Wednesday, December 18, 2013

if you can think of it, it must be important

It's sobering to note that at the end of 2013 there are still people, clients, agencies and organisations out there who are in varying degrees of confabulation - driven by emotions ranging from blind terror to rapture - around the impact (both apparent and potential) of the social media for their businesses and communications.

This, of course, only contributes to further uncertainty and, as we know, under uncertainty, biases in judgement - most often created by too much (or indeed too little) information - will lead to errors of thinking (and doing).

While we could joke that this situation would be easier to navigate if only there were some experts out there to offer guidance?

Or some information websites on how to successfully leverage social media?

Perhaps even a webinar or two or a set of ebooks one could buy?

Ha, but the problem is clearly the former. Too much information.

And in this situation two cognitive biases exert disproportionate influence.

Firstly, the availability heuristic is a mental shortcut by which decisions are made based on how easily similar examples that come to mind.

As a result, we tend judge that those events or examples that are easier to think of are more frequent and possible than others. We routinely overestimate the likelihood of similar things happening in the future, and likewise we overestimate the importance of stories that seem to be everywhere (ie easily mentally available).

From a brand marketing point of view, this bias is one that can be extremely useful.

Brands that appear to be popular, that are easily noticed and remembered (mental availability) and with the best distribution (physical/virtual availability) tend to benefit from larger market share. For a small brand looking to grow then getting to grips with availability is crucial.

[Interestingly, and statistically, one is more likely to be killed by a refrigerator falling on one's head than in any act of terrorism, but incidents of terrorism come to mind much more easily and are believed to be far more common.]

On the downside, the idea that 'social media is the answer to all branding and marketing problems' is a hugely available idea, initially propagated within the social media itself by 'experts' and - not only but also - repeated, received-wisdom-style by all and sundry, so that it comes so easily to mind that surely it must be true.

The reality being that there are very very few examples of brands that have been built or grown substantially through social media alone. Go to a few social media conferences and you will very shortly collect the set as the same examples are trotted out at every event.

The idea that 'consumers' want to have deep emotional connections and engage with brands is also a hugely available idea, while statistically on any given week, less than 0.5% of Facebook fans will engage with any brand they are fans of.

Given that a brand's Facebook following will mostly represent but a tiny proportion of its customer base, and for the most part follow for (let's be honest) customer service and/or freebie purposes then it's not a great case for growth through 'engagement'.

A season spent on the conference trail will further compound as one notices the constant presence of availability's close cousin, the projection bias, in which we tend to assume that others feel exactly the same as we do.

Secondly, another close cousin of availability (and projection) and perhaps the most dangerous and widely visible of biases in the social media space is the confirmation bias.

Until recently this was perhaps best described as the social media bubble, fishbowl or echo chamber, in which members display tendencies to read material that confirms existing beliefs, pay more attention to information and people who confirm existing beliefs, and search for corroborative evidence to confirm existing beliefs.

Chuck in a dash of sunk-cost fallacy and it's easy to see why, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, there is now a whole industry of social media gurus who want the 'death of this or that' to be true, will cherry pick and spotlight anything that supports it, and then congratulate themselves on their accuracy.

The word guru has it's origins in Sanskrit, the primary liturgical language of Hinduism.

Much can be learned from ancient eastern wisdom, of course.
Not least a healthy skepticism of the self-annointed thought-leader or guru.

The Kularnava Tantra is an important and authoritative text of the Shakta Agamic tantra tradition and a major statement of Hindu spiritual thought, including this nugget.

‘…there are many gurus who may rob the disciple's wealth but few who can remove the disciple's afflictions…’

Humans are probably the only species with the ability to think about the future, yet that hasn't helped our ability to predict. In fact the only accurate prediction one can confidently make is that the majority of our predictions will be wrong.

My closing hope, as opposed to prediction, is that as an ad industry we can overcome our confabulation in the year ahead, understand properly the role that digital and social has in an overall communications piece (for a role they undoubtably have, but not the be-all and end-all) and focus on what's really important.

To be better at understanding the behaviour of people in buying situations and developing the kind of things and communications that have the best chance of influencing those behaviours.

And finally, to perhaps best illustrate that heady brew of availability and confirmation bias I leave you with this splendid cartoon, shared by Doddsy some time ago in an unrelated tweet, and one that has featured in a number of my presentations this year to illustrate some of the points contained in this note.

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