Developing content that will create meaningful engagement with potential buyers is a perennial challenge for most marketers. In all five of the annual content marketing surveys by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs, respondents said that producing engaging content was one of their top three challenges.
Thanks to numerous research studies, we now know that most B2B buyers are turned off by content that is overly promotional. For example, in a recent survey by The Economist Group, business executives were asked to identify the main reason that a content resource does not make a positive impression. Seventy-one percent of the respondents said content that "seemed more like a sales pitch."
Creating content that does not "seem like a sales pitch" is unfamiliar territory for many marketers because the use of promotional content is deeply ingrained in the culture of marketing. For decades, marketers have been trained to use forceful, unequivocal, and/or dramatic language and images in order to make their content as persuasive as possible. A significant body of "persuasion research" supports the general principle that strong, forceful content is more persuasive that weak or tepid content.
In reality, however, forceful and unequivocal content is not always the most engaging and persuasive content. Research by Zakary Tormala, an associate professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Uma Karmarkar, now an assistant professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, has demonstrated that a small dose of uncertainty can actually make marketing content more engaging.
Tormala and Karmarkar conducted multiple experiments that tested the impact of three elements of a persuasive message - the strength of the arguments used in the message, the perceived expertise of the message source or provider, and the certainty with which recommendations in the message are expressed. One surprising finding of these experiments was that "experts" are more persuasive when they qualify their arguments or otherwise express some uncertainty about their opinions.
Professor Tormala says that incongruity between the source's perceived expertise and level of certainty makes a message more intriguing. He says, "Whether it's a person without established expertise in a given domain expressing very high certainty or a person with clearly established expertise in a domain expressing low certainty, the inconsistency is surprising. It draws people in. And as long as the arguments in the message are reasonably strong, being drawn in leads to more persuasion."
This research has important implications for B2B marketers. Most importantly, it means that your content will be more effective at creating engagement with potential buyers if it embodies a more reserved tone and minimizes the use of broad, absolute arguments and recommendations. This is particularly critical for content that's primarily designed for potential buyers who aren't familiar with your company. In this circumstance, understated content works better to create engagement because it's not what potential buyers expect from a vendor, and therefore it causes them to think about the arguments that your content makes.
The critical point is that marketing content must engage before it can persuade and that objective and balanced content if often more effective at creating engagement than content that makes unequivocal claims and recommendations.