Pull, Don’t Push: How Catalysts Overcome Barriers and Drive Product Adoption

Pull, Don’t Push: How Catalysts Overcome Barriers and Drive Product Adoption

Marketing expert Jonah Berger has spent years probing into the science behind changing people’s minds, and why becoming an effective change agent is about lowering barriers, not pushing harder. He distilled five of the most common barriers into a simple framework and walks us through it.

Trying to change someone’s mind often feels like a fruitless pursuit, almost as if it requires waving some sort of magic wand or casting an enchanting spell. On a smaller scale, you might think of a particularly sticky argument where you struggled to get your point across, or the broader, seemingly intractable debates that play out on the national stage. Founders looking to win over customers with their product know this frustrating feeling all too well, whether they're trying to draft copy that convinces, develop features that add value — or get prospects to even pick up the phone.

But Jonah Berger wants to let you in on a little secret: You can change anyone’s mind with a little bit of science. The Wharton Marketing Professor and bestselling author of Contagious and Invisible Influence has spent nearly two decades researching how social influence works and how certain products and ideas catch on. (Keen readers of The Review may remember his article on the Goldilocks Effect and how it can be used to leverage social influence in the startup world.) In his follow-up book The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind, Berger explores the process of how we form opinions and likens the art of persuasion to something much more tangible.

“Think about carbon being squeezed into a diamond, or plant matter being turned into oil. It takes eons of time and various forces pushing on them to do so. In the lab, chemists often want this change to happen faster, so they add energy to the system. They add temperature. They add pressure. They heat things up and they squeeze them together,” Berger says.

“But there’s a special set of substances that chemists often use that’s easier and makes change happen faster. These substances have done everything from cleaning the grime on your contact lenses to the grime on your car's engine. Multiple Nobel prizes have been won for innovations in this space. They are called catalysts.”

Catalysts don’t just create change by pushing harder or exerting more energy, Berger says. Rather, they find success by removing or lowering barriers to change.

This same scientific principle can also be applied to human behavior. “When we talk about catalysts in the social world, we say ‘So and so was a catalyst — they were a change agent,’” Berger says.

These people don’t ask themselves “Well what could I do to get someone to change?” Instead, they ask “Why haven’t they changed already?” What’s stopping them? What are the barriers or obstacles getting in the way?

Through his research, Berger talked to dozens of these types of change agents across all different disciplines — from top salespeople and founders to hostage negotiators, substance abuse counselors, and parenting experts. In all lines of their work, he found people tended to run into the same five barriers to change, which he distilled down into a helpful five-step framework called REDUCE (reactance, endowment, distance, uncertainty, and corroborating evidence).

A successful catalyst, according to Berger, is a master at spotting these five barriers when they pop up and applying creative solutions to break them down. “These five barriers come up again and again, and if we understand these barriers, we can make change more likely in any situation,” Berger says. The complete framework can be found in his book (and if you are curious, you can also download one-pagers and worksheets to dive in deeper).

But for our purposes, we’ll stick to the startup context of building and selling products, and focus on just these three barriers: Reactance, Endowment and Uncertainty. In this exclusive interview, Berger shares how founders and leaders can become catalysts and lower these barriers to change.

He covers a wide range of tactical nuts and bolts, including the role of urgency in selling a product, creative ways to apply the freemium approach, techniques for negotiating prices, and the role that identity and category creation play in persuasion and product adoption. Let’s dive in.


When it comes to building and selling products, the most common problems that startups run into are two-fold: There’s the challenge of getting your team aligned internally during the build stage, followed by the hurdle of changing the minds of your potential customers to adopt your product over other alternatives.

In his research for “Catalyst,” Berger found that most folks apply a “pushing” technique as the starting point for both of these conversations around change. “Pushing is sort of a standard way to think about getting people to change. We think, ‘If I just made one more phone call, one more PowerPoint, if they just understood where I was coming from, then they would come around,’” Berger says.

It’s clear why we think pushing works. If there’s a chair in the middle of the room, pushing it is a good way to get the chair to move. But chairs slide across the floor and people don’t. People often dig in their heels. They resist. They push back.

Instead, Berger offers up an alternative approach that centers around understanding the root of why someone thinks the way they do, identifying any barriers to change, and figuring out how to mitigate them.

The Three Horsemen of Inertia: Overcoming the Status Quo

The first step to catalyzing change isn’t perfecting your pitch, it’s understanding what you are up against. Oftentimes founders build a product with the intention of creating something dramatically different, something the world has never seen before, a radical disruption to a tired system. While it may seem intuitive to think that a newer, better product alone would be enough to win customers over, Berger points out a blind spot in this theory.

