Psychology and content

The notion of content existed long before the internet came about, and long, long before Mr Google began to demand copy written to satisfy his algorithms.

Direct marketing and contract publishing houses have created content for clients for decades. Yes, times have changed, but the reasons why good advertising and good content work are constant, whether you use the internet, TV advertising or smoke signals.

And those answers lie in psychology. Just look at these classic ideas to explain the power of content.

1. Von Restorff effect
Put simply, we remember the unusual. In 1933, paediatrician Hedwig von Restorff noted that if subjects are given a list of similar things to remember, if one is novel then it will be remembered more readily. For example, if I shared a list of 10 names, nine written in black, but one written in green, the name written in green would be remembered more readily than the other names.

If content is there to do anything, it must be to make a product or service stand out in some way. You are bestowing the Von Restorff effect onto it. Test your campaign. If your product or service is not made distinctive by your content, then you are doing something wrong.

2. Fast and slow
Probably the most-used psychological trope talked about today, Daniel Kahneman identified two types of thinking: fast and unconscious (type-1 thinking); and slow and deliberate (type-2 thinking).

Remember learning to ride a bicycle? It seems very tricky and can take a good while. This is type-2 thinking. Once you have learned, you just do it. It’s like, err, riding a bike – type-1 thinking.

In brand-building, content is superb as the slow, deliberate learning needed to bring a brand and consumer closer together. Such is the beauty of good content, it’s not slow and deliberate at all, but when done well is positively pleasurable.

Once the target knows the brand, then that knowledge enters the subconscious – you just know it. The type-1 thinking has taken over. When marketers talk about ‘engagement’, they often mean the familiarisation of type-1 thought.

3. Endowment effect
Once the consumer or customer knows the product, they might somehow identify with it. If the content is smart enough then something should resonate.

For the second time, we have Daniel Kahneman to thank. Kahneman, Jack Knetsch and Richard Thaler conducted what has now become a classic experiment back in 1990. Like all the best experiments, it was simple. They gave subjects coffee mugs. Once they had them, subjects were reluctant to give their coffee mugs up again. When asked to trade them, subjects would overestimate the value of the mug, doubling its value.

The only thing giving this value was ownership, which is powerful. If you can persuade people to attach themselves to your brand – they needn’t even have purchased it – then you have, in effect, an advocate.

4. Choice paradox
Making your product distinctive has other knock-on effects. According to the Von Restorff effect (above), we know distinctiveness is a winner. The problem is that many brands are distinctive, and choices have become harder to make. Consumers find this stressful.

So while it’s good to be distinctive, if your brand is one among a number of similar brands, it’s good to maintain simplicity. Apple has been excellent at this, producing one phone at a time in sharp contrast to the portfolio of handsets its competitors offer.

If you work in the creative sector you will know this to be true. It’s often easier to find genuinely creative answers when heavily constrained. If your options are unlimited it’s hard to know where to start.

As a consumer, too much choice often leaves you unsatisfied with your choice. Make sure the content ties to your products or services tightly, and make the offer simple. Consumers will like it.

5. Cognitive dissonance
One of the trickier concepts to grasp, one of the most famous and important concepts in behavioural psychology. It’s thanks to Leon Carlsmith, who investigated doomsday cults. When the doomsday came and went, the cult members would split into two groups – most, on the fringes, would come to their senses and move on, while the core group would harden their beliefs and become increasingly fanatical. Why?

Simply, when the mind holds two contradictory (dissonant) beliefs, then something has to change to allow these two contradictory ideas to co-exist. For the doomsday cultists, when doomsday came and went, many saw the fallacy – they were all still standing, ergo the prophecy was hokum.

But for the committed core, their belief in the cult was stronger than their disappointment. They decided the prophecy must be true, but their initial interpretation of the prophecy was wrong. In both cases the groups changed their thinking to reduce contradictions, or ‘cognitive dissonance’, just for very different outcomes.

If your content has worked its magic, then brand loyalty from the choice effect should mean that if you chose a competitor’s product, you will be in dissonance. It’s why brand loyalty, once built, is difficult to break.

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