If your marketing campaigns aren’t landing, there may be a hidden reason that defies some of your research insights: cognitive biases. Marketing is all about understanding your audience, and if you do get their perceptions, behavior, and motivations, you’re much more likely to connect. But, while we highly recommend conducting customer research, and bringing in an expert to design an insight-rich audience survey, don’t stop there. Marketing is about people, and people can be complicated and complex.
Let’s talk through four of the most salient cognitive biases and what you can do about them to ensure your marketing lands.
Cognitive Bias #1: Availability Heuristic
Humans can be strikingly irrational. And our brains are wired to follow the path of least resistance—conservation of energy and all that. So, when presented with information, our big, beautiful brains tend to focus on what comes to mind first. In other words: people prioritize recalling information based on recency and memorability instead of accuracy.
Here’s what that looks like in a real-world context:
A fast-casual restaurant was in the news for a spate of food poisoning cases. The interviews with affected customers lamenting their afternoon spent praying to the porcelain god hit your disgust button hard. It later comes out that the source of the poisoning was contaminated produce that the supplier should have caught before shipping; it wasn’t the restaurant’s fault, and it’s all resolved now after tossing out the tainted vegetables. At the same time, you can’t pass one of their locations without your stomach-turning. It doesn’t matter that there’s no food poisoning to be had today; your brain can’t forget the food poisoning snafu of six months prior because it was so memorable.
This incident would impact the restaurant’s brand perception, but there are other ways this can come into play on a smaller, less vomitous scale.
Say you own a supplement company. You’ve been digitally courting a potential customer through paid social ads. They’re intrigued. They’ve clicked. You’ve nurtured them to the cusp of conversion. Then, they read a blog about a new supplement that promises anti-aging effects based on faulty, misrepresented research (happens all the time). Vanity wins out because the blog information was juicy and more recent than your social ads from last week. It doesn’t matter that the supplement will do nil to prevent them from getting older; their brain already said, “That. That anti-aging thing I read about. Let’s order that.”
So, how do you overcome the availability heuristic? A combination of compelling marketing and consistent contact with your audience.
Market Like A Boss
Listen. There’s a lot that’s out of your control when it comes to marketing. You can’t possibly know everything your customers read or expose themselves to. But you can control your output. You’ll have a better chance of staying fresh in the memories of your audience if you focus on quality, high-impact content marketing that intrigues, inspires, and entertains. Avoid content for content’s sake; provide value.
And while you’re creating content that lands, make sure you’re posting, emailing, and interacting consistently. That way, there’s less chance of other information sneaking through and becoming the most memorable or recent in the grand scheme of information consumption.
Cognitive Bias #2: Confirmation Bias
You can see confirmation bias play out all over social media and especially in the realm of politics. Essentially, people believe what they want to believe. Or, to be more specific: people are more likely to seek information that confirms their existing beliefs, values, and perceptions, dismissing contradictory information even if it disproves what they’ve held dear.
Here’s your real-world example:
You’ve probably heard the term “echo chamber.” It’s a fancy way of referring to the infrastructure in place in our digital worlds that facilitate confirmation bias. For example, Facebook filters content so that people with distinct beliefs often see content from other users with similar beliefs, reinforcing their sense of rightness.
Additionally, people often have preconceived notions about products or brands. For example, there’s been a surge in CBD-based products in recent years. However, many of these products include “dosages” far too small to have any measurable impact on the user. But people purchase them in droves because
CBD = Good
So, if a CBD brand markets itself as an effective supplement for stress and anxiety management, a customer who already perceives the product as effective starts taking it despite the dosage being 5 mg per lozenge. Of course, then, we’re getting into the placebo effect, but that’s a story for another blog.
Market Like A Boss
The answer to confirmation bias is understanding what your audience is looking to confirm within themselves. The way to know that is to conduct psychographic-based audience research and use the data to inform your content strategy.
If you can understand your audience’s values, priorities, and perceptions of themselves and others, you’ll have insights into what information they’re likely to seek out and focus on. Moreover, they’ll be more likely to pay attention if you confirm what they’re looking to validate within themselves.
Of course, never at the risk of your own brand identity or what’s relevant to your company’s product or service offerings.
Cognitive Bias #3: Bandwagon Effect
The people around us very much influence us. And when the inertia of opinion takes hold, it can lead to viral sensations and coveted brands. The bandwagon effect parallels our need for belonging; we may participate in, sign up for, or purchase something because people we know told us it’s worth it, without regard to whether it’s worth it for us. And on a large scale, brands can become cult favorites, acquiring exponential growth in their customer base because of the allure of belonging.
