Cognitive Bias in Social Media Strategy

A common challenge in the field of marketing is the “everyone’s got an opinion” phenomenon.  In other fields like finance or engineering, deeply skilled practitioners do their jobs every day with few “outsiders” questioning their tactics.  In marketing, every person has an opinion on whether a tactic, campaign or initiative will resonate, no matter how deeply skilled the marketers are who developed them.  Enter the challenge of cognitive bias.

Wikipedia defines cognitive bias as:

A cognitive bias is the human tendency to draw incorrect conclusions in certain circumstances based on cognitive factors rather than evidence. Such biases are thought to be a form of “cognitive shortcut”, often based upon rules of thumb, and include errors in statistical judgment, social attribution, and memory.

Marketers don’t have to guess.  There are increasingly more data sources and proven tactics to test hypotheses, which is the entire premise behind marketing segmentation (but that’s another story).  When a new approach is involved – especially one that can question traditional tactics and measurements – it’s easy for people to apply the same filters on interpreting or judging how successful strategies will be.  Social media, and all the technologies that enable two-way and multi-way dialogue with customers, creates that same conundrum for traditional marketers.

Companies need to look at the tools they have at their disposal and leverage them to understand the customer. Web analytics, social media monitoring, feedback, surveys, market research, segmentation, business intelligence, case studies, conventional statistics and studies…There are many inputs that companies can use to determine what makes sense to fuel social strategies that will resonate with their customers in context.  The resource that should be least often used (or minimally, avoided as the sole measurement of an idea): what does someone think personally.  As a marketer, are you really your own targest customer?  Understanding the needs, attitudes and behaviors of customers with respect to social media is necessary to build an educated and insightful hypothesis to try out.  You can even collaborate with customers to figure out what may work (imagine that).  No one needs to read the tea leaves.

Photo credit: mikesell via flickr

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  • Great reminder Adam. Some times marketers (yeah, us!) like to think we understand the people we're trying to reach/engage/research but often that results in misalignment or plain old mistakes. Enjoyed this short post (as usual).

  • Thanks Ken. The worst is when ideas go to market unchecked with expectations off – that's where mistakes take root. Only slightly better is when ideas get shut down because of a lack of understanding of what customer needs are.

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  • Adam,What a great post to let us know that as much as we know, we generally are a) not the customer and b) our opinions are our own. So calling the shots as if we were the customer or we know what will work based on a gut feeling, is a grave mistake. I think we often fall back on black and white data that we have relied on time and time again in the past, and we use that experience to propel our opinion on what we think we know will work again. Which in a sense is ok, because there is familiarity- but as we know, no 2 campaigns or projects are exactly alike. But worse, as you have pointed out is crowdsourcing opinions and basing decision making on that. I've done it, and someone usually is peeved. Even worse, let's not forget about the selfish nature of what might go into decision making. IN other words, the customers best interests might not always be first and foremost…Good food for thought

  • Thanks Mark. Interesting thought about crowdsourcing – if you mean crowdsourcing internally, I agree that's bad since everyone will have an opinion, but often collaborating with customers to craft an idea can be very good – especially if they are the right target customer you want to ultimately engage/activate. There is so much research and data available, I hope marketing organizations leverage that more than just guessing.

  • To clarify, I was referring to crowdsourcing opinions internally- totally agree about working with the client in crowdsourcing.

  • Great post Adam. While you're right on about not being the target customer (and that should be bashed into every marketers' head repeatedly), I'm not sure you're right on about what someone thinks personally. I believe those are two different things entirely.

    Let's go back to your engineering/science example. Brilliant and Nobel prize winning scientists and engineers have the same data at their disposal as the ordinary scientists. But it's their personal insight and inspiration that leads them to great work.

    I think the same applies to marketing. We can and should use all of the tools and data we have. But personal experience, insight and belief do matter. Otherwise, all marketing would look exactly alike, which defeats one of its main purposes.

    And as for no one questioning the tactics of financial people, well, that'll be another post 😉

  • Thanks Rich. I think a personal opinion or bias about an idea or approach is different than creativity and personal insight used to actually generate the idea or approach. I agree that experience, insight and belief matter in the idea generation process, but that the decision making process on whether to approve something should be based on customer feedback, but just sole opinion. Make sense?

  • It always is so shocking to me how people continue to guess at what they are doing. I love the point that there are so many tools out there to tell you what to do for a certain success. Companies shock me with what seems to be no desire to grow and succeed.