our days understanding how to change people’s behavior and take action.  Fortunately, we’re not alone in this pursuit – behavioral psychologists also study the phenomenon of persuasion, and come up with some fascinating findings.

Stanford’s Professor BJ Fogg has created a framework for analyzing behavioral change that’s particularly applicable to marketing problems.  In this post, I’ll give a brief summary of his theories, and show some examples applied to link development and online marketing.

The Taxonomy of Behavior changes

behavior grid

Image Courtesy

BJ Fogg divides behavioral change into 15 types via a combination of shapes and colors:

  • Dot Behavior
    • One-time Behavior Change
  • Span Behavior
    • Changing Behavior Over a Period of Time
  • Path Behavior
    • Permanent Behavior Change

Fogg has also divided behavior into colors:

  • Green
    • New, unfamiliar behavior
  • Blue
    • Familiar Behavior
  • Purple
    • Increase behavior duration
  • Gray
    • Decrease behavior duration or intensity
  • Black
    • Stop doing a behavior

These two variables combine to form a behavior type – for instance, quitting smoking would be a Black Span behavior, while trying a new food would be a Green Dot behavior.

Applying the Behavior Grid to Online Marketing

Online marketing and link development goals fit into this framework, leading to some interesting insights:

  • Green Dot
    • Get a customer to leave a review on Yahoo Local or Yelp, when they’ve never reviewed a businesses
    • Convince a blogger who’s never allowed guest authors before to accept a guest post
  • Blue Dot Behavior
    • Get an influential Twitter user to share your latest piece of viral content
    • Get a blogger who frequently allows guest posts to post your latest piece
  • Purple Path Behavior
    • Get an influencer who positively mentions you once to do so more often and become a true evangelist

Creating Behaviors: Motivation, Ability, and Triggers

Professor Fogg’s model also suggests three major components (each with subcomponents) lead to these behaviors:

behavior change chart

Chart Recreated from ‘A Behavior Model for Persuasive Design’


  • Pleasure Seeking versus Pain Avoidance
  • Hope and Fear
  • Acceptance versus Rejection


  • Time
  • Money
  • Physical Effort
  • Brain Cycles
  • Social Deviance versus Acceptance
  • Routine versus Non-Routine


  • Spark, or Engaging a Motivational Element
  • Facilitator, or Making the Behavior Easier
  • Signal, or a Reminder

In Professor Fogg’s framework, motivation and ability can trade off.  For example, it’s easy for me to link out to a great online marketing article (I do it a lot), so I don’t need to be that motivated to take that action.  By contrast, asking someone who doesn’t like computers or the internet to link out requires a huge amount of motivation for that person to complete the action.

How to Use This Framework

Now if all of this seems a little ‘management-consulty’ to you, you’re not alone.  I felt that way too – but when I started using this framework to analyze marketing challenges, I came up with some new ideas.

To use our examples from earlier:

The Green Dot Behavior

Let’s stay with the example of getting a customer to create an online review for your business for the first time.  Now this requires a great deal of both ability and motivation – people have to use unfamiliar, confusing websites, and take the time and mental cycles to write a review.  Additionally, the system requires time and effort to learn, and using it is a non-routine task.

Using Professor Fogg’s framework, we see that it’s time for both a spark and a facilitator.

So, we want to make the potential reviewer both a) more motivated, and b) more able to leave a review.  We could pursue strategies like:

For Motivation

  • Tell the potential reviewer how important reviews are to our business.
  • Ask them if they liked us directly before asking for a review, following up with a request for a review if they liked us, invoking consistency and commitment bias.  (This strategy is becoming very popular amongst mobile app developers as a way to garner positive app reviews.)
  • Make an appeal to social proof and mention how many of your other customers have left you a review
  • Incentivize reviews, while staying within the guidelines of each site.

For Ability

We’ll also create triggers for these behaviors – we’ve already discussed the Calendar invite – which is an example of a ‘Signal’ time-based trigger.  We could send follow up emails – one that appeals to motivation, with a video of the business founder asking the customer to leave a review so that others could have a better experience (creating hope), or send an email with a video showing how easy it is to create reviews.

Blue Dot Behavior

Let’s look at another example: Getting an influential Twitter user to share our latest piece of content.  Now this user has plenty of ability to share the content – they just don’t have the motivation.  That’s where marketing comes in.

We can create a trigger (like an email) that gets to someone at the appropriate time (while they’re in front of their computer).  Next, we’ll combine a Signal with a Spark – a message appealing to hope or popularity (social proof) – that reaches the influencer at the right time, and gets our content shared.

Purple Path Behavior

Our purple path behavior – driving evangelism – is similar to our Blue Dot behavior, except we’ll want to include a facilitator as well.  How can we make it easier to be an evangelist?  Can we create a private portal with shareable digital assets?  How about rewards (like t-shirts, cups, and stickers) for evangelists, appealing to acceptance?

We could create an ongoing stream of signal triggers through email marketing to our evangelists (or outreach with BuzzStream), with the above facilitators and sparks, to drive this behavior. 


As George Box said, “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.” The Fogg Behavior Grid is a useful model to think about the ‘asks’ you’re making of people, and understanding the importance of timing. It can be used in combination with the Cialdini Persuasive Principles to drive marketing outcomes, and persuade people to think and move in new directions.