Cognitive bias can be a subtly pervasive intruder.

Bias isn’t always one of those things that hits us over the head like it’s carrying a sledgehammer around all day; sometimes cognitive bias takes on a more subtle, potentially sinister cloak, in order to wander around inside your organization and wreak havoc very quietly.

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Most of us are not intimately familiar with the wide variety of different bias effects, so I thought we could run through a few of the types that commonly hamstring marketing and advertising efforts.  In no particular order:

  • Self Serving bias – failure or negative events are because someone had it out for us, not because we were unprepared for the task
  • Confirmation bias  – of course I can find examples to support my belief
  • Sunk Cost bias – once you’ve gambled away your stake, you won’t win it back by putting more money into the effort, you’ll only risk losing new money
  • Negativity bias – we like to win but we hate to lose even more
  • Dunning-Kruger Effect – this s**t can’t be that hard to figure out
  • Declinism – if it weren’t for change, things would be as good as they used to be

Don’t get me wrong, this is not the entire list; as a matter of fact it’s not even half of the complete list.  These are just the ones that usually trip us up and break our ankles about the time we think that we’re getting up the hill and going to take the mountain on this charge.

At the core, cognitive bias causes us to make decisions which may not be in our own best interests – because we believe that we know “what’s really going on”, “what the score is”, or “what needs to happen here”, as a matter of instinct instead of as a matter of numbers and data.

Computer says… bias is real in humans.

Let’s look at a specific example here, and see how it plays out.  We’re going to pretend that I’m a realtor and I’ve just gotten a listing for an expensive house in a smart neighborhood.  I’ve decided that I am going to send a postcard to all the homes in the surrounding area to advertise this home I listed.

[READ: Mobile Marketing: Art or Science?  – BLOG ARTICLE]

It’s going to cost me roughly 6 cents per postcard to print, another 4 cents each to mail them… oh wait, I’m not sending 5,000 postcards so the costs just went up dramatically, and it will cost me as much to print and mail 500 of them as it would to mail 5,000 of them.   I can’t use 5,000 but I might as well go ahead and expand my mailing area since it would be like getting something for nothing if I send them all.

The average response rate for snail mail campaigns goes like this:

  • Yellow Letters – average response rate of 8%-9%, all kinds of calls (angry calls, curious calls, tire-kickers, quality calls)
  • Postcards – average response rate of .5%, mostly quality calls.
  • Zip Letters – average response rate of 2%, mostly quality calls. (Great for follow ups)
  • Greeting Cards – average response rate of 2%, mostly quality calls. (Great for follow ups)

Direct mail tends to work best when you send a campaign of 5-7 different pieces, 4 weeks apart from each other. Follow ups are key as the average person takes 3-5 touches before picking up the phone to respond.

Do the math for me, please.

The math isn’t that hard.  500 of these postcards are actually targeted correctly, so the number of qualified calls is going to be 2.5, you can work the fraction however you like.  The other 22.5 people that don’t call because you just sent them a postcard since it was as cheap to send 10x won’t be calling, it’s a waste of time to think that they will.

[DEMO TIME: See it work with your stuff!!! – TAP HERE]

You spent $500 on this campaign, and got two qualified leads, maybe three if the rounding error went in your favor.  It’s an expensive property, so you also had a single page website created, paid for an ad in Zillow and maybe, did some print advertising locally, and might have even paid for social media ads for the property.

In any case, your $500 that you spent on the postcards is not likely to return anything on the investment, and once the postcard is out of the mailbox and into the trash it won’t be doing anyone any good thereafter.  You can’t even save the tree that was cut down to make the stupid things after the fact.

Oh crikey, that didn’t work out did it?

So why on earth would you spend the money to send the postcards?  That’s where the various confirmation bias comes in, quite frankly.  You did it that way because of confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and declinism, at least in this case.

You want to believe you know that it’s beneficial (even though the printers and the postcard salesmen can’t actually prove to you that it is these days), it’s just marketing and anyone can figure that out, and if it was the way it used to be then those postcards would have netted at least 5 qualified buyers who would have gotten into a bidding war and this wouldn’t even be a topic as far as real estate agents and brokers are concerned.

Realtors aren’t the only industry that falls prey to cognitive bias in their marketing and advertising campaign organization, planning and execution.  It happens to all of us in one way or another.  I often find that I get frustrated with people who don’t see – seriously see! – the power of mobile to change their advertising plans entirely.

Of course I have seen the data and the numbers on mobile campaigns, which likely causes me to have confirmation bias when I compare it to other (less conversion prone, ahem!) methods of advertising in today’s marketplace.  Poor Google almost goes blind in one eye sending out newsletters, and articles and facts and figures about how mobile is where it’s at, and how many of us rely on mobile first, #mobilefirst, mobile first and last and nearly everywhere in between in order to manage our lives, find things, search successfully and transact for the goods and services we want or need.


TLDR; What’s the one liner?

Confirmation bias is real, if you don’t believe it then you can’t overcome it.