What Product Marketers Need to Know About Cognitive Biases in Content Value Chain

cognitive biases

If you think about it, content marketing itself works because of reciprocity bias. You publish content and your readers get immense value out of it, which makes them feel like giving you something in return (to reciprocate). Some of them go to your product/solution pages, and a few may eventually become leads and customers.

While this is good, there are biases happening in the content value chain that hinder product marketers and content marketers from creating good, engaging content. We’ll discuss some biases and how they affect the content value chain, because knowing about biases is key to avoiding them.

Defining the content value chain

Creating customer-facing content isn’t a single-step process. There are multiple stages involved, from ideating a piece to a user consuming the content. These stages are called the content value chain. Let’s break down each of the stages briefly:

How the content value chain looks like for product marketers
  1. Content ideation: Includes topic and content research to come up with relevant content. The research follows an interview with a subject-matter expert (SME) and the collection of relevant data to make the piece authoritative. The last step includes content creation and completing the process.

  2. Content reviewThe content goes through multiple edits and the finished piece is sent back to the SME for sign-off, just to ensure the validity of claims and that nothing is misinterpreted. Upon receiving the feedback from the SME, the piece may need further edits and it’s ready to publish.

  3. Content publishingThe step where a completed piece—including the visuals, and internal/external links—is uploaded to a content management system (CMS) like WordPress for publishing.

  4. Content ranking/evaluation: The part where product marketers sit and watch to see the content ranking on the search engine result page (SERP). Google would crawl, index, and hopefully rank the content better for the audience to see it easily.

  5. Content consumption: The final step in the process where a user finds the content in the SERP and consumes it. The reader may either skim or go through the piece fully and get some value out of it.

Generally, the above are the steps involved in the content value chain, and cognitive biases can easily affect some of them.

What is cognitive bias?

Nobody likes hard work at times, not even our brains. To get around the work, like when the brain needs to sort through and process too much information, sometimes it takes shortcuts—to evaluate, form an opinion, or make a decision. And these shortcuts are often prone to errors, called cognitive biases. Because we let our experiences and preferences command over logical thinking and reasoning.

Cognitive biases are errors in reasoning and evaluation and are typically unconscious and unintentional, which makes them hard to recognize.

The history of cognitive bias as we know it is only half a century old. 

  • Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, two Israeli psychologists, originally used the phrase cognitive bias in the 1970s.

  • They studied how people made decisions when resources (like time) are limited. For example, if you want to buy something quickly, you might not do a lot of research. Instead, you may rely on your experience using a particular product for the same need. Mental shortcuts based on our experiences and viewpoints aid in quick decision-making in those situations.

For years, marketers have been leveraging consumer psychology and cognitive biases to their advantage: to convince people. For instance, when you see an ad copy saying an offer is getting expired at midnight, it’s trying to exploit the loss-aversion bias (or FOMO). Even if people are aware of such marketing tactics, some still buy. The root cause is the way how human psychology works on emotions: the intensity of emotion to lose something (losing the offer) is more than the intensity of gaining something.

Human minds—including yours and mine—are prone to biases. The same biases can creep in and disrupt the content value chain. Let’s look at a few biases and how they affect some steps in the content value chain.

1.Confirmation bias

Think of the countless debates around flat Earth and round Earth. No matter how much data one party submits as evidence supporting their beliefs, many from the other side won’t believe it. 

  • They only validate claims supporting what they already believe.

  • They don’t entertain evidence/data proving otherwise.

This tendency to seek and retain information that supports our preexisting beliefs or suspicions is called confirmation bias. It makes people dismiss data that would appear to contradict those beliefs. Confirmation bias has always been one of the primary causes of failure in every decision like starting a new company, a product or a process, or investing in any entity.

Confirmation cognitive bias affects topic research and content consumption in the content value chain

Confirmation bias is one of the common biases product marketers fall for. In the content value chain, it can impact topic research and content consumption.

  • Topic research: Some product marketers believe they need to create whatever content their competitors are producing. Or, digital marketers pressure some product marketers to write on topics based only on keyword and SERP analysis (which is not good, know why). All this comes from the confirmation bias that traffic is important, and they do it anyway at the cost of better conversion.

Solution: Take a customer-first approach while researching topic ideas. Instead of obsessing over competitors or SEO and SERP analysis, be customer obsessed to produce impactful content.

  • Content consumption: If your audience are frustrated with an existing solution, they might only look for content that validates that belief. This is a sweet spot for product marketers to produce multiple pieces of content that shows why the solution sucks. Once you validate those beliefs, it becomes easier to introduce your solutions and make people believe in them. Also, creating content like “Your product (x) vs the competitor product (y): why x is better than y” helps to create a confirmation bias in the audience (that your product is good) as long as the product creates value for them.

