How Hard is Choice, Really?

(Note: this is a re-post from when I wrote for Beyond Madison Avenue).

If you have been loyal readers of ours for the past few years (first, thank you!), you would know that we thoroughly enjoy the times when marketing and other realms of thought intersect. Marketing and advertising are fields that we wholeheartedly believe generalists excel in, for it is imperative to know a little bit about everything to be successful.

Knowing only what makes a catchy ad or how to write well cannot be the only prerequisites. Knowing about economics, sociology, psychology, and even philosophy can help the marketing professional increase their professional lifespan.

The topic of today’s post comes from a TED talk done by philosopher Ruth Chang, and it deals with choice.

If we boil down advertising into its frame, the goal is to get the consumer to choose our good or service over several options: 1) the consumer creating a solution on their own, 2) going to a competitor, 3) going to a substitute, or 4) doing nothing. Brands and advertisers compete against those choices every time the consumer begins to notice a want or need they have.

Many times in life, the consumer faces easy choices and hard choices. In marketing education, those processes are called extensive decision-making (hard choice) or routine decision-making (easy choice).

Ms. Chang identified choices as easy if one alternative had clearly better options or outcomes than the other and hard if one alternative was better in some ways but the other alternative was better in others. Chang also brought up the point that if a choice is hard, we can sometimes rely on unreasonable tactics like fear to default to the path of least resistance (PLR), so a hard choice can be avoided.

Chang noted that people (or, in our jargon, consumers) have the wonderful power to create reasons for why we make the decisions we do, and we can turn an easy decision into a hard one, or a hard decision into something fairly easy. When behavioral and marketing scientists study actions of consumers and perceived instances of cognitive dissonance, they see that consumers may create reasons justifying why certain things were bought and why they were acting certain ways.

How hard is choice? In truth, it depends on how hard consumers choose to make it. Humans have the uncanny ability to choose to be irrational, meaning going against a scientifically or socially superior decision, and create a reason that trumps it. Absolutely remarkable.

What does this have to do with advertising? A lot, actually. That is why taught and seasoned professionals know the difference between rationally and emotionally driven messaging. That’s why we research to find out what drives consumers to choose the things they do, and document how they came to those conclusions. That is why we should also look at why certain goods and services weren’t chosen over the products we provide. Then we compile the data and choose to reinforce the consumer’s choice if it went our way, or persuade the consumer to consider a different route if we were left in the cold.

The bottom line is this: The mass marketing theory can officially be archived. We need to engage consumers to know how they make choices in order to be a part of the process. If consumers can create reasons to love a brand, we might as well have messaging and content out there to help.

What is the ‘Sleeper Effect’, And How Can Marketers Leverage It?

The Importance of the Message

Simply put, we are in the business of persuasion. If we do not inform and persuade consumers or businesses or buy our goods and services, we are failing at our job as advertisers and marketers.

As communications professionals, we hold ‘the message’ in high regard. Public relations practitioners meticulously put together press releases and media advisories. Investor relations professionals spend hours putting together annual reports that contain the exact word or phrase they are looking for, so as to keep shareholders calm and happy about the performance of the business. Advertisers and marketers spend large amounts of resources to create the right ad or brochure that will catch the consumer’s eye and start the decision-making process.

While all these parties dedicate time and energy to ‘the message’, it is even more important to know the latest research about messaging and credibility.

The ‘Sleeper Effect’

Some professors of psychology out of the University of Illinois decided to look at the “sleeper effect” when it came to communications. The Sleeper Effect, as it was commonly defined, happens when a strong message or argument is delivered by a non credible source, that the persuasiveness of the message grows over time. The audience would discount the message early due to the source. But research shows that over time, the audience remembers the strong message more, and pays less attention to the source.

Very interesting concept! If the professors already knew that, then what else needed to be studied?

They wanted to know if the opposite was true: what if a credible source delivered a weak argument? Is the ‘sleeper effect’ still present?

The researchers ran the study, and the results suggested the affirmative- yes, a weak message can benefit from the sleeper effect if it came from a credible source, a source that the audience would readily believe.

The Implications

Why is this a big deal? We always knew that we needed a strong brand, and that strong brands needed strong messaging to not only keep customers, but to continue to win customers over. This study suggests that we need to pay additional attention to the “carryover” of our messaging to see how our messages affect consumers over time.

Example: Let’s say Brand A is a very strong brand. It decides to try a new message or slogan as it attempts to reposition a product. As the campaign develops, the team sees that the message isn’t as strong as they previously believed.

Now, what should these marketers do? If they did what every other marketing team does these days, they would immediately scrap the campaign. However, if we examine the results of this study, one should hesitate to immediately change course. If Brand A has a strong brand and established brand loyalty with a core group of customers, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say to wait out the initial results, continue the messaging, and watch the ‘sleeper effect’ run its course.

As fast as the business environment likes to work, this suggestion would be incredibly hard to implement. But, if the results of this study can be replicated, it is definitely something to think about.

 

Ads Won’t Go Away. So Now What?

Mostly everyone involved in intelligent conversation about marketing and advertising can arrive at the inevitable conclusion:

Advertising, regardless the medium, is here to stay.

That much is certain. What remains uncertain, is how the players doing the advertising continue to do it, and how the consumer is influenced by said advertising.

Though the conversations vary widely from AdLand totally disregarding the feelings of consumers, to brands still thinking crowd-sourcing ideas is a way to involve consumers and therefore create a loyal base.

We believe that between those two schools of thought, therein lies a balance.

Yes, we do believe that AdLand does an incredibly horrible job at not only gathering research and feedback from consumers, but using the data it collects to create simple and powerful advertising campaigns. There are some brands that do a terrific job, however those handful of brands and agencies are unable to speak on behalf the under-performing majority.

Yet, we would do our marketing colleagues a massive injustice if we didn’t declare an opinion we have repeatedly share for close to a decade- sometimes the consumer is just plain wrong. Yes, consumers can make bad decisions, make decisions based on irrelevant or misinformed information, or could even use (or intend to use) the product in a way it wasn’t intended. So if the consumer opinion is wrong or doesn’t reflect what the brand wants to do, it is no wonder that a brand or agency would junk the information it received.

So, now what?

Well, it depends. The rumbling within AdLand between the agencies and client-side marketers (brands) is only getting louder. The issue of gender discrimination in the advertising world is blowing up (with hopefully the ethnicity issue after) and those ‘thought leaders’ are falling from grace. It seems that AdLand needs to get its own house in order before it fixes how it operates.

So, it goes.

Do More Outlets Promote Brand Recall?

As time passes, consumers are given additional ways to gather and analyze information about the world around them. The media landscape continues to change, and it seems that the final version of media ‘as we know it’ has yet to arrive.

AdLand is not the only industry having this conversation and dealing with the difficulty this transformation is bringing. Our industry cousin- the news industry- is facing similar issues.

The overall questions that we both aim to answer is if additional outlets of information actually make consumers more informed. If people are able to get news from newspapers, TV, radio, Twitter, Facebook, FlipBoard, podcasts and online TV, do they become more informed than those in the past? Likewise, if consumers can get product information and advertising some all those same outlets, will they be more apt to brand recall if we assume that we place our ads across the board?

Let’s first address the news dilemma.

There have been multiple studies done across the nation about the rate of news consumption, and how people feel about being informed. The results have been interesting. One study highlighted in the Freakonomics podcast “Why Do We Really Follow the News” suggested that the increased amount of outlets didn’t help create more informed people- it actually helped those news consumers to be able to weed out the outlets they didn’t like in order to focus mainly on the outlets that affirmed their views.

In short, people searched for outlets that supported their views and opinions.

If people search for outlets that support their views, and brands are repeatedly showing their face in those same outlets, shouldn’t the brand recall be positive?

As always, it depends.

As brands determine which outlets to use and how often to use them, we have to really take our consumer’s behaviors into account. If they are extremely active, and see our brand ALL the time, we could trigger brand fatigue and create the opposite effect- they may try to search for different brands.

The outlets should depend on the topics and issues being covered. If they are reading about mudslides in the areas tearing apart homes and communities, advertising your “MudRun 5K” might not be the best idea. But if your client is an insurance provider and offer 24/7 free consultation, that might be worth adding that to the programmatic campaign.

Do multiple outlets promote brand recall? In short, it is highly possible. If done right it can bode well for the brand. If done poorly, it can be a waste of money and could actually damage the brand equity one has already built.

 

Sparks Fly Over Media Transparency Report

For about a year now, there has been focus on media transparency between brands, agencies and media companies. The biggest issue at hand is that brands are concerned that they are not being told how their money is being spent, nor do they know exactly how much media they are buying.

This all stems from a talk from a notable advertising figure who claimed that “rebates”, money a media company gives back to an agency, has been going on in the industry for decades.

And the sirens in BrandLand went off.

So then, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s) created a joint task force to see what could be done to make sure the partnership stays honest.

At least, as honest as it can be.

That’s pretty much as amiable as it got.

Towards the end of January 2016, the 4A’s released a “Transparency Guiding Principles of Conduct” article, which it believed satisfied much of the arguments over transparency and ceasing the actions of rebates.

The ANA was not pleased. So much so, the ANA quickly demanded the 4A’s to remove all ANA association with the article.

The 4A’s aptly did so.

Now the good stuff. The ANA released the final report done by K2 Intelligence on the prevalence and scale of rebates and media transparency.

The 62-page report is, in short, pretty damning.

Naturally then, the 4A’s promptly parried with its own article saying how one-sided and shadowy the report is the day it was released.

The fact that the ANA and the 4A’s are going at each other only confirms the disconnect the K2 Intelligence team refers to at the end of its executive summary:

K2 found evidence of a fundamental disconnect in the advertising industry regarding the basic nature of the advertiser-agency relationship. In general, advertisers expressed a belief that their agencies were duty-bound to act in their best interest. They also believed that this obligation – essentially, in their view, a fiduciary duty – extends beyond the stated terms in their agency contracts. While some agency executives expressed similar beliefs, others told K2 that their relationship to advertisers was solely defined by the contract between the two parties.

