The Challenge Of Digital Marketing In 2019: From Gell-Mann To Thresholds

September 17, 2018

I'm going to tell you about something that happened to me today that completely weirded me out. Before I do, this post is really about The Challenge of modern digital marketing and "Behavioural Economics" (although it might be better to say 'Behavioural Marketing' in this instance).

We have known for some time that you can use smart psychological tricks to get people to buy things. If you've spent any time with a business manager or "guru" (a business manager who can cross their legs, it's quite impressive to see in an Armani suit) you'll be aware of the hard and fast rules of marketing. Things like "you need 7 points of contact before someone buys from you." This is where behavioral psychology can come into play, setting up systems that reduce that number from 7 to 4, for example. But, for every psychological trick that can help you shift products, there are innate psychological barriers at play that stop people from making those decisions. Among the things putting people off might be your very own website. And so, we get to what happened to me...

Myth & Legend And The Modern Mind

One of the things we don't take into account with marketing is thresholds. Typically, a threshold is that bit of wood that sits under a door but in our minds, they are more important. If you've ever read anything about myths & legends, you'll know the impact they have. Many supernatural monsters are unable to cross them. They act as a barrier for things that can't be stopped by walls alone.

Okay, so, that's in our zeitgeist, even if you're not aware of it yourself. The thing is, myth & legend aren't just old wives tails. The rout of them is in storytelling. Now, I happen to believe that stories inform us more about ourselves than we think. There's a wonderful book about this called The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell‎. Campbell was a professor working in comparative mythology & religion. His book has gone on to be a cornerstone read for writers of novels, movies and all manner of things.

What we learn from Campbell is that stories really give us an insight into ourselves. The barriers that are placed in the way of monsters are often reflected in our own psyche. To illustrate this, who has been in this situation?

 I Walked Through A Door & Everything Changed

For whatever reason, you need to leave your office. There's something you need in another room before you can finish the last bit of work. So, you get up and walk purposefully to where you know what you want is. When you get there, however, something has come over you. You know you need to be in this room but you have no idea what has brought you in there in the first place. 

This is a fairly common occurrence. Believe me, most of us have done this by the time we're in our mid-20s. Now, you might think that this is because of some form of early onset dementia but nothing could be further from the truth. It's all to do with that pesky threshold I mentioned above.

You see, a bit like a mental vampire, our task left us because we crossed a threshold. It's a mental barrier that allows us to leave our tasks, worries, and responsibilities in the room behind us. No doubt this evolved in us for some form of protection but it is a real phenomenon. Scientists actually call it the Doorway Effect.

What's more, the barriers don't have to be physical...

A Computer Game Scrambled My Brain

So, this is what happened to me.

I play Minecraft, which is a great game where you can build whatever you want. I happened to be building a gothic mansion. Trying to replicate things like this is part of the game, although the only goals are your own. I was walking through my game, from room to room, finishing the design. I walked into one of the rooms and I had completely forgotten why I had gone in there.

So, let's break this down a little. Unlike the Doorway Effect, I hadn't passed through any physical barriers and yet I was still affected. So, what does this mean? We know there is a psychological effect around thresholds but we also know that the trigger for this doesn't have to be physical. As long as our brains perceive a switch in the environment, there is a chance (in fact, more of a chance) that you will forget why you are in the new environment. What's more, this isn't limited to just going through doors, virtual or physical. It happens all over the place and we're none the wiser.

In fact, this seems like a good idea to mention the Gell-Mann effect.

When Dinosaurs & The Wild West Met The Media

Michael Crichton was an author responsible for Jurassic Park and West World amongst many other films and books.  What people don't know is that he also coined one of the most interesting phrases about modern media. He came up with the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect.

Murray Gell-Mann is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist with whom Crichton had been talking to at a dinner of some description. This chat leads Crichton to come up with an explanation for a phenomenon he had observed in himself and others around him. It goes a little something like this...

'Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them. In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.' - Michael Crichton

Crichton went on to say that there was no value in modern media and the only explanation for this was some form of amnesia on the part of the reader but I think Crichton was wrong.

You see, what you're doing by moving on to another story, by turning the page, channel or even for a presenter to introduce a new story is crossing a threshold.

Crossing The Rubicon

Suddenly, you're seeing the same phenomenon we have been talking about previously work against us when it comes to our interpretation of the media.

Now, this isn't a blog about the media being biased and always wrong and horrible people. This is about marketing and people's behavior. These phenomena are important to understand when we start to look at where your customers are crossing thresholds. The biggest one of these is on your website. I want to revisit the paragraph about forgetting why you entered a room. I will make a few changes...

For whatever reason, you need to leave Facebook. There's something you want to buy from Amazon before you can finish on the internet for tonight. So, you type '' into your browser and wait for the page to load. When you get there, however, something has come over you. You know you need to load this site but you have no idea what has brought you in there in the first place.

I've done it. I know other people do it as well. The homepage of Amazon is designed to deal with this effect. It gives you things to look at that they know you will like. It reminds you of what you were looking at before. It has to because Amazon knows that it is very possible people will forget why they came to them in the first place.

This is something that you need to be aware of in your own marketing...

What To Take Away From This

You will be told a lot of things about setting up websites for your business. You will be told that your message and branding needs to be consistent. You will be told that your sales pages need to have headings that get right to the problems of your customers.

All of this is vitally important to the marketing of your business but it ignores these effects we've been talking about today. So, if you're going to take anything away from this post, let it be this...

Understand your customer's journey. Whether it's through funnels or just by clicking through to blogs from your homepage, your customer will be taking a journey with you. You want to make that consistent. You want to give as much value as you can, of course, but you also don't want them to forget why they are there in the first place.

Traditional digital marketing sales funnels have this covered but think of those as the last step that your customers might make. What else can you do to give your customer useful information as soon as they land on your website?

I suppose the real takeaway from this all is "be more Amazon." A long time ago, I went to a marketing event where one of the team behind Amazon's buy button talked us through how they got to that colour. It took them a lot of testing and that was just for one button.

Be the same, make sure that the elements on the page are what your core audience needs to see. You want to break the cycle of people loading your page only to forget (or worse, ignore) why they're there in the first place.

You don't have to have a lot of products or even a lot of blog posts to do that. You just have to be smart about it. Take your customer's journey yourself. See where things can be tweaked and then test that tweak. The more interesting you can make what you're offering to potential clients, the more likely they are to see you as an authority.

Above all, remember that people are wired to forget.

The Quick Start Challenge

I wrote this post in part to start to revive this old, neglected blog but also because I am taking part in The Quick Start Challenge. Registration for this year is over but it's a small course intending to help people take their first steps in internet marketing. It's run by Dean Holland and Craig Crawford and, so far, it's given me the motivation I've needed to actually put some things into play that I've been thinking about for a while. So, I wanted to mention them in this post because, without them, it wouldn't be here. Thanks, guys!

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Steve Mellor