2.Institutional bias

You might have played this game when you were a kid. You form a circle with your friends and whisper a message to the one standing next to you. And they will pass that on to the next one, and so on. By the time the message circles back to you, it would be entirely different from the one you started with. Everyone tries to interpret what they “think” they heard and pass it on.

Institutional bias in content marketing is almost similar to this. It’s the prejudices that shift the focus from the target audience to the product, especially when you have multiple stakeholders in the content creation process. A piece of content goes through all of them before publishing, and by the time it’s ready to publish, it might have had significant changes or swayed away from the original purpose.

Institutional bias affects SME interviews and secondary data collection in the content value chain

Institutional bias mostly affects these two steps in content generation flow:

  • SME interviews: Some SMEs are biased while asking questions during customer discovery and uncovering problems. It makes them misinterpret the answers and give wrong ideas during the interview. Eventually, the content that’s heavily influenced by the interview wouldn’t resonate with the target audience because they don’t have a clue what it’s talking about. The more complex the domain, the more severe the institutional bias in SMEs.

Solution: The best way to interview an SME is to ask open-ended questions, starting from the very basic ones. Continue asking questions until you understand an answer and know how to convey them to your audience so that they understand it easily as well. Challenging basic assumptions and getting clear answers would give new insights and help to keep the bias at bay.

  • Secondary data collection: Similar to the bias in SME interviews, not having a good grasp of data analysis might cause institutional bias because the data would be misinterpreted.

3.Completion bias

It feels good when we complete a task because our brain releases dopamine, which put us in a positive mood. The craving for dopamine release makes us tick off items from our to-do lists. 

Completion bias is the need to complete a task once we started it, and the feeling of satisfaction we get out of it drives this bias. The problem with the bias is that we tend to complete easier tasks and procrastinate or not do harder ones.

Completion bias affects content finalization and content consumption in the content value chain

Completion bias mainly affects content finalization and content consumption parts:

  • Content finalization: Creating quality content is never a simple task. It involves a lot of thinking, researching, discussing, going back and forth on various resources, and editing. Completion bias might cause some product marketers to skip a few steps along the way and create content just to stick to the publishing schedule. And the result might be poor-quality content.

Solution: Try not to hurry the content finalization process. A piece takes multiple iterations to get the story right, fill content gaps, and finally make sense to the reader. And people love a well-structured story.

  • Content consumption: Given the shorter attention span of people, most readers would never read an article from top to bottom. They may feel a need to read the article completely, but the number of data points and distractions would make them skim the article by going through the headings and images. Skimming the article would almost give a sense of completion.

4.The curse of knowledge bias

I remember an article that I read recently, which made me Google the jargon in them while reading. The author had the bias that the people like me have enough knowledge to understand them, making him not care to explain what the jargon meant. This assumption—that the readers are almost on the same page, in terms of their level of knowledge about the topic—is called the curse of knowledge bias.

The curse of knowledge cognitive bias affects content finalization and feedback stages for product marketers in the content value chain

The curse of knowledge bias creeps in during the content finalization and feedback stages:

  • Content finalization: Product and content marketers go deep and try to understand all the nuances and become very well-informed on the topic they choose. When they write, the bias makes them assume that the readers have enough knowledge to understand what they’re saying, which creates communication gaps. Unexplained jargon in top-of-the-funnel articles and a lack of examples to make some concepts comprehensible in the content are examples of this bias.

Solution: It’s crucial to know who your target personas are in B2B, as they can be users, influencers, or buyers. Content and the way you present information could be different depending on them. For example, content could be quite technical when you’re writing for the users. Know your audience and then create content to get rid of this bias.

  • Feedback: The curse of knowledge is not just about having more knowledge than the target audience, but sometimes less knowledge about them. For example, a marketer would be competent enough to provide feedback on a story, but if they provide comments on the technical side of it, the writer would want to discuss if they have come to the level of the intended audience for whom the content is being written. Similarly, technical folk might be right for providing feedback on the technical correctness of an article. But if they provide ideas and opinions on the story, then it may not be right because they might not be aware of the market and customer engagement. In any case, the reviewer must bring themselves to the level of the audience.

A bit of empathy can help you go a long way

If you’ve noticed it, you might know that adopting a customer-first approach to content creation flow would help fight most biases. That’s why showing empathy towards your audience is crucial.

  • When you’re empathetic, you start to carefully analyze every single word that you type and how it would benefit the reader.

  • You’d go through a piece multiple times to make sure everything is in order for the readers to digest easily.

  • You wouldn’t want to appear as a know-it-all person, but as someone who knows what the audience are going through.

  • You’d look for ways to get feedback and make the content better every time.

It’s hard to check cognitive bias given its subtle nature, and it can be tedious to be mindful of our thoughts all the time. Try being empathetic to your readers and see how it impacts your conversation with them.

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