Marketers: Beware Your Biases

One of the primary jobs of a good marketer is to put themselves in someone else's shoes. A basic tenet of marketing is to know your consumer well. Yet we human beings are innately wired to fail at this. We are burdened by heuristics and cognitive biases that, left unchecked, can lead us down wrong roads — sometimes at significant expense.

The first is called False Consensus Bias. This is the tendency of people to believe other people are like them. Marketers are particularly at risk for this. We are often early adopters. It is easy to imagine how we could assume the rest of the world was as obsessed with style, trend, new ideas, new media and new technologies as we are.

The second is Confirmation Bias. This is the tendency of people to seek out information that reinforces their existing perceptions or opinions. It's a human flaw in the integrity of the scientific process but arguably one that also plagues industries like marketing. Many a marketer has sat down to write a presentation based on intuition and then proceeded to seek research confirming these perceptions.

As a marketer, I am a big fan of research. I am also extremely picky about where I look. We've all seen published research reports that are sponsored by companies with a vested interest in the outcome. How amazing it is that companies doing email marketing tend to sponsor research that shows why email is more powerful than social media, while social media companies underwrite research that shows just the opposite. Who should we believe?

I was pleased recently to find some interesting reports from the Pew Research project Pew Internet & American Life Project. I've always trusted Pew. They are a nonprofit with no vested interest in the outcome of their research. To me, this is a great starting point.

I read a report from Pew Research on Facebook friends. I suspect many marketers are 'power users' of social media, and therefore likely to believe by False Consensus Bias that most people share their behaviors. The portrait Pew paints of Facebook is somewhat different than one promoted by other social media reports. It is a very useful document in balancing out any Confirmation Bias that could be at work in our understanding as to how most people engage with Facebook and other social technologies.

I'd like to share with you now a small trick I use when I review any research. I call it a "stat flip." Essentially, I 'flip' any number and fact I find in research to help contextualize a piece of information. For example, the Pew report notes that "15% of people update their status daily." I would then flip this to note that 85% of Facebook users don't update their status daily. That's interesting to me.

This is not pessimism. I am not arguing with the fact that people are trending more toward digital and social tools. I am pointing out that as millions of dollars are being poured into places like Facebook right now, the majority of people on Facebook do not seem to be as actively engaged as perhaps we power-user marketing people might be — and therefore believe others are.

Scan the report and you'll see that in terms of updating, commenting on each other's statuses or photos, 'liking' one anothers' content or sending private messages to each other, an overwhelming majority do not do these things daily. This pertains to content created by their friends. If people are interacting with their friend's content less frequently than we assume, what might this mean for brand content, which is less intimately connected to the average user?

All of this tells me that the majority of people on Facebook are not nearly as engaged as the power users. They may be spectators ('lurkers' in Internet lingo) but they are not sharing, liking or commenting as much as assumed.

So who is doing all that clicking, sharing and liking? The power users are. The largest proportion of power users, according to Pew, comes from the 18-22 segment. No surprises there. However, power users — as defined this way — make up only 31% of that cohort which means 69% of the digital sweet spot — 18-22s — do not update their status even once per day.

Pew also notes that Facebook users "receive more than they give." Most Facebook users tend to get more friend requests than they send, they get more private messages than they send.

Like other social platforms Facebook operates under a version of the 80-20 dynamic, whereby the majority of the content is created by a minority of the user base. Social media pundits call these power-users "influencers," though the exact nature of how influential they are in terms of affecting others' behavior is pretty vague.

According to Pew, active Facebook users see some interesting benefits from their use. They have closer relationships, they are more politically engaged and they have more social support. Under cognitive biases, marketers could easily assume average users are seeing and enjoying these same benefits. We could also then assume Facebook plays as important a role in their lives as it does in ours.

Clearly, however, they are not and it does not. Where does all this leave the marketer?

The first take away for me was to be wary of my own cognitive biases. I need to remember that most people are not like me and do not use Facebook and other social tools as I do.

I then need to remember that when I am formulating a strategic recommendation, I should seek out disconfirming information as a back stop to the assertions I make. This is to balance my natural tendency to seek out confirming information only.

I also need to remember that all research needs to be viewed in context. Depending on my target audience, product and other factors, it is very important to understand the conditions under which the information published was gathered. A report on digital tool adoption that is conducted online with a sample set that skews young is going to be highly biased if my goal is to understand the popularity of the tool across the broader population or to introduce it to an older market segment.

Lastly, I need to keep in mind how headlines are written.

