The are many challenges in the way we approach marketing, but one of the most common – and difficult to avoid – is confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is a problem that secretly sabotages many marketing efforts.
This is a behavioral bias where we tend to seek and favor information that confirms what we already believe while we avoid or disregard information that refutes our beliefs. It subverts our objectivity.
Confirmation bias is why people enjoy expensive wine, even when they don’t have the expertise to discern expensive vintages from cheap ones. Because we paid a lot for it, we believe it must be good. That bias affects our experience.
Every parent attending their child’s first music recital suffers from confirmation bias. We adore our kids and are sure they have talent. That bias lets us overlook every out of tune note and only hear the moments of perfect pitch.
Confirmation bias is a natural part of the way humans think, and it is – to a certain extent – unavoidable. We even allow it to happen. If you pay big money to go to a rock concert and realize when you’re there that it sounds more like standing next to a jet engine than music, it won’t matter. You don’t want to feel like you wasted your money, so you make yourself believe the show was great – even though the next day you’re half deaf.
However, this becomes a problem for tasks that require you to be objective – such as marketing your business. Your website is not a bottle of wine; your social media posts are not your kids.
Confirmation bias can seriously hinder the effectiveness of your marketing, costing you big-time.
Here are some of the areas where confirmation bias is most common in small business marketing, with tips on how you can avoid this trap.
#1. Website Design and Content
We brought up the example of the child’s concert intentionally. There are many business owners who think their website design is their kid.
As their website gets developed, they grow to love it. It becomes a reflection of their business vision; it’s beautiful to see it come to life.
Then confirmation bias sets in. The design and content become emblematic of the business, which in turn represent the aspirations of the business owner.
Here is an example of a paragraph meant to describe a business. Read it and see if you can guess what they do.
we collaborate at the intersection of art, design, technology and entrepreneurship. Our members are independent professionals who encourage meaningful human connections that value people over profit and collaboration over competition.
(By the way, the lower-case “w” at the beginning was intentional. It’s meant to make the text look “artsy”.)
Again, this is a description of what the business offers. Do you have any idea what they do?
What they are is a co-working office space in mid-size city. However, the business created a description so vague it’s impossible to get this.
You can sense how much this business owner cares about what she’s doing. Her description (considering it’s targeting business people) is almost oddly humanistic. She has a vision of people working in harmony and cooperation that’s lead to a vague, ineffective value proposition.
Just how effective is it to have a service for business people that claims – outright – to not favor profit? Probably not the best approach.
Confirmation bias mucks up design elements as well. Business owners – literally – start acting like the website is a kid they’re dressing to meet the relatives or a tattoo they’re getting on their arm. Looking cool becomes more important than conveying a their message.
Here is a website designed by a New York City sushi chef. In this case, he’s quite sure about how cool he is.
The best way to keep confirmation bias from detracting from your website presentation is to do a usability test where you get people who have no bias about your material to experience it with a fresh pair of eyes.
Get their feedback to see if you’re communicating effectively to the people who will actually use the site. After all, it’s for your prospective customers, not for you.
#2. Audience Targeting
Confirmation bias causes businesses to waste time trying to reach people who won’t spend money on their offer.
It’s not hard to track how this problem arises. Businesses start with a vision of who their “ideal” customer is. Without testing or any other relevant data, they start creating content that confirms that this vision is in fact their customer.
But today we know that digital consumers are incredibly varied. We consume data through many channels, each with different intents and needs. Generalizations about online behavior are often wrong.
As you look into targeting an audience for a new product, you must break the confirmation bias cycle. Be aware of how easy it is to decide your offering is for a certain type of person, then start seeking marketing collateral that confirms your belief.
For example, this dentist loves to bike and even offered a discount for patients who rode to their appointment. Unfortunately, she decided that biking should be central to her marketing material:
This is on Facebook, where people tend to skim over posts quickly.
Imagine this in you news feed. What stands out is the image…is this an ad for dentist or a bike race?
In fact, it’s not uncommon to see businesses so lacking in objectivity that the target audience appears to be the owner (take the sushi restaurant above). Here is another dentist with a focus on himself, engaging in his favorite hobby:
This content is so biased towards the tastes of the owners that it comes across as bizarre. No new patients checking into their practices are going to be enticed by bikes and birds. How about a discount for teeth whitening or telling me you specialize in Invisalign braces?
Take yourself out of the picture and think about how the benefits of your service will interest people. What do they care about? What motivates them?
Then run campaigns and start getting data. There is a wealth of demographic and interest based data you can access that will confirm what your audience responds to.
#3. Data Interpretation
It’s not uncommon for business owners to have confirmation bias with data interpretation.
What happens is that the owner gets a sense that they like a certain marketing channel. For example, people who are active (and enjoy) a certain social media platform convince themselves that this will be perfect for their marketing.
Or the business marketing on a budget hears that SEO is “free” (not really true) then decides – one way or another – this channel will work for them.
This bias also works against people who are uncomfortable with new technology. For example, one of our consultants is working with a financial planner who remains convinced that print flyers sent through the mail are the best way to market his business. That’s how he’s always gotten results. Yet he keeps calling us to ask about digital marketing, only to have the conversation end with him convincing himself that mailers are his best option.
One of the problems with interpreting data is that – if you look in a certain way – you find the results you hoped to see. When you invest in something, you don’t want to be confronted with a sunk cost. So you find a way to justify continuing with a plan that’s not actually working.
Sadly, this bias is often recognized too late – after the business is in serious trouble.
The best way to avoid this bias is to work with a marketing executive trained to look at your marketing data accurately and objectively. Let them relay the facts. Follow their advice.
If you don’t, this bias will eventually be broken when the data provides the cold hard facts about how you’re losing money.
Maintaining objectivity with your business endeavor is a major challenge. You become so involved and personally invested in what you’re doing that it’s impossible to look at your work from the perspective of a new customer.
You start to judge work before it’s started. You are drawn to short-cuts and low-end solutions because you believe you can be effective on the cheap. You become arrogant, assured that you always know best and that your tastes are superior.
Break this cycle and maintain your objectivity. Enter new campaigns with an open mind, always prepared for an unexpected effort to yield the best results – which happens often in digital marketing.
The one bias you can hold on to is that you’ll be successful in the end. Hold fast to that belief.
Expect the unexpected. It won’t go as you planned.
That’s marketing in the digital era.