What Can Cognitive Science Teach us about Outreach?
Over the past few decades, businesses which engage in advertising, PR and marketing have increasingly turned to research in the cognitive sciences to inform their decision making. The hope is that greater insight into the psyche of the consumer will ultimately lead to more profit. In recent years, the rapidly developing field of neuroscience has come to the fore with organisations as diverse as PepsiCo, Intel, CBS, eBay and ESPN utilising ‘neuromarketing’ company NeuroFocus to test for various physiological and cognitive responses to commercials, branding and products.
There is a straightforward reason for making use of such complex science:
We need some understanding of who and what we are communicating with, if we want to have any hope of them understanding us. This is why it is worthwhile incorporating an understanding of cognitive science, whether psychological, philosophical or neuroscientific, into an outreach strategy. Even a cursory glance over the cognitive science page of Wikipedia will reveal that our gut instinct about both ourselves and others is more often than not, flat out wrong. A good outreacher needs to dig a little deeper.
Classic Study: Behaviourism – Skinner and the Rat
Psychologist B.F. Skinner devoted the bulk of his career to the understanding of human behaviour. Perhaps his greatest contribution to cognitive science was his theory of operant conditioning, which holds that behaviours can be learnt on the basis of positive or negative reinforcement.
Skinner demonstrated his theory with a device known as the ‘Skinner Box’, which featured little more than a small container, a hungry rat and a selection of levers. When pressed, one of the levers would release a small pellet of food. Quickly the rat learnt to only press this lever if it wanted to get what it desired. Reinforced by the reward of food, the rat would readily repeat this action over and over again.
But what does this tell us about outreach?
It tells us that well-rewarded behaviour will be repeated. For example, if a journalist has posted an infographic before, had good results, then they are likely to do it again. They know the operation and realise the benefits. This factor of repeatability means that outreach is more scalable.
However, this is not to say that we shouldn’t outreach to those who have never posted infographics before. It took Skinner’s rat some time to understand the process, but once the behaviour is learnt, it is likely to be repeated. This is where persuasion and information kicks in. We wouldn’t dream of entrapping potential clients in a cage to reap some reward: in the rat’s case this was a bag of food, in our case it will be the prospect of driving traffic and awareness towards their website, or just spreading the joy of infographics. Our positive reinforcement will be much harder to enforce. So we have to provide examples of previous successes, as well as building trust to get clients pressing the lever for content again and again.
Wisdom of the Ancients: Emotion and Reason
In the great philosopher Plato’s famous analogy of the soul, emotion was two horses pulling a charioteer, reason, in opposing directions. The harmonious soul would be able to keep both emotion and reason in balance. A strong outreach strategy should have a similar aim.
- Marketers must be able to reassure the logical characteristics in consumers. A tug-at-the-heartstrings ploy may go over some peoples’ heads, or worse still, invite cynicism.
How does this relate to outreach?
- While using emotional hooks is important for content you can’t rely on it for all methods of outreach.
- Know your market. Some markets will not mind their emotions being pandered to whereas others will see this as little more than fluff, prizing ‘the facts’ much more highly.
A more integrated approach between the emotional and the rational will maximise the effectiveness of the outreach.
Recent Study: Optimism Bias and the Effort of Rejection
Optimism Bias:- Research into human decision-making suggests that humans are naturally hard-wired to believe.
It requires greater cognitive resources to question an assumption. It is more effective to believe something than to reject it. By nature, we are trusting. This is why big institutions, popular brands and institutions are built on popular belief and trust. To constantly test and question stimuli would be too draining on our cognitive resources.
How is this applicable to outreach?
- Spend time outreaching to larger influencers. Your content/image/post/media will have greater longevity and far reaching effects- people trust household names.
- Engage in an initial conversation to build the relationship, assuring and informing your outreach target. Eventually, once the aims have been met, it will be far less likely that your request will be denied due to the cognitive efforts of rejection on the receiver’s part.
- Have a full proof strategy, that way you are prepared to respond to any queries.
- This can also be applied to persuasion, turning a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’. It’s like a mental tug of war, making the effort of rejection even more exhausting.
- Well-rewarded behaviour will be repeated.
- Emotion and reason come hand-in-hand. A conclusion (logic) usually results in an action (emotional impulse).
- Determine the market before taking the plunge, whether a more emotive or logical method should be applied.
- Have a full proof outreach POA so that any queries can be met with total reassurance, making rejection less probable.
- Use other brands and institutions where possible to enhance your own content.