Let’s talk about a real-world example.
A new functional beverage company launches. They have a team of scientists to develop their formulations. And a high-profile celebrity endorsement. Word spreads quickly, and soon everybody and anybody are purchasing their drinks at the grocery store. Everybody, and we mean everybody and their mother, swears by their “energy” beverage. You’re no exception, stocking up on the stuff and sipping on a can every morning while you go from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting.
In terms of marketing, the bandwagon effect can work in your favor. For example, during our annual Millennial Moms Research Survey, we found that the factor that most influenced a Millennial Mom’s decision to purchase was online reviews from people like them.
So, it doesn’t have to be a big celebrity endorsement; we can see the Bandwagon Effect in the power of testimonials.
“If other people like it, and it has over 4,000 five-star reviews, it must be good.”
People influence people.
Market Like A Boss
If you’re a small fish in a big pond, it’s not realistic to become a big fish overnight, and maybe becoming a big fish isn’t in alignment with your company mission, vision, and values. So, how do you stand out and connect with your audience if Brand A out there is pulling epic sales? The answer isn’t to try to be cool; it’s to be you.
Take some time to evaluate the current state of your marketing. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Do we have a clear sense of who our audience is?
- Do we offer something valuable to the people we serve?
- Do we have a clear brand identity?
- Do we have a documented content strategy?
Before you leap, make sure you tighten up your marketing.
Cognitive Bias #4: The Barnum Effect
What if I told you in 2022, you will face a great challenge and make a much-needed change? By the end of the year, I bet you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody that statement didn’t apply to. We all want to feel special. And from fortune tellers to horoscopes to personality quizzes, it’s easy for us to read into the words without considering whether they’re generalizable and we’re not that special after all. The Barnum Effect is an error of specificity. We tend to believe personality descriptions apply to us, more so than other people who might meet the same criteria (Libra, ENTJ, enneagram 6, DISC Si, etc.).
We’ve already touched on one of the best examples of the Barnum Effect. It goes like this:
“I’m such a pisces.”
Let’s break that down. Pisces are supposedly compassionate, spiritual, sensitive, and self-sacrificial. The issue is astrological descriptions don’t specify the breadth or depth of the characteristics, nor how they manifest in everyday life. They’re general by design. How many people do you know that are spiritual? Are they all pisces? Isn’t compassion a natural human emotion that nearly everybody experiences from time to time? Yet, if you’re a Pisces, it may be easy for you to read those descriptors and think how much they describe the essence of who you are. The Barnum Effect in action.
The Barnum Effect exists in marketing copy across the internet and beyond. Good copy is generalizable and speaks to a broad audience, but individuals should read it as personal and relatable. It’s inherent in the art of copywriting. Think of a marketing email you received recently. Did it seem like it spoke to you? Here’s an example: a famous meditation teacher sent an email recently to market a masterclass around the topic of feeling lost. Is there anybody out there who doesn’t feel a little bit lost in January 2022, nearly three years into the COVID-19 pandemic? Yet, it’s easy to identify with the email and say, “Yes, I do feel lost. This is totally the masterclass for me.” That’s the Barnum Effect.
Market Like A Boss
While we don’t recommend you manipulate people (ethics are essential, people), there’s no harm in making your customers feel special. Whether they all want to improve their time management, for example, is relevant in so far as understanding your audience’s goals. But what’s important is that each person who reads your marketing messages feels seen.
So, focus your copywriting on speaking directly to people. Speak to your audience’s values, beliefs, priorities, pain points, motivations, and challenges. If they feel valued, they’ll be more likely to engage in a relationship with your brand. If they feel special, they’ll be more likely to connect.
Overcome Cognitive Biases and Connect With Your Audience
If you’re looking to understand your audience and navigate your relationship with them in a connected, consistent, and impactful way, consider partnering with a marketing expert. Marketing is a beast and can be overwhelming to manage on top of your already busy schedule. But, you don’t have to do it all; from audience research to content strategy, we’re here to help. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn how we can augment your marketing for the better and provide effective strategies for counteracting or leveraging cognitive biases.
Caitlin Lead Copywriter
Caitlin Knudsen is a writer, editor, and food photographer based in the Midwest. With a background in nursing and decades spent writing, she is a published eBook author and knows a thing or two about communicating complex concepts in easy-to-understand language. Caitlin spends her free time developing gluten-free recipes, reading psychology books, and wrangling two pugs and a Dutch rabbit.more posts by Caitlin →
Audience Research, Content Marketing
Audience Research, Content Marketing