Mind Your Signals: Context Speaks Louder Than Words
May 31, 2012
I lost interest in joining the Land of Grown Ups pretty early in life.
I was about eight, standing on a linoleum floor and looking up at a woman who was telling us kids “something important.” She wore a clownish, plastic smile and ended every high-pitched sentence with, “Mmmmk?” By kid standards, she was flat-out crazy. I determined she was a representative sample of adulthood.
Looking back, I feel sorry for the woman. She simply underestimated her audience, so her message came across as a failed attempt at demonstrating authority. I never learned what “something important” was, because the delivery killed the message.
In marketing, how often does poor delivery kill the message? Delivery in this sense is the context surrounding a message that signals its credibility.
Overlooking context will get you in a credibility pickle. It’s like inviting a neighbor over for dinner while the cockroach man is spraying your kitchen. Or claiming you’re an industry expert, but locking all your smart content behind a registration wall.
The most promising messages can fail because, given the context, recipients are forced to chalk up an unreasonable amount of trust. They’re being asked to ignore their inner skeptic. And skepticism is an innate quality that we humans were born with, a leftover survival tactic from our cave dwelling days.
The purpose of creating content and designing a web experience is to nudge that skepticism pendulum toward trust, gracefully and honestly. That’s why it’s important to understand that every piece of content we send into the digital atmosphere is a signal.
So what’s a signal?
Signals communicate unperceivable qualities, things like strength, credibility and honesty. Judith Donath, an expert in the Signaling Theory says, “We rely on signals when direct evaluation of a quality is too difficult…we rely on signals, which are indicators of these hidden qualities, in order to comprehend the world around us.”
In essence, signaling is about showing, not telling. A brand’s content and web presence should send three important signals to demonstrate credibility and win customer trust.
SIGNAL #1: “I AM HUMAN.”
How do you signal this? Empathize.
As we create content and design on the web, we should jump into the skin of our audience to evaluate whether what we’re creating will resonate with them naturally.
People like to process one thing at a time, so let’s say one thing at a time, and with an authentic voice. We should always design for humans, not our artistic egos, which means putting the needs of users first. And, as Karen McGrane said, “Design from the content out, not from the container in.”
A statement that still resonates with me is this one that I heard from Jeffrey Zeldman at South By Southwest last year, “We should create things that remind people they’re human, or make things people really like to use. That’s automatic good advertising.”
SIGNAL #2: “I AM KNOWLEDGEABLE.”
How do you signal this? Give, give, give.
Create strong signals of credibility by substantiating your claims of greatness with action. Talk less. Give more. We should give customers unbiased expertise and value-laden content before asking for an email address. It’s like dating. Minimize the probability of a face palm by demonstrating your appeal first, then lean in for the kiss.
Plus, real experts aren’t afraid to give some knowledge away for free, because there’s a lot more where that came from. Confidence signals credibility.
SIGNAL #3: “I AM NOT AN ASSHOLE.”
How do you signal this? Stop talking about yourself.
This may sound like common sense, but it involves something most brands (and people, for that matter) have to practice before they can master: self-awareness. Don’t ask users to navigate through your we-so-sexy promotional copy to find the information they need. And instead of talking about how valuable your services are, show how much you value your customers by giving them relevant content that doesn’t drip with self-promotion.
Shane Snow, founder of Contently, says doing so “will position you as the host of the conversation your audience cares about, not the subject of it.”
The culmination of these signals garners credibility, trust and respect. Brands that create content and signal these qualities differentiate themselves in the eyes of skeptics for this reason: They’re treating customers like people, not a dollar sign.