Psychology and content: lessons for structure

We have seen how psychology forms a good argument for content, and how content can help structure your campaign.

Now we move onto approaches for content, and the psychology behind these. In fact, all these approaches could be distilled into one idea: storytelling.

If your content is written poorly then it won’t engage and you won’t be able to rely on any of these effects below to give your message a boost. If it’s done well, with style and panache, then you have succeeded in engaging your audience. Well done.

Zeigarnik Effect

Unfinished tasks stick in the mind more forcefully than completed tasks.

In the mid 1920s, Russian psychologist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik (1901 – 1988) was fascinated by a waiter’s memory. He could remember complex order perfectly until the party paid. Then the memories vanished. However, he could remember the incomplete orders vivdly.

Paying meant completing the task, erasing the memory. For content the lesson is to stick to tried and tested storytelling techniques. Suspense reinforces the idea that the story is not over and you should carry on reading. This is one reason why longform content, when executed well, is so popular. The reader wants to get to the end, and once they have, they have invested all that time interacting with the brand.

It’s another reason why storytelling was so effective in the Victorian era, when novels were serialised. The arrival of installments of Dickens’ latest reputedly caused riots in New York. Powerful stuff.

Peak End Effect

Yet another piece of research by the prolific Daniel Kahneman. Is it any wonder he won a Nobel Prize? This research, conducted in 1993 is characteristic of his simple test scenarios.

In this case he asked subjects to keep their hands in cold water for 60 seconds. The water would be cold enough to be painful, but not seriously so.

They were tested again in an identical way, but an additional 30 seconds was added where the water was heated by one degree. Still painful, but marginally less so.

Subjects were asked: which situation would you repeat? They opted for the second scenario where the hand was in cold water and in pain for longer. A contradictory view you might think. The subjects were remembering the end of the experiment over the entire experience.

The findings mean two things – a great desination can make up for a miserable journey (a good lesson for product design), but also that the peaks of the journey will be better remembered than the average experience. In the water experiment example, the peak is the slightly warmer water.

When considering you content, delight goes a long way, particularly at the end, but that assumes people make it to the end.

Hyperbolic discounting

Legendary Psychologist B. F. Skinner developed the ‘Skinner Box’ to test the behaviour of animals under various scenarios.

An animal, usually a rat or a pigeon, would be placed in a box and taught to operate a lever. The lever would deliver food. Here is where it gets interesting (from a psychological point of view), as you start to introduce more levers and vary the criteria for when food drops.

In an experiment by Richard Herrnstein in 1960, pigeons were presented with two levers. One gave food twice as often, the other gave more food, but less often. The research eventually found that if presented with a dilemma like this, the pigeons devote their time and energy in proportion to the rewards, and in inverse proportion to the delays involved. 

So, this means that the pigeons usually opted for the lesser reward now. Fast-forward a few years and this experiment is repeated with humans. Do you want £5 now or £10 next year? Most poeople opt for the £5 now.

In a nutshell, people prefer instant gratification to planning for something longer-term. This is good for content that gets to the point quickly and takes the reader on a journey. But if done really well, and you have a superb pay-off too, then you could manage the equivalent of £5 now and £10 later.

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