Dual Process Theory in Content Marketing (Part Two)
Feb 8, 2016
In part one of this series we looked at the definition of dual process theory and how it applies to marketing. Welcome to part two, where we will discuss how the theory is applied to content marketing, specifically. Let’s continue, shall we?
First, a few definitions so we can talk about this stuff a little more efficiently. A few of these should just be refreshers from part one.
System 1: Relating to human cognition, it is thought associated with the limbic system in the brain. It is marked as fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, and subconscious.
System 2: Relating to human cognition, it is thought associated with the frontal lobe in the brain. It is marked as slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious.
Content Marketing: An evolved form of marketing, it considers people as whole humans, not just a bunch of suggestible System 1’s. Content marketing aims to provide something substantive to people that will bring value to their lives in some way (System 2). At the same time, it seeks to deliver that content in a way that is delightful and simply feels good (System 1).
Content Marketing Ecosystem: All of the content created for a particular entity with the intention of fostering a relationship with a target group of people. An “entity” could be a person or group of people, an organization, an idea, a product, a cause, etc.
Got ‘em? Good!
Every piece of content within a good content marketing ecosystem should engage System 1 and System 2 in some way.
In order to do that most effectively, you have to research, know and truly understand the people who are intended to engage with that ecosystem. When you create a piece of content this way, you inevitably establish a connection between each piece of content, eliciting familiarity, and hopefully, delight. No matter which part of the ecosystem someone engages with first, they will happily explore the rest of it over time because you’ve given them something of value.
Now, it makes sense conceptually to split human thought into two systems, but when you’re developing a content marketing ecosystem, it is useful to think about human thought as a spectrum between the two systems.
Put System 1 on the left and System 2 on the right, then define a “habitable zone” (a term I’m shamelessly borrowing from astronomers). In other words, some pieces of content may focus more on System 1 or System 2, but all content must speak to both systems. Why? Because humans make decisions based on input from both systems 100% of the time. (Granted, sometimes we ignore the input from System 2, but…well, we can talk about that some other time)
This idea assumes a standard of value, familiarity, and delight in each piece of content but also allows you create clusters of content within your ecosystem to tell stories. The constituent parts of that cluster do not all have to sit in the middle of the spectrum. But, the cluster as a whole should average out to the middle of the spectrum. The same is true for the ecosystem as a whole. This is because humans love symmetry, balance, harmony, zen…….. peace.
How do you determine which side of the spectrum you’re appealing to? Or when you’ve hit the sweet spot?
You have to ask the people you’re creating the content for. Remember when I said that before you do anything, you must “truly understand the people who are intended to engage with that ecosystem?” In order to do that, you have to talk to them and observe them. Find out what their needs are, and how they think about the world or how they solve problems (System 2). Also find out what they’re passionate about, what excites them, and what makes them feel good (System 1). From there, your “habitable zone” will start to take shape.
To expand on the importance of research a bit more, let’s visit the idea of the “superego” posited by Sigmund Freud. The theory goes that a person’s ideals and perceptions of themselves in society are instilled in them mostly by their parents. That’s the initial superego. Other figures such as church leaders, teachers, or other role models may also contribute to the opinions and perceptions stored in someone’s superego over time, but it is largely a “successful instance of identification with the parental agency,” as Freud put it.
In some cases, usually after the brain has fully developed (around age 25), the ego is more apt to overrule the superego and redefine several aspects of it, depending on the context of the person’s life. Is the context of their life largely the same as it was when their superego was originally formed, or is it drastically different? When the difference is great, the ego gains more potential for overwriting the superego. When the difference is small, the superego is more likely to stay the same.
My point is that the superego is not a fixed part of someone’s cognitive experience the same way that System 1 and System 2 are (or, similarly, the Id and the Ego). As such, in order to apply it to content marketing, it must be discovered via research, which should already be a continual process. In terms of dual-process theory, we have concrete definitions for the two systems which we can use to generate research questions.
In order to gather data about what content will speak to System 1 the most, we can ask our target audience about their passions, their hobbies, their favorite things, or how they define “fun.”
To figure out what content will resonate with System 2, we can ask our target audience about the challenges they usually face and how they typically solve problems.
In order to bring the theory of the superego into the mix, we need to ask our target audience questions that will define what that superego actually is. In other words, we need to determine their mindset and perspective on the world. What do they find offensive? What beliefs do they hold? What inspires them? How do they behave when they work or play? While research on the two systems will determine what content to create, research on the superego will inform how the target audience would prefer to experience that content.
In other words, it helps the content marketer determine the personality of the content in order to design and deliver it most appropriately.
Once you start creating content and designing ways to deliver it, you need to put those ideas back in front of your audience.
Test them. Iterate them.
Test them again. Iterate them.
Test them again…
You get the idea! Over time, your habitable zone will come into much clearer focus, allowing you to more rapidly and effectively expand your ecosystem.
Don’t ever get too complacent, though. People change. Therefore, your research must be incessant.
Let’s take a look at an example of a good content marketing ecosystem cluster in action. Think back to when the Apple first introduced the iPhone via TV commercials (Side note: I picked Apple because their audience is essentially most people in the world, so their habitable zone is quite generic). Think of that collection of TV commercials as a cluster of content. The very first commercial was just 30 seconds of various clips of people saying “Hello,” leading up to the reveal of the iPhone showing an incoming call.
That commercial is definitely on the left side of their habitable zone. It grabs your attention with familiar famous people saying “Hello” in various movies and TV shows, which sparks delightful memories and makes you feel good. Hello, System 1. At the very end, the iPhone is revealed and there’s an incoming call waiting for you to pick up an say “Hello.” This allows you to see the revolutionary interface of the iPhone, and although you’re seeing it for the first time, you immediately know what to do. Not only that, but you actually imagine yourself tapping “Answer” and saying “Hello.” They didn’t even have to tell you it was a phone, but you learned what it is and how to use it. Hello, System 2.
The next iPhone commercial released was much more the right side of the habitable zone. (Arguably a just a hair too far?) That ad takes you through several different features of the phone which separate it from the iPod. It’s essentially a tutorial designed to show you how to navigate the phone. System 2. But, there are still brief allusions to relatable music, movies, and personal photos (memories) that make you feel good. Not to mention the fun background music and the sexy hand model. System 1.
In conclusion, it’s appropriate to move about the “habitable zone” so long as you’re creating a nicely shaped story or set of stories. It wouldn’t make much sense, for example, to just create a collection of pieces that favor System 1 and another collection that favors System 2, throw them all in a bag and reach in occasionally to pull something out and post it on Facebook. If it’s not your intention to tell some greater story, then it’s best to create something that sits right in the middle of the spectrum. Just make sure your entire ecosystem is floating along at a nice balance at all times.
In next part of this series we’ll use the habitable zone theory to dissect a great example of a successful content marketing ecosystem. In the final part, we’ll cover several tips that you can use to apply this theory to your work.