As I was finishing this post, I clicked over to check the Pew Internet project site. There I saw a headline that said, "25% of American adults own tablet computers." If my client is a business with a modest budget wondering if they should invest in creating a tablet app this year, I might do well to remind them that 3 out of 4 of their customers would have no use for it right now, so depending on several factors, including the value of the 25% that do have tables, the company might do well to spend their budget elsewhere.


5 comments about "Marketers: Beware Your Biases ".
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  1. Tammy Burdick from The Roanoke Times, October 17, 2012 at 11:38 a.m.

    Well said Corey! I am often checking to see who is presenting the data to see if there is any possible bias in the findings. Like you said, it's very often a trade group or a vendor with close ties to whatever media/product/tool is presented as the best thing ever. I really liked your tip about flipping the stat as well - want to start doing that and see whatelse is lurking in the research.

  2. Adam Hartung from spark partners, October 17, 2012 at 12:16 p.m.

    Your column comes off as a tome for the laggard. I know you want to be aware of being too far in front of the marketplace, but have you ever heard of a company winning by being the also-ran, or me-too, of any market? Customers often buy from the innovation leader, even if they are not buying the state-of-the-art product. They want to watch the product development and choose when to participate. When a company is not leading the customer they make it far too easy for the customer to be stolen away by someone who takes the innovation edge. Your advice is a siren's song, luring too many laggard thinkers toward the shore only to be dashed by the innovation rocks of competition.

  3. Corey Guilbault from Source Marketing, October 19, 2012 at 10:17 a.m.

    Tammy, thank you for your kind words. Yes, the stat flipping I have found to be a useful hack in contextualizing often sensationalistic information.

    Adam, thanks for your input, though I must say I disagree. This is not about being a laggard, it is about connecting to your target where they really are, right now. If you don't you dump a lot of money down black holes. Its one thing to have the perception of being 'out front' its another to spend money on something that no one will see because the people you want to reach aren't there to see it.

    Related, I might also argue that being the 'out front innovator' isn't all its cracked up to be. Most start ups, with great technologies, die (we only read about the winners though because the deaths are quiet and the victors celebrated).

    Many of the most successful companies in their categories - and I mean 'high tech' categories - were in fact not the pioneers in their category but 'also rans' who did a better job of timing the market. If you're curious:

  4. Kristien Del Ferraro from Humongo, October 19, 2012 at 11:05 a.m.

    Nice article. I agree for the most part. I 100% agree how important it is to step out of your own life experiences as a marketer and step into the mind of the target audience... not just as it applies to how we as marketers view technology, but also how our own personal biases affect our idea generation. Because I would never eat processed frozen party snacks, doesn't mean the rest of america wouldn't. I'm constantly telling clients to manage expectations on how their fans engage in social media because of that 80/20 rule. I'm sorry, but a good 80% will just not do what we're asking fans/followers to do because it is NOT in their behavior. I will say though, that I believe it's OK to create marketing strategies that speak mainly to that 20% as they are the influencers, the trend setters, the ones that lead their friends POVs, perhaps even those that will advocate for your brand. Just because 85% aren't liking, clicking, or sharing doesn't mean they aren't listening and digesting. Just because they don't say anything doesn't mean you aren't reaching them and affecting their decisions or behaviors. The truth is, regardless of how few people update statuses daily, like posts, etc., they are still using social media and paying attention, so it's incredibly important to reach them there... but marketers just need to manage their expectations accordingly. The same applies regarding whether a client should invest in an ipad app if only 25% of American's have one. I agree that it may not be smart to recommend using one to some clients, but it depends on the product, their target and their objectives. If their objective is to be an innovator, to reach the tech saavy, etc. then it may be worth the investment (especially since that demo is quickly going), however, if they want mass reach and engagement and target lower income consumers, it's not a good idea.

  5. Corey Guilbault from Source Marketing, October 19, 2012 at 11:24 a.m.

    Thanks for chiming in K (Kristien and I work together so she gets the single letter salutation). As we often find ourselves, I am in alignment with you here. This is why I tried to be careful with the language I wrote the post in, because its never absolutes. And yes, you're absolutely right insofar as the "80%" who aren't power-users goes. They do take it all in and that has value to the marketer too (as long as expectations are set appropriately). My biggest point is that the Internet serves up volumes of convenient, PowerPoint-friendly data to support any point - no matter how absurd - so we as marketers have an obligation to be aware of and counter our biases to ensure our clients get the best recommendations we can offer against their business objectives. It takes some discipline to do this in a world where everything is due tomorrow - but I believe it will be time well spent and will improve the ROI on marketing investments significantly.

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