Why Haven’t We Seen That Before?

Here’s something I bet you can identify with.

You’ve just gotten your tax refund check and you decide it’s high time to select that new car you’ve been thinking about.  You’re not necessarily a “car person.” But now that you’ve got cash burning a hole in your pocket – you’re invested. You start perusing the car web sites, asking friends, and then you see it. The. One.

As you head home from work that day, a weird thing happens. Your new car is everywhere. Your boss drives one. There are two of them in the parking lot. You see one in a color you didn’t even know existed at a red light. Over dinner, it seems like every third commercial is for the car you’ve chosen. What the hell is happening? Did the Illuminati install spyware on your computer and target you with some advanced marketing campaign?

No. That’s insane. Right? 

You think of yourself as a fairly discerning consumer. How did you just randomly pick the most popular car in the world?

Chances are you didn’t. You’ve just fallen prey to an illusion known as the Baader-Meinhof effect. It’s also sometimes called frequency illusion. 

This phenomenon occurs when the thing you’ve just noticed or experienced suddenly crops up constantly. It’s a cognitive bias that occurs because our brain is looking for patterns. The aha moment of deciding on the car told your brain that you learned something new, and so it looks for patterns that can help establish and use that new thing.

In short: All those cars were there all along. You just weren’t paying attention.

I’ve noticed this same thing happening with so-called best practices in content.

As practitioners that look to innovation with new content strategies in marketing, we often go shopping among our competitors for best practices based on what’s worked before.

Once we find one that suits what we’re looking for, it’s amazing how prevalent that best practice suddenly becomes. And that instigates a confirmation bias that let us (and our teams) feel like we’re definitely onto something.

I recently worked with a team that was trying to optimize their content marketing strategy. They’d found one “best practice” from a consultant in their industry who said you should never mention your brands or products in your content. Suddenly, they started seeing that advice everywhere. This convinced their team that they were onto something. 

As it turns out, there weren’t many suggestions out there that said they shouldn’t ever mention their brand in their content. But, wouldn’t you know it, their team found pretty much all of them.

The Web exacerbates the challenge of conflicting best practices because the internet never forgets. One piece of bad “best practice” advice can become a benchmark, leading many companies down the same bad path. As Harvard professor, author, and business strategist Michael Porter once wrote, “The more benchmarking companies do, the more they look alike. As rivals imitate one another’s improvements…competition becomes a series of races down identical paths that no one can win.”

The missing piece is, of course, asking why we’re doing what we’re doing, and how the validation makes us feel.

Are we happy to see the same car? Does it validate our decision? Or does it make us question our decision? Are we starting with a best practice approach based on our own strategy, or are we finishing on one to validate a strategy we have seen before?

If you’d never seen a tactic before but see it everywhere once you’ve chosen it, take a pause to ask why. An innovative strategy isn’t one that doesn’t copy anything. It’s one that can’t simply be copied.

It’s your story. Tell it well. 

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