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You May be Undermining Your Content Marketing

Content marketers know the power of cognitive biases – how these systematic and unconscious errors in mental processing significantly influence people’s decisions. We’ve long used them to our advantage and relied on biases to persuade and convert target audiences.

To name a few:

  • Bandwagon effect makes testimonials work.
  • The availability heuristic explains the power of case studies and brand storytelling.
  • In-group favoritism rules the roost in social marketing.

With about 200 identified cognitive biases, it seems we operate in the relatively uncharted territory of beneficial marketing opportunities through customer psychology.

There’s just one problem.

We don’t think about how our biases can be a disadvantage. Like 85% of surveyed U.S. residents, we believe we are less biased than the average person. Duh, it’s not so.

But content marketers can become truly less biased if they:

  • Are mindful of cognitive biases
  • Remember the most problematic biases that hinder creativity and influence strategic decisions
  • Make conscious efforts to mitigate biases when working on content strategies and plans

So, what are the most harmful cognitive biases for content marketers, and what can we do to deal with them?

Let’s explore some of the most prominent cognitive biases as they fit into four groups.

4 groups of cognitive biases

Introduced in the 1970s by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, the cognitive bias concept explained the irrational nature of people’s reasoning, evaluating, and decisions. In 2002, Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for that study, opening the field we all know as behavioral economics.

Cognitive biases are unconscious. They are mental models hardwired into brains, so they can’t be 100% avertible. They are what make people think and act irrationally despite rational arguments at hand.

Cognitive biases make people think and act irrationally despite rational arguments, says @LesleyVos via @CMIContent. Share on X

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The biases fall into four groups:

  1. Too much information
  2. Not enough meaning
  3. What should I remember?
  4. Need to act fast

They protect the brain against excessive fatigue. Yes, our mind is lazy, and evolution is to blame.

Thanks to the insights on cognitive biases, marketers learn to understand, relate to, and communicate with different customer types. But a few biases in each group can impact our strategic decisions too, impeding or misrepresenting our marketing messages to the audience.

Let’s be mindful and explore some of them.

Too much information (Group 1)

The human brain stands against new information. We notice changes but don’t like them. (Think about a storm of customer criticism over some website redesign.) But when seen or repeated often, the changes prime to memory – and we start considering that information as a matter of course.

With that in mind, marketers build their content strategies accordingly:

To grab consumers’ attention and make them notice a message, we appeal to humor, negativity bias, or picture superiority effect in our content.

And yet, some cognitive biases in this group may harm our work as well.

  • Blind-spot bias: We notice flaws (biases) much more in others than in ourselves.
  • Confirmation bias: We subconsciously look to, favor, and remember the information that confirms our existing beliefs or suspects. Ignoring evidence that seems to disprove those beliefs, content marketers lose the opportunity to stand out with objective data and authentic storytelling. We need to mitigate this bias to be both creative and critical writers, proving our points and disproving them when necessary.
  • Distinction bias: While we appeal to this bias in customers, we can forget it when building content marketing strategies. When noticing changes in the field but giving them up for something already primed in memory and confirming our beliefs, we risk missing room to grow.

The distinction bias works back too: In the chase for distinctiveness and standing out, we risk prioritizing alternative strategies that would do more harm than good to our content marketing endeavors.

Not enough meaning (Group 2)

I would describe the sentiment of this biases group as, “Stick with what we know given that the world is rapidly changing and too complicated to understand.”

These cognitive biases make people project their current mindset onto the past, simplify probabilities and numbers, fill in characteristics from generalities in favor of their group, and join the majority.

For content marketers, a few biases pose a danger here:

  • Stereotyping: Our brains naturally put people in boxes, filling in their characteristics from stereotypes and prior histories. When building the content strategy on stereotypes, not only can we fail to resonate with the target audience but we also may offend and alienate them too. Instead, you should:
    • Think outside the box.
    • Work with different people with diverse experiences.
    • Get to know the people in real life so you can tell their authentic stories through your content.
  • Curse of knowledge: The more familiar we become with a subject, the harder it is to understand how someone else could not know about it. By assuming our audience knows as many details as we do, we risk missing their content needs.
  • Survivorship bias: This is a mental error of concentrating on past and selective data and simplifying it for a more comfortable perception, therefore overlooking the real picture because of its lack of visibility.

