How critically do you read recommendations about content strategy? How well have you been able to make your strategy fit? Well, here’s a really good reason to stop and think: The false‐consensus effect.
If your mind has immediately started asking what’s for lunch, bring it back. Stay with me — it’s quite simple. The false‐consensus effect is one of the most famous cognitive biases. And a cognitive bias is simply a preferred way to think.
What this one does is make us assume that other people are just like ourselves. But the truth is, they’re not. They don’t think the same way, and they’re often not from similar environments. So in the study of content, strategy, or marketing, my recommendation to you is that you learn how to read articles critically. Before you apply their principles.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the false‐consensus effect (the emphasis in it is mine):
This bias is especially prevalent in group settings where one thinks the collective opinion of their own group matches that of the larger population. Since the members of a group reach a consensus and rarely encounter those who dispute it, they tend to believe that everybody thinks the same way.
Additionally, when confronted with evidence that a consensus does not exist, people often assume that those who do not agree with them are defective in some way. [ … ] Maintenance of this cognitive bias may be related to the tendency to make decisions with relatively little information. When faced with uncertainty and a limited sample from which to make decisions, people often “project” themselves onto the situation. When this personal knowledge is used as input to make generalizations, it often results in the false sense of being part of the majority.
[ … ]
The false‐consensus effect is an important attribution bias to take into consideration when conducting business and in everyday social interactions. Essentially, people are inclined to believe that the general population agrees with their opinions and judgments. Whether or not this belief is accurate, it gives them a feeling of more assurance and security in their decisions.
So, how does cognitive bias influence content strategy?
Let’s go straight into an example. This very blog is being written by an Australian female, one who lives in a small capital city (Adelaide), which is in central Australia. As a writer, it’s easy for me to assume that you understand things the same way that I do.
I could assume that you are tertiary educated, like me. That you read widely and well. That your vocabulary is large, and that complex concepts are simple for you to grasp. I could further assume that you are innovative, clear‐minded, focused, and want results. More assumptions may be that you understand English very well, and that you have at least a basic grasp of strategic principles.
But if you are from another culture, or live somewhere else in the world, then chances are that your view of strategy will be very different to mine. If you are European or live in Europe, then your view about business culture will be different. And same, too, if you are American, or African, or Brazilian, or an islander in the Pacific, or an Indigenous Australian…
And then we could drill down to other levels, such as gender, age, socieconomic group, and more besides.
The point is, different people, and different cultures, think about things differently. Worldviews are not generic, and nor is business, and nor is strategy itself.
It is important to understand that it isn’t just strategy that’s different. It’s also:
- how we write stories
- the types of stories we write
- how we present products
- the range of materials that we presume are good to create as part of our content efforts
- how we understand our audiences
- … and so on.
Whether following along on the create‐more‐content train is appropriate for you and your business is another point of difference.
You won’t fail if you don’t apply every ‘must’ out there
It is extremely easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of musts, shoulds, and recommendations that are online. Many of them emerge from Western countries, and therefore are necessarily biased towards those particular economies and methods of work. In a global society, it might not be prudent to take the thinking of someone from Canada and apply it to a workplace in India or Brazil, for example.
People are getting that you can’t do a website for a Chinese audience the same as an Australian one. But that may also apply in Taiwan, or Vietnam, or Japan, or Argentina. It’s cultural difference, not just one particular culture.
User studies are so important
At a technical level, where you are discussing use patterns and effectiveness of content management systems, then it becomes less critical to factor in the country of origin. Software is software, right?
Yes and no. This is rightly where we do need to study users, study audiences, study internal use. It is worthwhile paying attention to the different methods of work, different lines of authority, different workplace cultures. Each of these will influence what you do and why you do it.
Study your own workplace before you decide
In many ways, it is easier to take the principles of someone else, from somewhere else, and apply it immediately to your own work. It’s fast, it feels satisfying to be just doing things, and it feels like you are innovating.
But you could just screw things up, too.
This is why it IS important that you also observe your own environment, and see how you work, how your workplace functions, how you communicate with customers, and how authority is handled. It is important that you have actually sat down and watched people work, if you are going to change existing methods or systems.
A good content strategist will do this for you, if only to save you the pain of poor change management.
At its roots this is the domain of corporate anthropology: Participation, observation, and analysis. It’s a conversation that is often missing from content strategy articles, and in contemporary business and startup writing in general. But it has a place in content strategy particularly, where workflow, roles, and process relate to human connection, culture and communication.
When you bring the writings, recommendations, and tools of others to the table, always advocate for a critical study of your own workplace first. Recommendations found online are by necessity generic recommendations. They might not do you any favours, and could result in more difficulties down the track.
Always assess the fit before you ‘make’ your strategy
Coming back to the strategic level in your work means pulling yourself up out of the tactics and regaining the long view. So when you do read blogs like this one, recall that the author might not be from a culture similar to yours. Remember that the author has never worked in your workplace. And it’s possible that nobody in your workplace has ever really studied how and why people do what they do.
Until you do this, you will never know what to change, why to change it, and how to do it in a way that is going to be effective, positive, and long‐term. Always make sure the recommendations are fitted, not generic.
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