“For some people, it’s not about whether or not a product is better,” Berger says. “It’s about if it is worth making a change?” Berger says. “Sure, what you’re offering might be better, but customers might have to give up something they’re already doing to get there. So we really have to get people to let go of the past and help them understand why change is a good idea instead.”

A startup’s biggest competition isn’t an established player, it’s inertia.

But when confronted with such a choice, most fall victim to the status quo bias. “If we stick by the status quo because it’s better, that would be one thing,” Berger says. “But it’s referred to as a bias because even when the new thing is better — in fact, by some estimates up to 2.6 times better —  we still tend to stick with the old one.”

So how can founders break through? The first step is to get acquainted with the deep-seated tendencies and thinking patterns they’re up against, or what Berger refers to as the three horsemen of inertia:

  • Ease: “It’s just easier to do things we’ve done previously because it requires less effort. I bet when you go to the grocery store, you tend to buy the same brands again and again. It requires more work to figure out which new thing would be better. The same is obviously true of startup customers. We all have the default way of doing things. Whether it’s a default app or a way of working with a service provider, it’s just easier and requires less work to stick with the old one.”
  • Attachment: “But it’s not just about ease. It’s also about attachment to old products, services, ideas, and initiatives. These are not just old things. They’re someone’s old things. It’s someone’s idea. It’s someone’s approach. There’s some research that shows in the context of selling homes, for example, that the longer people have lived in their house or apartment, the more they value it above or beyond market price. Why? Because it’s theirs. They can’t imagine letting it go.”
  • Risk: “Old things feel safe and new things feel risky. We know the product we’ve bought, and we know the way of doing business. It’s not perfect, but at least we know what’s bad about it. Whereas that new thing? We don’t know yet. It could be better — but it could also be worse. And so that uncertainty of the new also leads us to avoid doing new things.”
Remember: Anytime we’re trying to get people to buy a new product, use a new service, or adopt an idea internally within an organization, we’re asking them to make a choice between something they’ve done before and something new.

Prescriptions and parking brakes: How to stay focused on problems, not solutions

If startups’ only issue were solving for the status quo, addressing their customer’s needs would be manageable. But an even bigger trap that Berger sees early-stage founders falling into is not understanding what exactly it is that they are selling in the first place.

Berger has held a number of roles in his nearly 20 years working as a marketing expert, including helping name brands like Trulia and guiding Google through launching new services. But he’s also worked with clients at much earlier stages, specifically to find their footing when bringing a product to market for the first time.

Many companies have a clear sense of what they make. They make software or they make a certain product. But what you make and sell are not necessarily the same things.

Founders’ failure to understand this often stems from placing too much emphasis on the product itself. “People don’t buy products and services, they buy solutions to problems. They have a particular need,” he says.

Too often leaders, salespeople or founders think they have a solution, regardless of what the problem is. Not only don’t they know whether they’re truly selling a solution, but they also don’t understand which facets of their solution to focus on for a given audience, because they aren’t grasping that audience’s needs,” Berger says. “It’s not really until you understand the problem, can you begin to prescribe the solution. Think about doctors. They don’t say, ‘Let me put a cast on your leg.’ They say, ‘Let me understand if the leg is broken, and if it is, I can prescribe a solution.’”

Here are two techniques Berger suggests as guideposts for founders when trying to diagnose their customer’s problems:

  • Think of the end result: Probe deeper into what you want to change by asking questions like “Whose mind or behavior are you trying to change? What are they doing now (i.e. the status quo) and what are you hoping they’ll do moving forward?” Then, take a beat to reflect on what you’ve tried already. “Ask yourself, How have you tried to change things, and what was the result?”
  • Find the parking brakes: It never hurts to try and look at things from another’s perspective. Rather than thinking about what you can do to create change, ask yourself why haven’t things changed already? What’s stopping people? What are the parking brakes?

Another technique founders and sales leaders can use is to place themselves in their customer’s shoes each time they approach a sale. Berger walks us through three scenarios from his past working with a B2B company selling software to order machine parts, outlining potential solutions:

  • Lack of trust: A customer is struggling to find machine parts for their tractor and is actively looking for a solution. But they don’t trust that the software will be the one to help them.

Solution: A free trial or “freemium” experience. “This will lower the barrier to entry to your service. Customers will get to experience the service for free, and hopefully, will find it valuable. This ultimately leads them to product adoption,” Berger says.

  • The customer doesn’t think they have a problem. Even though the service is relatively cheap, they don’t see a need for new machine parts and they won’t want to get them.

Solution: Raise attention to the problem. “One way is to offer a cost calculator. Show them how much money they lose every month by not fixing this problem. Then introduce your product to drive product adoption,” Berger says.

  • Hesitation over integration. The customer knows they need new machine parts and they trust your solution is valuable. But they don’t know whether it will integrate with their existing systems.

