No, this actually will not be in “listicle” format. Yes, please accept my apologies in advance for inadvertently offending the sensibilities of any Buzzfeed aficionados in the audience (you know who you are). But with that being said, those tacky bundles of enumerated drivel do have a certain folk wisdom about them.
It’s that people often believe bite-sized packages of information, even if they’re of dubious quality.
Welcome to the digital wilderness, where listicles spread like fire. Dropped like a single smoldering match in a parched woodland, the tiny spark of information billows until it has burned itself out or is obscured by a larger blaze. The lists achieve their goal of generating digital ad revenue while providing the reader with momentary amusement. Perhaps you’ve even been part of the wildfire yourself.
As have I. A few days ago, I came across a self-help listicle that was shared, likely with New Year’s resolution gusto, on a popular social site. Gracing one of the top news sites in the US, the article itemized the supposed habits of perpetually unhappy people. It was disquieting not so much because it peddled trite glass-half-full adages, but rather because it dabbled with accusation while parading as fact. It lacked citations, and was largely immune to current beliefs in the scientific and medical community regarding actual stress and unhappiness.
Not only did it likely alienate its intended audience, but it also inadvertently belittled a very real disorder. One which is estimated to be globally responsible for more years “lost” due to disability than any other medical condition.
Some digging revealed the author to be a self-promoting “Life Coach” with a degree in communications and a background in sales and recruitment. There were no counseling or psychiatric accreditations, no published research. Just intuitive hunches about how people work, and a business model that largely profited from convincing people they were unhappy.
While the article happened to be a particularly bleak example plucked from an entire genre, it wasn’t alone in its oversimplification of serious issues. Listicles are often opinions or gross simplifications repackaged as handy “facts” and rolled into fun-size format: optimized for generating traffic in a social, digital economy. And they work.
Sound familiar? Much of the marketing world revolves around repackaging opinions and compressing information into tiny, memorable, and familiar chunks. But there’s a surprisingly valid reason marketing has evolved to be this way: it’s because humans are hardwired to favor smalland familiar pieces of information, since such items require minimal cognitive effort to process. Our short-term memory has a very low capacity: making long-winded descriptions more difficult to piece together store in longer-term memory. Familiar things are trusted because we assume they have already been vetted by ourselves at an earlier point in time. These factors are two big reasons why listicles rule newsfeeds, infographics make questionable data look believable, well-known brands are evaluated more positively judged, students study by “chunking” information, and we’re more likely to believe statements when they rhyme (just ask a politician).
In much of consumer marketing, these tactics often present minimal risk. Take, for instance, low price-point consumables that aim to fill an emotional hunger more than a somatic or intellectual one: perhaps you’ve Opened Happiness recently or celebrated an occasion with the Champagne of Beers. Products that are uncomplicated, individual, and dispensable face few repercussions for stating subjective qualities as memorable fact (nutrition and pharmaceutical facts aside).
In contrast, B2B marketing teeters on a thin tightrope. Enterprise technology, in particular, is the antithesis to many of the widespread consumer products that have molded our everyday personal expectations for marketing norms. The IT platforms and tools on the market are often exponentially complicated, affect thousands of people, and are nearly impossible to dispense of without significant accumulated sunk cost. Most products are arguably impossible to accurately distill into the small and memorable chunks of information we’ve evolved to prefer as a species, and which a lifetime of consumer-driven marketing has taught us to expect.
And yet, customers have come to expect a certain degree of minimalist consumer marketing from the enterprise technology space, and the vendors are eager to please. Is it entirely bad? Of course not: it often pressures technology firms to wield Occam’s razor, shaving away bloated verbiage in favor of core components and specs. The problem with the razor is that you can get cut, and in the case of enterprise tech, it’s often the customer that limps away bleeding when vendors cross the edge from “simplest possible” to “impossible.” The latter being embodied by vague claims, svelte taglines, and oversimplified stats: perennial favorites of first-impression venues such as homepages and tradeshows.
Relationships built on lies -- or misinformation, as it were -- are unlikely to last.
Which brings us to failed deployments. If the proverbial road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to a failed deployment is often paved with the cobbling of many small marketing transgressions. Many small, enumerated, bullet-pointed, schematized, memorable, familiar, share-worthy little transgressions… many of which often persist until a contract is signed. Much like white lies, single items alone rarely do harm; but if you tell one person or enterprise enough of them, it entirely alters their perception of reality. In the business world, that façade often comes crumbling down when a deployment fails to meet the exact needs that were the impetus for purchase.
The problem with this is at least twofold. First, for cynical customers, it adds a bewildering number of superfluous marketing facets to products that are already immensely multifaceted and complex. Imagine trying to assemble a Swiss clock from scratch. Now imagine trying to complete the same task in a fun house mirror room: not so fun. Second, for more optimistic buyers, every oversimplified tidbit accepted as fact becomes a new confidence-boosting data point in favor of the “right” decision, strengthening the perception of comprehension when nothing new has been learned. In reality, it’s the confidence that does us in; even in situations with access to valid data, an expert’s confidence often has almost zero correlation with the accuracy of final decisions.
Simple napkin-math logic might suggest that the two parties and the challenges they face should cancel each other out. But in enterprise purchases, it’s usually not the case. Differing opinions, differing concerns, differing needs, differing stakeholders, and differing risk tolerances all intertwine to draw out the sales cycle to the glacial process that we are familiar with it today.
We clearly face a bit of a paradox. With marketing’s broad simplifications, there will always be deeper technical truths to fully suss out. But without marketing’s finesse and emotional heuristics, we’d drown in technical detail without any initial hunches or high-level summaries. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
So if there’s a moral to this story, it’s NOT that marketing is inherently evil, and NOT that failed IT deployments are always the result of incompetence. It’s that the enterprise purchase process is a long journey, and that all humans – executives included – are subject to little biases that can change the trajectory of that journey one tiny fraction of a degree at a time. Just as in the navigation of a physical trek, those degrees can add up and land you at a destination far from where you originally intended.
Both sides of the vendor-buyer equation can garner a thing or two from all of this.
- Enterprise Marketers: Learn to be more intensely critical of your own marketing than of anyone else’s. It’s easy to look at another vendor’s marketing efforts and tear them apart for their flaws. But it’s more productive and better for long-term relationships if you first do it to your own work. Your customers with smoothly-functioning deployments will thank you in the future.
- Enterprise Customers: Learn to fully appreciate the aesthetics and elegant simplification inherent in marketing tools such as websites, collateral, and presentations. Just don’t let them take the driver’s seat; keep a critical eye on the road and remember to fully vet marketing items before they become valid data points in a complicated calculation of the purchase course.
Some things – and products – are just not simple enough to boil down into a bite-size explanation or listicle. That won’t stop your brain from craving them, and won’t stop marketers from creating content to feed that hunger.
But that’s enough dissection of the corporate world for me today. I’m going to go read some puppy listsicles on Buzzfeed now.