Cognitive biases get the most attention when they’re applied to areas of science and statistics. Biased questions are a leading cause of inaccurate surveys, and hidden biases of researchers must be accounted for in a well-designed experiment.
Because of this association, you may not think of your own biases getting in the way of your job as a content marketer. Unfortunately, most of us are highly susceptible to the vulnerabilities and flaws of our own minds — unless we’re aware and observant enough to compensate for them.
One of the most notorious biases in content marketing is confirmation bias, but with the proper understanding, you can make up for this otherwise glaring weakness.
How Confirmation Bias Works
Confirmation bias happens when you instinctively overestimate the value of information that falls in line with your previously held expectations or assumptions. Like it or not, you form assumptions on a near-constant basis, sometimes with almost no evidence to go on. These are your instincts, your hunches, and your working hypotheses. If you see information that seems to confirm those suspicions (hence the name), you’ll highly value it, and you might downplay evidence that seems to deny those suspicions.
For example, if you’ve already made up your mind that climate change is a hoax, you might selectively filter out scientific evidence that demonstrates climate change in action but disproportionately value the minority of scientists who question these effects. This is partially why so many conspiracy theories have risen to popularity; people latch onto evidence that falls in line with their suspicions or assumptions, and ignore any contrary evidence — even when it’s overwhelming.
The true power of confirmation bias lies in the fact that it’s hard to detect. You aren’t consciously favoring any piece of evidence over any other; instead, you’re subtly directed by your own subconscious.
Confirmation in Content
So how can confirmation bias interfere with your content marketing efforts, specifically?
· Hard data. With your analytics platforms, you have access to hundreds of different metrics and thousands of different variables. If you already have an assumption about how your campaign is performing, it wouldn’t be hard to find some metrics in that pool that happen to agree with you. For example, if you’re working under the assumption that your content strategy is growing in popularity, you might disproportionately value your social media follower growth and undervalue your organic traffic growth by comparison.
· Subjective reception. Confirmation bias can also come into play when judging subjective feedback in things like reader comments or responses to user surveys. For example, you might throw out responses that have negative things to say about your content or brand, and pick out some of the best things people have to say as evidence that your strategy is working. This can lead you further down whatever assumptive road you’ve started on, preventing you from seeing the truth about your campaign (for better or worse).
Confirmation bias can work in a number of different ways, but it always distorts the objective truth, which compromises your ability to draw accurate conclusions and take the right actions accordingly.
It’s clear that confirmation bias can wreak havoc on your content marketing campaign, especially in your measurement and analysis, but what can you do about it? These strategies can help:
· Treat everything as an experiment. First, treat everything you do in your content campaign as a scientific experiment. Use the scientific method to make an observation, form a hypothesis, and then set up test conditions that put that hypothesis to the test. Designing the experiment and determining which metrics to measure are some of the most important steps, so choose your scenario wisely, and make sure you have a control group to gauge your efforts by comparison. Put your science hat on!
· Avoid premature hypotheses. Though the scientific method demands that you form a working hypothesis, in most conditions, it’s better to actively avoid forming assumptions at all. For example, don’t assume that your traffic is going to grow when you start writing more content, and don’t assume that your audience favors one type of content over another until you can prove it with data. Keep your mind clear, hard as that may be.
· Track and understand many metrics. You can avoid several cognitive biases at once by committing to learn, understand, and use many different metrics in your marketing campaign. Don’t let yourself gravitate toward one or a small range of metrics, or you’ll end up limiting your potential conclusions.
· Seek to disprove yourself. If you have an assumption or a hypothesis that you’re working with, don’t set out to prove yourself right — work to prove yourself wrong. Reverse confirmation bias by deliberately seeking information that contradicts your opinion; if you can’t find any, you’ll know you’re doing something right.
· Get multiple opinions. If you’re a part of a team, don’t try to do everything yourself. If you have multiple people looking at the same information, you’ll be able to compensate for each other’s biases. Together, you’ll have a greater likelihood of uncovering the actual truth.
There’s no way to “cure” yourself of confirmation bias; it’s a natural byproduct of the way our brains work. We aren’t perfect thinkers, and probably never will be, but we can recognize our own weaknesses and make a conscious effort to make up for them. Striving to remain unbiased won’t make your strategy perfect, but it will put you in a position to make better decisions.