Let’s say your granny smoked a cigar every day and lived to be 100. The survivorship bias makes you more inclined to believe that it’s OK to smoke, despite tons of scientific evidence to the contrary.

In content marketing, this bias may happen when we read about award-winning ideas or mind-blowing case studies, taking them as representational truth, though, in fact, they are more likely exceptions to the rules.

  • Authority bias: We tend to trust people or businesses we’ve deemed authoritative. The number of their followers on Twitter, the frequency of their content going viral, their title of CEO, or even operation overalls worn (remember the Milgram experiments?) — all these signal something like, “This person knows what they are saying,” to our brains.

Case in point: You’re reading this post at CMI, an authoritative and successful content marketing educational resource you trust and you consider its content worth reading. This time, your brain is right.

But when it isn’t, it compels you to make wrong judgments, which can cost you in audience trust and conversion rates. The bare fact that something was published at Forbes, shared by Elon Musk, or told by Dr. Myron L. Fox doesn’t make it undeniable.

What should I remember? (Group 3)

These biases are about the brain’s fear – “I need to remember a lot!” As the brain is lazy and unwilling to overwork, it remembers the information selectively by:

  • Editing and reinforcing some memories after the fact
  • Reducing events and lists to the essential elements
  • Discarding specifics to form generalities

Appealing to this group of cognitive biases in their audience, marketers craft content that gives fast and effective solutions and provides short and concise information. (Isn’t that why step-by-step how-tos, lists, and guides remain an integral part of content marketing strategies for ages?)

But are there any biases in the group for content marketers to look out for themselves? Here are three:

  • Stereotypical bias: It’s the tendency to discard specifics to form generalities. Doing so, we risk missing critical details, which could be the focus of or included in our content marketing strategy.
  • Google effect: This bias is about storing memories differently based on how we’ve experienced them. Relying on search engines, the brain tends to “forget” information that can be found online as we know we can access it later.
  • List-length effect: The brain tends to remember only the small percentage of items from the list, reducing it to the essential elements. Again, it’s about the risk of “forgetting” core information. However, the longer the list, the more items we will remember from it. Worth thinking of when writing to-dos or working on content plans, huh?

Need to act fast (Group 4)

In today’s rapidly changing world, people are afraid of getting lost in information and failing to keep up with all the trends, updates, etc. Understanding the need for acting fast to stay afloat, we subconsciously favor simple-looking solutions and avoid irreversible decisions.

Such biases are a real catch for content marketers. We appeal to the audience’s hyperbolic discounting, defining some frames in the content; we address a zero-risk bias, providing guarantees; we approach a unit bias, giving simple choices to the consumers to satisfy their perception of completion.

But what we often miss when working is two of our biases:

  • Optimism bias: It’s the tendency to believe that “this can’t happen to me.” The brain thinks we’re at a lesser risk of experiencing adverse events than others. Similar is the planning fallacy in which we underestimate the required time and resources but overestimate its ROI. We tend to assume that everything will go perfectly, though, on average, it never does.
  • Occam’s bias: We favor simple-looking options and complete information over complex, ambiguous options. It’s about the brain’s tendency to assume that the simplest consistent hypothesis is the best. As far as you understand, it’s not so. And trying to hone all the tactics and strategies down to the simplest possible solution can go wrong.

Make friends with your cognitive biases today

Rewording the classic:

  • The first rule of dealing with cognitive biases is: Remember that you are biased too.
  • The second rule of dealing with cognitive biases is: ALWAYS REMEMBER that you are biased too.

Experts still argue whether it’s possible to change or 100% control these mental models of the human brain. But most agree being mindful about biases is a good start.

The conscious efforts to reflect on our content marketing projects’ judgments before communicating them to the audience can influence the outcome by far. Listening to colleagues, customers, and other audience members will help us challenge biases too, looking at the projects differently.

After all, the others’ blind-spot bias will allow them to see our flaws better than we do.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute