How confirmation bias can help (and hinder) your B2B marketing campaigns

Think about the last time you engaged in a contentious political or media issue. Let’s take the Mark Duggan trial as a recent example. You could read a neutral news story about the case and come away with your belief that the verdict was wrong OR right strengthened, purely because of our natural tendency to favour the information that supports what you already believed. That’s confirmation bias in action; our brains filter information subconsciously so that it supports our opinions.

In fact, we’re twice as likely to look for information that agrees with us than we are to seek out disconfirming evidence (Montier, 2009). This can both hinder and help your marketing strategy – here’s how to use it to your advantage, and be aware of the ways it can negatively affect your campaign.

Turning confirmation bias to your advantage

People are heavily influenced by the first information they’re exposed to – so a positive first impression can make people continue to look for the positive in you or your product service, while a negative first impression will do the opposite. A quick personal example: I recently moved house, and our letting agents were a bit rubbish. I went searching for reviews of other people who had used them, and of course I ignored any four or five star reviews that said they had been great, honing despairingly in on the ones that gave them one star. Other people thought they were awful too! I was right! On the other hand, I’ve always had brilliant service from Apple. Even when I have to queue forever, or read a negative story about them in the press, it doesn’t affect my love for them – which in turn means they keep my loyalty, custom, and my money.

Another way of using confirmation bias in marketing is to emphasise the positive wherever you can. This means positioning ordinary things in a positive light – things that people wouldn’t normally notice.  Let’s take an example all the way back from the 1900s. Advertising pioneer Claude Hopkins visited beer manufacturers Schlitz and was shown the complex filtration process. He asked the executives why they didn’t tell the public about the process that made the beer so pure, and they replied that it was nothing special – every beer-maker used this process. Hopkins replied that no other beer manufacturers were talking about it and created a campaign based around the purifying process, taking the brand from fifth place in the market to tied first within a year. All he did was point out the positive to the general public.

Confirmation bias doesn’t mean scamming your audience; it means recognising what they’d like to believe, and reinforcing this. For example, Qwest, a telecommunications services company, ran a highly successful ‘Ultimate Problem Solver’ B2B campaign that was based on brainteasers aimed at the tech target audience; the little puzzles challenged buyers to solve programming problems in creative ways. The message is clever and clear; it’s saying to the buyers that people who buy this service are professional problem solvers, a subtle manipulation of confirmation bias.

There are other confirmation bias hard-hitters. If an authority or celebrity you respect endorses a product, it’s immediately going to make you feel more positive about it based on their approval – the BT business campaign featuring Dragon Peter Jones is one example. And if a foodstuff you’d like to buy makes health claims, you’re going to feel more justified in popping it in your supermarket trolley. Confirmation bias doesn’t mean scamming your audience; it means recognising what they’d like to believe, and reinforcing this. It also means you can understand your audience better, and position yourself within the topics and dialogues that they are most invested in; not through just what they consume, but also through how they consume.

In a B2B context, companies can use confirmation bias by emphasising how their product or service will increase ROI, sales, KPIs, and other variables. The more positive statistics and data provided, the better. Whoever you’re selling to wants to know that your product will give them results, and by giving them the (relevant) data you’re reinforcing what they hope your company can do for them.

How confirmation bias can work against you

Confirmation bias is sometimes also known as ‘over-confidence bias’ for a reason – none of us are immune to believing what we want to believe. If your company has invested time and money into an approach that it believes is absolutely the best, the danger is that you can interpret information that you’re given too positively in the hope to make your approach succeed. It also means that, when a campaign is struggling or a client’s business is failing, you’re at risk of taking a head-in-the-sand approach rather than evaluating the next step with a clear head.

Confirmation bias can result in mistaking ambivalence for approval; two people can leave a meeting with completely different ideas of how it went, or even what was agreed, which is why it’s important to be clear on action points and get meeting notes signed off by every party at every meeting (read our guide to leading meetings here).

Another danger is that, if you’re particularly focussed on one approach being ‘the right approach’, confirmation bias can make it easy to interpret mild successes as more important than they are – whilst simultaneously making it more difficult to consider a different approach that might yield more impressive results.

Confirmation bias, when used wisely, can be one of the most powerful marketing tools out there. However, it’s important to keep objectively evaluating what’s actually going on, and to be aware of how your own biases can impact your decisions – not just your customers’.

Want to learn more about confirmation bias and other behavioural biases? Read Essentia Analytics’ white paper on behavioural finance