Persona-based marketing has become the standard for any marketer or general seller of things. If you don’t have a clear idea of whom you are talking to, chances are no one is listening. But after we have our marketing personas all mapped out, how do we create content that not only matches their interests, but also piques those interests day in and day out. A lot of content we create is relevant to our audience on paper, but when they come across it in real life, we see engagement rates that, well, simply hurt the feelings.
To ensure all the effort we put into developing our personas actually pays off, we need to consider contextual bias. Contextual bias is a mixture of task-based biases that internally influence a person paired with the external context in which the person is pursuing that task. For example, my persona tells you that I am career driven. Within that characteristic, my current task is to find something that inspires me toward my career goals. However, plot twist, I want to engage with this inspirational nugget while on the beach with my toes in the sand and skinny marg in my hand. That context changes a lot. I am now no longer interested in digital content, but want something I can print, read in the sun and not worry about getting sunscreen on.
This is a lot, so let’s break it down.
First off, we should level set on what is a marketing persona. Here is a definition from Ardath Albee, the founder and president of The Buyer Persona Institute.
A marketing persona is a composite sketch of a key segment of your audience. For content marketing purposes, you need personas to help you deliver content that will be most relevant and useful to your audience.
There is a lot of goodness in this definition. Most important to understanding contextual bias is the phrase, “most relevant and useful to your audience.” This is because there are a lot of things out there that are relevant and useful yet still float off into the Internet’s garbage island. The goal is not to just create relevant and useful content, but for the people in our audience to think that our content is in fact relevant and useful to them. For that we need to become masters of contextual bias.
What Is Contextual Bias in the World of Marketing?
Let’s nerd out for a moment on the study of attention. Consider the things that capture your attention and the things that don’t. Just doing this simple exercise is exhausting because there are so many quote/unquote “things.” Attention is competitive. As humans, we only have so much attention at our disposal at any given time. And those things that are in our field of attention are constantly battling to get into the game. Only those things that stand out from the crowd make it into our attention.
Attention here can be called “working memory.” If non-attention is an aperitif, working memory is pudding – things don’t get permanently stuck in it, but they’ll stick with us a little bit longer. And the longer and more intensely something appears in our working memory, the more chances we have to make various associations with it and anchor it closer and closer to our long-term memory. But that’s more like Tiramisu and we still need to stay focused on the pudding.
Work, Work, Work, Work, Working Memory
In the science of working memory, our attention is paid to those things that are relevant to our current thoughts and behaviors. I emphasize “current” because it is not saying relevant to who we are, what we do for work, our how many children we have. It’s unique to what we are thinking or doing at a specific moment in time. Persona marketing is built on large personal characteristic pillars that themselves contain many nuances. Working memory grabs onto the real-time nuances of those pillars.
We need to learn what our audiences are interested in based on our personas and then determine what will pique those interests given our moment-by-moment biases. Every moment we are biased to the mental task at hand, which does not always reflect our on-paper persona but how our persona is filtered through it. By getting a clearer picture of how audience personas are applied in daily life, we can get closer to entering working memories – to downing the aperitif and jumping straight into the pudding.
Going from Looking Good on Paper to Looking Good to Working Memory
Now for the interesting part which I will not even try to paraphrase but quote directly from John Duncan’s paper, “Brain Mechanisms of Attention.” (Yeah, buckle up, things are about to get smart.)
The things we attend to are generally those that are relevant to current behavior. Thus competition is biased to favor input that match task context….Much is also known about bias by task context. Perhaps the most important point is its flexibility – potentially, any type of object can be relevant to behavior, and correspondingly, there are many ways to direct attention to targets.
Now John Duncan is talking specifically about visual attention as in the case of a spilled bowl of alphabet soup and all you remember was seeing the letter “D” because that’s the first letter in your name. But digital marketing is not far removed from that.
So just because I am a 31-year-old male with no kids and a penchant for Hip Hop doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a top-10 listicle that tells me which Stranger Things kid I am. Similarly, just because someone is a 43-year-old mom of three doesn’t mean all they think about is getting out food stains.
People are complex and are growing more multidimensional just by the sheer volume of alternative dimensions we have available today.
Getting Started with Tapping into Contextual Bias
So what does this look like? First, we have to start with our personas. Determine what someone is interested in. After that, consider what is relevant to those interests. Now we are in familiar territory as marketers; however, because it is so familiar this level of relevancy is very cluttered. That is why we need to go one-step deeper. Consider all those things that are relevant and think about the different contextual biases that may influence how your persona will engage with it.
Personas consider everything a person has done. They went to school, they got married, they climbed the corporate ladder. Contextual bias requires us to take all that information and filter it through what they are doing now. Literally. What is this person with all these traits doing right now? The lowest hanging fruit is considering the medium on which someone is seeing your content. Someone is online, they are at a computer or phone, they are on social media, checking their email. Or maybe you can go further. They are at a conference. They are opening up your account-based marketing care package at their desk. The environment, both digital and even more so, physical have a major impact on whether or not someone pays attention to us. The contextual bias is the like the Velcro that catches to other Velcro and ultimate keeps on the shoe.