After the 4A’s released its statement of disapproval, the Chairman of the ANA released a letter to the ANA membership defending the report, and countering the 4A’s opinions of the report.

It is about time we have a strong conversation about the client/agency relationship. Though people may view this as conflict, this can actually help the relationship grow stronger if the sides are willing to hear everything out.

Conflict isn’t a bad thing, unless we choose not to do anything about it.

So the ANA has this report, and the 4A’s has its Guiding Principles of Conduct. Based on the K2 report, it seems that we all have to take a step back and lay down a foundation.

First, when a brand and an agency work together, what behavior is expected?

Once that question is answered, then they can revisit their positions, and start ironing things out. Because it seems that the agency world believes that its hired to do the work, do the work well, and call it a day, while the brand world wants more commitment and wants to ‘see behind the curtain.’

If that’s the case, then no wonder there’s mistrust and the question of transparency. In this scenario, agencies don’t believe that transparency is part of the game, while brands are wondering when agencies are going to start playing.

It seems like the ANA and the 4A’s are on different pages. But now that they know that, they can start working towards a common goal.

“Desirable Difficulty” And Why We Should Care

First, what does the phrase, “desirable difficulty” even mean?

The phrase comes from the education and psychology world. It suggests that if we make encoding, that is, interpreting information from one form into another, a little harder for the learner, then the learner will force themselves to start processes in their brains that will encourage long-term retention and learning.

It makes sense. We as humans tend to remember concepts that we really worked hard on; items and information we struggled to retain or learn but finally ‘getting it’.

Sure, this is important for teachers and psychologists to know, but why do we as marketing professionals bring this up?

It’s simple- it deals with consumer behavior.

When businesses and brands prepare something new for consumers, the common thought is to make it as simple and easy as possible. The easier the consumer can understand and use the product, the better product adoption is going to be.

And in a sense, that’s true. But we argue, though adoption for a simple and easy product is good, we believe that adding a little bit of difficulty to ‘product mastery’ could possibly increase the brand’s chances of creating loyal customers.

How so?

An easy and simple product doesn’t provide any real reason for the consumer to continue to use the product. Yes, it lowers the switching costs and risks for the consumer, but it doesn’t instill any real ownership or work for the consumer to consider the easy and simple product as valuable.

But, imagine if the product or brand made it just a little difficult for the consumer to use the product, getting the consumer to think about how to get the full use of it. Not too hard for the consumer to opt for the Path of Least Resistance route, but hard enough to create the ‘Ikea Effect’ Dan Ariely and other behavioral economists have discussed in detail.

Some examples for adding Desirable Difficulty-

-Making the consumer put the product together
-Having the consumer go through a series of steps to activate the product
-Forcing the consumer to give the product a name, label or number
-Having the consumer pass a test or tutorial before using (short, 3-5 question quiz)
-Intentionally making the UX a little hard to navigate

Should all brands and products do this? By no means. Commodities cannot survive with this strategy, but some products, especially in the digital and mobile realm, could reap significant results with this strategy.

Just something to think about.

Industry as Strong as Our Weakest Colleague

We got the title of this post from a line we wrote in post early on in our role as Lead Blogger for Beyond Madison Avenue.

Looking at it again, it rings truer now than ever before.

We appropriated it to AdLand from its original, sports environment. A football team, soccer team,track team, are all as strong as its weakest teammate, area, or event. Instead of focusing on the strengths, we examine how our vulnerabilities affect our chances of victory.

Likewise in advertising, if our victory is winning over the public, our vulnerability includes those practitioners who lack the sufficient education, reasoning and experience necessary to do the industry justice.

What can AdLand do? The barriers to entry for advertising are much lower than the medical, legal, and engineering practices.

Yet, out of those, advertising garners the most attention from buyers, whether consumer or industrial.

Getting degrees in the practice is one thing, and passing exams administered from the AMA, IABC and the like are another. It still isn’t enough.

We can continue to rely on basic free enterprise principles and hope that the weak ones are phased out naturally. But, if history holds true, those principles do not hold up.

We welcome any suggestions you all might have in fixing AdLand’s weakest link. We’ll revisit this topic soon.

Will the U.S. Actually Pass the Ad Tax?

There has been plenty of speculation that the U.S. Congress, amid a presidential election, may try to push through legislation that will make them popular amongst their constituents.

Unfortunately attacking the ad industry ranks near the top of the list.

In case you are not aware, advertising costs incurred by businesses and corporations in the United States are not taxed, because it is- and rightfully so- considered as a cost of doing business.

But now, more than a few legislators want to take that classification away. Why? We haven’t been able to find a legitimate reason. Perhaps it is due to advertising being a multi-billion dollar industry? Or perhaps it would prove to consumer advocacy groups that legislators can be “tough” on business?

Who knows the reason why, but the fact remains that the adding of this particular tax on business is not a good idea.

There are dozens of reasons why, with the biggest one being that it will hurt smaller businesses’ ability to compete. With a tax on advertising, these SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) have even FEWER funds to compete against the big dogs.

We agree that businesses should pay more into the tax system. And we are hoping more advertising professionals step up to the negotiation table to figure out a better alternative.