Solution: Provide a team with white glove service to take care of the integration.

You can replicate this scenario with a dozen different hypothetical problems tailored to your own situation, but the efficacy of all the solutions, Berger says, will always depend on what’s driving the problem. Identifying this requires stepping into the shoes of your customer.

“It’s really trying to think through that customer journey,” he says. “I was recently in a negotiation for a project where the other side was resisting an hourly-based rate. I thought they were worried about the rate because it was too high, but they were really worried about the optics of how the rate looked. If we did a project-based rate instead of hourly, that was fine. They were very happy to pay the money, but they just didn’t want the optics.”

Jonah Berger, marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.


So it’s clear that understanding the needs of your customer is essential to uncovering the barriers placed on their path toward your product or service. But founders and sales leaders can get even more granular when lowering barriers to change.

We’ve carved out three scenarios in which founders and startup leaders are confronted with these three barriers to change, and Berger guides us through how to approach removing them, sharing examples from both research and his own career that will help you recognize and overcome the current barriers your team might be facing.

Scenario #1: You’re struggling to agree on price

In the early days in the sales org of a startup, many folks find themselves devoting a meaningful percentage of their time to price negotiations. For a simplified example, envision a B2B SaaS company pricing its software at $100, with a customer that’s only willing to pay $80.

There are ample negotiation tactics to deploy here, but according to Berger, helping people understand the tradeoffs you are wrestling with can be a real game-changer. “The challenge of changing minds is when we push, people push back. That’s because of this idea of reactance. People want to feel like they are in control of their choices,” he says.

It’s the sense of autonomy, of giving people back some sense of freedom and control that’s a change agent’s best friend. According to Berger, lowering reactance can be as simple as asking questions rather than making statements, highlighting a gap in needs, or pointing out where attitudes and actions don’t line up. “It’s encouraging them to do the work to change, rather than pushing them,” he says.

One strategy to apply here that Berger finds particularly effective for sales leaders is to have a robust set of options to offer up their sleeves. Let’s go back to our B2B software startup example. Say the product they’re selling is split into two different price tiers. While Tier X more than covers the potential customer’s needs, they also offer a more robust version of the same software package, Tier Y, that’s priced at $100. Instead of opening up a sales call rattling off all the reasons the customer should pick Tier X, Berger encourages “providing a menu.”

“Often, when we want people to do something we say ‘Hey, do X, and here are all the reasons why,’” Berger says. “They sit there and say, ‘Ok I hear you. Here are all the reasons why X doesn’t work for me.’ What great catalysts often do is give people multiple options.”

In our software example, offering up X and Y and asking “Which one do you think is better?” subtly shifts the role of the listener. “Rather than sitting and thinking about all the reasons why they don’t like X, they are now thinking ‘okay well which one do I like better, X or Y?” he says.


Scenario #2: Customers are sticking to the status quo

As Berger outlined earlier, people are wedded to what they’ve already been doing. “Terrible things get replaced, but mediocre things stick around,” he says.

But just as there are processes and steps to take to remove reactance as a barrier against change, there are tactics that can be applied to breaking well-worn habits. “Endowment is all about the fact that it’s hard to let go of the past,” Berger says. “To ease endowment, we have to highlight the cost of an action to make people realize that doing nothing isn’t as costless as they might think.”

On a tactical level, Berger shares three concrete ways to gently nudge people out of their attachment biases:

Highlight the cost of inaction:

“I’ll give you a painfully specific example. I have a cousin who, every time he signed his email, would go down to the bottom of his email and write ‘Best, Charles.’ I was watching him do this and asked ‘Why do you type that out every time?’ He said ‘It only takes five or ten seconds.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but you could automate it and just put that in your email signature to save five or ten seconds every time.’ His response was ‘I don’t really know how to use email signatures. So it’s just not worth the time for me.’”

To highlight the exact cost of his cousin’s inaction, Berger ran the numbers on how much time his cousin was losing every time he chose to type it out and put it up against the five minutes it would take to look up how to set up an automatic email signature.

“When he saw the math, he went ahead and looked up how to automate an email signature,” Berger says. “We can’t just tell people, ‘We’ve got something better, this is going to save you time or money,’ we have to quantify the cost of inaction.”

Show people what they are losing by not doing something, and help them realize that even if the moment-to-moment costs are harder to create change, even over a short period of time, the cost of inaction is higher than the cost of action.

Shine a spotlight on urgency:

This point is especially relevant for startups, where time is always of the essence.

