When Facts Fall Short: Why Brands Need a Point of View

Almost four years ago, The Atlantic published a native ad, sponsored by the Church of Scientology, titled “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year.” Twelve hours later, the post was removed from the site. [note]You can download it here if you’re curious[/note]

Since 2013, the incident has served as an interesting learning experience for content marketers. The article itself wasn’t all that controversial. It was a fairly standard advertorial, presenting the facts (or “facts”) a brand wants the consumer to know. But the response to The Atlantic was overwhelmingly critical. The brand and the publication didn’t fit well together, so the ad just read like a marketing brochure.

That’s the tricky thing when it comes to facts. Being honest and transparent is important in any type of media. But audiences need more than that. There needs to be some emotion for the content to resonate. If you just list facts and achievements, people will see right through the content.

With 76 percent of B2C advertisers investing in content marketing in 2016, and 86 percent of agencies expecting to spend more on native ads this year over 2015, there is immense pressure on internal marketing teams, agencies, and digital publishers to make sponsored content that connects. While content marketing has potential as a bold, direct way to communicate with consumers, advertisers are still struggling to find their voices.

This is how compelling stories turn into late-night infomercials.

Think about the Scientology article in context of other native ads that take a different approach. Last year, Thrillist partnered with Tabasco on “The Boldest Grilling Guide,” a helpful collection of articles and recipes that emphasize brand benefits in relatable situations. Or, for a funnier angle, check out “Woman Going To Take Quick Break After Filling Out Name, Address On Tax Forms” an Onion article sponsored by H&R Block, in which the product takes a backseat so the content can generate an emotional response.

These examples show a choice between stating facts, driving emotions, or being somewhere in between. Marketers have to balance a brand’s positioning with a publisher’s perspective and a consumer’s interest. Blending these three together isn’t easy, which can intimidate advertisers. Instead of pushing creative boundaries, they fall back on facts. This is how compelling stories turn into late-night infomercials.

While branded content is still an emerging medium, the battle between emotion and rationality has existed in the marketing world for the past 100 years.

The actions of a rational person are predictable based on knowing all the facts, weighing the outcomes, and choosing the likeliest “best” choice. If decisions are simple, such as the choice between taking one dollar now or zero dollars tomorrow, outcomes are easy to predict. But outside of a laboratory, when emotion enters the discussion, decision-making gets more complicated.

One Cornell University study showed that the same dinner tastes better when it’s more expensive. A Shukutoku University experiment¬†found that “people rated cancer as riskier when it was described as ‘kills 1,286 out of 10,000 people” than as ‘kills 24.14 out of 100 people’,” even though the latter is almost twice as risky. A Harvard study reported that the use of infants and baby animals in ads consistently causes consumers to rank brands high in sincerity. Examples like these go on and on.

Where does this irrationality come from? Many psychologists and scientists [note]Ekman 2007, Frijda 1988, Gilbert 2006, Keltner & Lerner 2010, Keltner et al 2014, Lazarus 1991, Loewenstein et al 2001, Scherer & Ekman 1984[/note] have concluded that emotions are the dominant driver of decision-making. Each new personal experience causes an emotional response, and we create “somatic markers” based off of these emotional moments that influence our future decisions. We “know” infants and baby animals are innocent because of our own experiences and observations, so we unconsciously assume a brand that uses one in an ad must also be innocent. Content marketing has the power to connect with these emotional markers to create a real bond.

There is already promising data on how our emotions impact our actions when we consume content. We’re more likely to share content that makes us happy, to feel empathetic after content makes us sad, to feel more stubborn after something makes us angry, and to reach out to something or someone that makes us feel safe when we experience fear. Emotions drive action. When we have to make a decision or a purchase, emotions are at the wheel.

At economic, physical, psychological, and even social levels, we’re hardwired to connect with what’s emotional and resonant to our own experiences. A study on successful ad campaigns cited in the book Brand Immortality showed that, out of 1,400 advertising campaigns, emotionally appealing campaigns boosted profitability much better than purely rational campaigns (31 percent to 16 percent) and slightly better than campaigns that mixed emotions and facts (31 percent to 26 percent). Content marketing should always be created with that in mind.

Why then, do some brands still fixate on the facts? If you’re going to invest in native publishing, do more than focus on your products. For example, liquor companies can strive for more than another sponsored cocktail recipe. If advertisers are struggling to solve content marketing, they can and should rely on the publishers who create content for them, not strong-arm their facts into a black hole where emotions once dwelled. With the biggest budgets in history going native, it’s time to put more trust in the hands of the publishers who have built their audience and connect with them on an emotional level. For content to count, it has to connect, and that’s a fact… with feeling.

Image by Pexels / CC Zero

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