No-one has any idea who you are
The one-two punch of spotlight effect and confirmation bias
Human memory is deeply flawed.
It’s deeply selective. We frequently forget negative information about ourselves1 due to our need to create a positive self-image, and it’s biased to current emotional state.
We are far more likely to forget anything that’s either mundane or negative.2 And instead, we over-index on positive memories. While this warps our view of the past, it also impacts our ability to evaluate ideas and concepts about the future.
We are not rational beings processing all of life’s data. There is simply too much information and so we spend out time trying to filter by proxy, association, and other cognitive tricks to get through life as easily as possible.
For us to remember something therefore is rare.
Now consider how many thousands of micro messages you get every day: we might see thousands of tweets, hundreds of email subject lines, hundreds of Instagram or Facebook posts, hundreds of social ads, dozens of billboards, hundreds or thousands of WhatsApp messages, hundreds of Slack messages. Plus every piece you actively engage in: the podcast, the news update, the weather forecast (although how many times do we ask Google again having already forgotten?).
How many unread emails do you have in your promotions folder? Even inbox zeroists sometimes leave these folders there to gather numbers.
“We don’t want to piss off our customers”
Our memories are flawed. And it is because of this that if your a business, your communication volume needs to default to high.
But if we know that memories are flawed, why is it so often the case that we try to reduce our frequency?
The answer lies in a one-two punch of psychological biases.
Well, first there is spotlight effect3. This is the idea that we believe we are far more ‘viewed’ than we actually are. It in part explains why we care so much about our appearance, our clothes, the identity we put out in the world: because we believe people will notice.
But it also extends far beyond that.
It explains why so often founders aim to have a ‘big bang launch’ – because if you can land some big coverage it will launch this rocketship. But thinking back to all that information we’re consuming, how many news headlines have you scanned today? How many have you read? Of those you did read, who were the companies included? What about their spokespeople or the journalist?
Spotlight effect also causes us to emphasise our own experience and perspective more than others.4
"For better or worse, the truth is that other people almost never care about us as much as we think they do." – Decision Lab
I’ve caught up with two people in 2024 so far who had no idea our agency rebranded back in Q3 to Ballpoint. For me, that was a big part of the last few months. It was also one of the posts that had the largest impression count on LinkedIn: surely people must have seen it?! That’s spotlight effect.
Then you layer in confirmation bias. This is the idea that we seek out ideas that reinforce our world view. This combined with spotlight effect leads to some tightly confined views on messaging frequency.
How this manifests: send more email
Go back to that promotions folder piece. Now despite the fact that email volume has risen extensively over the last few years, email engagement is on the up.5 There’s a couple of things interestingly here.
Sending one email is akin to being forgotten.
A monthly newsletter is the number one way to be forgotten.
When thinking about volume of email to send, think about the memory learning apps: Duolingo, Memrise, and Busuu, or the broader memory apps like Anki. These apps understand the impact of the importance of the spacing effect6. For you, your brand, or your newsletter to become something your readers remember, you must build frequent habit. And borrowing from the memory apps, only over time can that decrease.
And that’s to say nothing of the fact that most of your emails won’t get seen. I might scan my promotions folder once a day. If I received 100 emails that day, unless yours was one of the most 10 recent ones, it’s as good as not being there. So no matter what your frequency of email, you almost definitely need to increase it.
This is important because almost all marketers, brand owners, and founders I meet would prefer to send less email.
Spotlight effect explains this in part. And then an email response from a customer complaining about email volume is the nail in the coffin. Our confirmation bias has confirmed it.
Increasing existing customer ad frequency to test the limits of this
While email is one area this manifests a lot. Another is with ad frequency.
Ad frequency is tricky. We know that if your focus of a campaign is conversion, then the action rate decreases with each subsequent impression. But what if your goal isn’t to drive conversion as a result of the ad, what if your goal is to stay present for more mental availability?
We tested this with a client last year.
Original challenge: repeat rates were low. We’d tested conversion ads on existing customers in the past, and tested different ASC existing caps, but the costs were always too high from CM3. In addition, the client sent a lot of email. Was it even possible to drive more incremental growth from more impressions.
We segmented the email audience to include a 20% holdout. The whole audience received email. The 80% received email + awareness ads. We could reach the entire audience daily for pennies on the pound of conversion ads.
Over a quarter, we saw a statistically significant increase in contribution margin 3 (CM3). That is even taking into account the ad spend, more profit was driven from the ad exposure cohort. Frequency went up to 4 in some weeks.
Repeat yourself over and over (and over and over)
If you have something important to say then you have to repeat yourself.
Our memories are selective, biased, and flawed. We process good and bad memories differently and with different magnitude. And we have so much information to process every day, that we will forget almost all of it.
We get by on heuristics and mental shortcuts – and it is two of those shortcuts that make us default to stopping a high frequency of comms.
Think people are bored of your brand story? They’re not – keep telling it.
Think your customer remembers using you last month? They don’t – remind them.
Think your customer has heard enough from you this week? They didn’t see the emails.
You should probably be communicating with your customers a lot more than you are. SMS, email, print, organic social, paid social. These are all things you need to be doing to your customers just to be remembered.
No-one has any idea who you are, don’t worry about over-communicating. Just remember it’s entirely natural that you feel this way: spotlight effect and confirmation bias have seen to that.