“There’s some interesting research which asked people which hurts more: a minor injury like spraining your ankle or a major injury like shattering your knee cap or breaking your arm? Everyone gives the same answer, that a major injury is much more painful. That intuition makes a lot of sense — and it’s completely wrong,” says Berger. “If you have a major injury, you do work to fix it, you go to the emergency room, you get a cast, you go through physical therapy, you do all the difficult things because it’s so bad that it requires change. But if you have a minor injury — say lower back pain that flares up once in a while — you never do the work to get it fixed, because it’s not above that threshold to change it.”

Using this two-fold process (highlighting the cost of inaction while also expressing the need for urgency) is the exact intuition-defying logic that Berger says can be most useful for sales leaders.

“If you have a couple of flies in your house once in a while you never call an exterminator, because it’s just a couple of flies. If your house is infested with cockroaches, however, you call the exterminator right away,” Berger says. “The challenge as a sales lead or a founder in creating that urgency is to make people realize that they have a major injury, or make people realize that their house is filled with cockroaches.”

Scenario #3: A founder wants to offer a “freemium” version of their product, but isn’t sure a free trial will win customers over

Another barrier to change every founder needs to solve for is uncertainty. Customers can have ample freedom of choice and be well informed about the cost of their inaction, but as Berger noted earlier, one of the greatest forces working against startups is risk.

“To ease uncertainty, change always involves switching costs and the cost-benefit timing gap,” Berger says “We have to lower the barriers to trial, to help people experience the value of what we are offering and to drive discovery.”

Most people are familiar with the concept of “freemium.” It seems straightforward enough, but Berger often finds that founders view the concept too narrowly, failing to understand how experimenting with various flavors of trialability can be a powerful tool. He digs in deeper below, sharing anecdotes that differ from the classic trial of a SaaS product that comes to mind when you hear the word “freemium”:

It’s not just about the money: Tailor your trial to the cost-benefit gap

“Think about the reasons why your customer is switching over to your software system. Hopefully, the answer is because it will save them money in the long run, but also a whole lot of time and effort.” In a normal transaction, customers incur a cost (whether that’s time, money or effort) before they see any real benefit. “This is called the cost-benefit timing gap,” Berger says. In other words, the costs are now, the benefits are to come later or are uncertain.

“Freemium is a good solution here,” Berger says. “What it does, it says ‘Don’t trust me that it’s good, try it yourself and check this thing out.’” But freemium is just one example of solving for the cost-benefit-timing gap. Take the experience of shopping for a new car.

“They don’t do freemium at a car dealership. They give you a test drive. They allow you to sit in the car and see whether you like it,” Berger says. “It's not freemium because there isn’t a free version of the car and a premium version of the car. But the underlying idea is the same. Make it easier for people to experience the value of the offering, and then if they like it, there’s a later period in which they incur some of those costs, whether monetary or otherwise.”

. .

Driving discovery

All that effort into lowering barriers is for naught if no one knows that a product exists. For founders struggling with driving discovery, they may be able to pull a page from the trialability playbook here.

“The challenge of trials is there's a set of people that are willing to try something, but trying usually takes effort,” he says. “If you look at what a company like Carvana has done, they bring the car to you. So they reduce some of that cost of trial. You can try it at home for seven days.”

Berger shares a few other outside-of-the-box approaches real companies have used to drive discovery and embed trials in one fell swoop:

“There’s a nice example of this with Acura. They had to figure out how to get people to experience the car. Test drives are great, but not enough people are coming to the dealership. So they did this interesting program with W Hotels where anyone staying there could get a ride in an Acura for free. Now, does everyone who stayed at the W Hotel take a ride in an Acura? No. But hundreds of thousands do. Do all of them end up buying an Acura? No, but tens of thousands of them do. Why? Because this program drives discovery.”

Berger shares another example of this from his time working with a company that made single-family apartment homes. The company had a model unit, but not enough people were stopping by for tours.

“We ended up doing a simple program that encouraged residents to have Super Bowl parties.  We gave away different things, magnum bottles of champagne and six-foot subs. Why? Because if you have a party, you get a whole bunch of people who have never seen the place before inside a residence, getting them to see what it’s like. Helping them realize that maybe they would like living here as well,” Berger says.

Find ways to embed a trial in something that people already want or are already doing. Then they’re trying without even realizing it.


With all the frameworks, real-world examples and thought-provoking tactics, kicking off the change-making process can still feel tough. Berger urges founders and startup leaders to remember that change doesn’t need to happen overnight.

“When you ask people for a big change, to do something quite different from what they’re doing at the moment, they’ll often say no,” Berger says. Instead, the best product designers ask themselves: What kind of versions of my product exist where my customers are at? What can I do to move them in my direction?

“Don’t ask them to make that big leap right away,” Berger says. “Ask them to make a small leap, and then ask them to make another one. It’s chunking the change. Take a big thing you want people to do, and rather than ask them to do it right away, break it down into smaller chunks.”