Robert Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion is a wealth of knowledge for marketers. Early in the book he talks about the principal of saliency, and in this post we talk about how this relates to ad messaging. I expand on this topic for its application to marketers with the basic concept that if information that’s important is the information that’s in front of you, then the marketer’s job is simple: get in front of the consumer and stay there.
A second element of this pre-suasive environment for a message to resonate is the element of “what’s focal is causal”. The concept is simple, silly and it explains lots of strange behavior by us humans. If someone, or something, is the focal point, then that person or thing will seem to be the reason that something happens. The focal point will erroneously be characterized as the cause of certain outcomes. The President of the United States is one man or woman. He has an entire staff supporting him. There’s a Congress of hundreds of Senators and members of the House of Representatives, and all their supporting staff. There is the judicial branch of the government with the Supreme Court and their staff. We’re talking about a government that is made of thousands of people directly involved in governing, and tens of thousands more indirectly connected to the governance of our country. Yet, it’s seen that our President is the focal point of our government, and the cause of the outcomes that come from governance, when in reality there are thousands of people that impact the rules, laws and direction of our country. Because the President is a single person, and gets significant coverage through broadcast media, he is seen as the person who decides the country’s path.
Often when a company faces serious product challenges such as the distribution of tainted product, a massive hack, or a flouting of federal EPA standards it’s usually not a direct result of the work by the CEO. In some cases the CEO is actively covering up or taking action to break the rules, and in other situations he or she is not directly responsible for the problems. They may not even know about the specific activites that are happening to cause the problem. In most cases, though, the person in charge takes the fall and is the person who resigns or gets fired. This person may not be the cause of the problem, but he is the focal point of that outcome.
Many other examples can be found. In particularly interesting research scientists found that if you can see one part of a two-sided conversation (say over the shoulder, or from a distance) the person whose face you see will be perceived to be the dominant force in the conversation. So, the person whose portion of the conversation you see will appear to the observer to be the person that causes the outcome. What’s focal is causal.
With this information in mind the learning for marketers is that there is no silver bullet when it comes to running marketing or media campaigns. It’s usually a combination of factors that drive performance, rather than one. In the days when I was advertising Mercury Auto Insurance, we found that search ads were very efficient. We know that with search ads there’s a scale limit with this very efficient media, and then to level up and earn more clicks and conversions the advertiser must open up their communications into a new medium, like display ads, video or TV. In each case, there’s a small level of efficiency, followed by that point where economies of scale are lost. We found with Mercury Auto Insurance that when TV ads ran search ads performed substantially better. There was more search volume and the clicks were less expensive. What was probably happening was more brand recognition resulted in more accessibility to the consumer. What was salient (the messaging and offer) resulted in a compelling challenge the user opted to solve for at that moment with a search on Google, a click to the Mercury Auto Insurance site and a request for an auto insurance quote. Without the “what’s focal is deemed causal” insight the search team may have ascertained that their optimizations did really well to bring down CPC. A different group may say TV ads caused an increase in performance. In reality it is the combination of the two that drove better performance. So, instead of focusing on a silo the larger enterprise worked together to find the best performance and didn’t fall into the trap of assuming their piece of the pie worked alone to drive performance.
It’s important for marketers to have very clearly stated knowledge about their entire marketing apparatus. While a new ad campaign could be on everyone’s mind as the reason for more site traffic or more sales, it may very well be something completely unrelated. For example, routine PR and marketing work may result in press coverage from a larger than usual publication. Alternatively, maybe some piece of marketing content was shared and reached a level of virality that accounts for some of that success.
Ad messaging is important in this equation too. We often see messaging that speaks to a sales event for car manufacturers. The Summer Sales Event from (insert your favorite car manufacturer here) messaging will intimate the reason for the sales event is the season. Or, theme parks will give local residents a local discounted rate to the theme park because it’s a neighborly way of acting. The fact is less that the theme park is being neighborly, and more that they have chosen a positioning message for their local audiences. So, for marketers it’s important to define for the audience a focal point to initate that causation in the consumer. The theme parks want the consumer to think about how generous they are for giving local residents discounts. What’s the message, the story and the positioning that makes your brand or product come to life in the mind of the consumer? Repeat that story often, make it entertaining and develop a focal point for your consumer to connect to.
Finally, when you wrap up the entirety of this principle – what’s focal is deemed causal – and tie it to saliency – what’s top of mind is most important – we see a framework for marketers to follow. Work to remain top of mind among your audience, and create a focal point to your consumer that leads them to believe that your business is the best. For example, by being the local restaurant that’s always advertising to a specific set of consumers your target audience may be lead to think that your restaurant is the best, otherwise, why would they be marketing so heavily. That’s a logically false statement, but sometimes that’s how consumers think due to the principle of what’s focal is deemed causal.
With the ability to run highly targeted programmatic and social media campaigns it’s easy to be top of mind to a very narrow and targeted audience.