Looking for the Commonalities

Distinction bias. Cognitive psychologists use this term to describe what humans do when comparing two similar things: We see those things as more distinctive than we would if we were to evaluate them separately. The classic example is that people who evaluate TVs side by side, as opposed to evaluating them in isolation, are more likely to pay extra for the higher-quality TV.

When we focus on distinctions, we overvalue them.

I first heard the term distinction bias during a client meeting recently. I was giving a talk on content strategy, discussing persona development, when it came out that this team had a blog that was aimed – in their minds – at 10 personas. In fact, you can’t deliver consistent value to more than one persona on a single platform. Trying to do so is a recipe for failure.

“Why not think about this differently?” I said. When we develop personas, I told them, we easily fall into the trap of looking at differences rather than commonalities. It’s a natural tendency for marketers because we spend so much time thinking about differentiation. We find differences everywhere. And make no mistake, they are there. But, I pointed out, you might (ironically) differentiate your content more effectively by seeking out the commonalities among all 10 personas and developing an editorial strategy that focuses on those commonalities.

I couldn’t help thinking of another B2B company I’ve worked with that had customers in various industries. Since the value propositions varied across industries, this company’s marketers could have developed distinct personas, but they didn’t. They developed a single persona based on the key thing their customers had in common: an interest in managing risk. (A consolidated persona like that does limit the number of stories you can tell on one platform; that company found the tradeoff worth making.)

I told the crowd, “When we develop personas, we often look at all our customers simultaneously and pick apart the differences. When we look for differences, we find them. Instead, what if we started with the important things that unite our customers and focused on those?”

That’s about the time somebody hit me with “That sounds like distinction bias.” I looked it up later. Guess what? Distinction bias is, well, common to all of us. How about that?