Relying too heavily on inbound marketing is detrimental to brands, says consumer behavior scientist Ronald Voorn. Voorn sees a lot of room for science to be able to help marketers do a better job at branding, customer experience, content marketing and more.
Ronald Voorn is a Dutch consumer behavior scientist who has founded in his country Science for Business, a network of scientists that consult businesses on marketing, marketing communications and sales. Voorn teaches at the University of Twente as well as the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences and is currently working on a PhD dissertation on the way that human values impact the interaction that people have with brands.
Voorn started his career in different Dutch marketing consultancy agencies in the eighties and in the decade that followed he worked for Heineken first as a director global marketing and then as a managing director in several countries. I talked to Ronald about real and pseudo marketing science and how Science for Business aims to make marketing more evidence-based.
A disconnect between marketing and science
Jo: What brought on the idea to found Science for Business in 2014?
Ronald: I noticed an important disconnect. On the one hand you had a great amount of research driven academic insights that became available on how the human mind works and what that means for marketers who want to run successful campaigns. On the other hand I noticed that very little of these insights were being put into practice. I wanted to help close that gap, bringing theory closer to practice.
Jo: How does Science for Business help accomplish this?
Ronald: Our value proposition is a simple one. We match companies that reach out to us with scientists who are experts in the specific challenges at hand. These scientists then offer their insights for a consultancy fee. Science for Business acts as a hub for these consultancy services.
Jo: How successful has Science for Business been up until now in finding its market?
Ronald: I look back at the past four years with a great feeling of satisfaction about what we have accomplished. Large companies such as Delta Lloyd and KPN are increasingly finding their way to us.
B2B marketers depart from a very rational buyer but would do well to also take brand warmth into account.
Jo: Let’s try to make this more specific. Can you give me an example of the kind of scientific insights that you help companies put into practice?
Ronald: We for example advise companies on how they can conduct effective marketing or produce efficient marketing communications – this is only possible when it is based on a proper analysis of the behavioral eco-system that influences consumer behavior in a specific product category. For this we will for instance use the latest knowledge and insights from the theory of planned behavior, the Fogg behavioral model, dual process theory, implicit motivation theory but also the human brand theory.
The latter theory, which we have also researched extensively ourselves, shows that people’s perceptions of warmth and competence from brands explain up to 70 % of their behavior towards those brands. Knowing this makes it possible for brands to optimize every single touch point they have with their prospects and clients, from the call center agent to the operator of the chat box. B2B marketers will often ignore the warmth, the emotional aspect of communication. They depart from a rational buyer but would become much more effective if they would take warmth into account as well.
Jo: You have been very critical of certain concepts that are very popular nowadays, such as influencer marketing. Why is influencer marketing still all the rage today, I wonder. Did Duncan Watts not debunk the supposed viral effects of influencer marketing very convincingly?
Ronald: That’s a good question. Different factors have combined to get us where we are today. A lot of so-called marketing know-how originates from the United States where great commercial interests are at stake. People’s careers depend on it. Companies such as the Content Marketing Institute want to make money so we have this deluge of TED speeches, books and articles pushing an approach which is not the least bit grounded in science.
The impact of inbound marketing on brands
Jo: Are you skeptical about the content marketing doctrine?
Ronald: I am very skeptical about the usefulness of any inbound only strategy. The power of brands is a very important factor in convincing people to buy a product or service. Solely relying on blog posts or other types of inbound ‘content’ to do the work will not be enough as it only works for the limited number of products or services that people will actively search for.
Millions of people are dreaming of buying a Porsche car one day and this is not because they looked up Porsche cars online.
Jo: We need to revert back to outbound strategies?
Ronald: Content marketing is useful in establishing a rapport with people who are actively researching products and services and are therefore highly involved. So it is not without merit, but it stops there. An exclusive inbound approach simply does not allow you to reach your maximum potential when you are building a brand because it ignores the fact that most products and services are low involvement. If you want to influence those kinds of buying processes you need to apply insights from for example mere exposure effect theory.
People will most of the time not fall in love with brands because they accidentally bump into them while they are researching solutions. People take to brands most often because they have been exposed to them and this repetitively. Content marketing, which has been invented by people whose income depends on producing content, will tell you that you should never ever invest in push marketing, which is a pity because it goes against all scientific knowledge that exists.
So don’t throw away your blogs and other content assets, but do realize that they are only one part of the story. The spreading activation theory of memory plugs seamlessly into mere exposure effect theory. Brands are built in our minds because paths are built in the mind between associations. I mention “Porsche” and your mind will activate a chain of associations. But a blog post alone will not maintain these paths for you; it also takes repetition by forced exposure to do so. It takes in other words push communication.
Millions of people all over the world are dreaming of buying a Porsche the day they have the money to do so. They do not have that aspiration because they have researched different sports car online. The theories that I mention here have been backed up by research time and again. They are solid because they predict certain results.
The importance of research
Jo: The lack of scientific grounding for much of the marketing practice and especially marketing communications is disquieting. What needs to change in the way that marketing is taught at universities?
Ronald: We need to have students put away the textbook and conduct research themselves. Luckily I see a lot of universities (e.g the University of Amsterdam, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Erasmus University and University of Groningen) doing excellent work instilling a scientific mindset in their students. In The Netherlands the University of Twente is exemplary of how it advocates a data driven approach to marketing. Students conduct research from day one. Building evidence-based buyer personas for a company is one assignment that first year marketing communication students receive each year.
In Belgium, the University of Leuven impresses me with its own research filled curriculum. The London Business School is world class. Same for the Melbourne Business School. Things are moving in the right direction, slowly but steadily.
Did you enjoy this interview with Ronald Voorn?
You might also like my interview with Paul Gibbons where he talks about the need for change managers to apply more scientifically grounded approaches.