After a long career in marketing, I am still astonished at how many times you can communicate something to otherwise intelligent and aware people and not have it sink in. When I was advising marketing leaders at IDC’s CMO Advisory practice, I sometimes had almost identical conversations with high-level executives within months. I had notes on earlier conversations and yet people would swear that this was the first time they’d heard the topic.
What was going on?
Getting Past the Mental Gatekeeper
The reality of communication — with customers, workmates, friends or family — is that most of what we see and hear doesn’t register. It’s background noise. Attention is a scarce resource. To avoid becoming overwhelmed or sidetracked, we must wisely choose how to spend that asset. Dr. Judy Willis, neurologist, and former educator, says that our brains have a useful editor, the reticular activating system (RAS), which is the brain’s first filter for incoming sensory information (sights, sounds, etc.), and it determines what comes in and what stays out.
Our mental gatekeeper limits precious attention to what is relevant. Relevancy means closely connecting to what’s important. What’s important tends to be potential threats (e.g., pain, loss, distressful consequences), the anticipation of pleasure (e.g., food, rewards, people we care about, relief from suffering), and novel things that pique our curiosity.
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Relevance Requires a Personal Connection
The stronger the connection and the more important the association, the more relevant people find messages. The clients who returned for repeat discussions with me clearly found the topic important, and we shared a social connection from previous interactions. Yet what I said to them wasn’t relevant enough to stick. As an analyst, it’s possible I was sometimes too enthusiastic about my own ideas and therefore neglected my client’s mental environment. The relevance of my research increased when I invested effort to connect to their world.
Relevance, like beauty, is in the brain of the beholder. More specifically, I found that relevance requires connecting to someone’s previously acquired knowledge. Otherwise, people flounder, trying to find a mental receptacle to plug in what they just heard. If they can’t locate that connection quickly, the mental gatekeeper will let the message slip away.
Do Your Marketing Business Partners Understand You?
I once conducted a workshop for a client who was trying to increase collaboration with their marketing business partners (e.g., IT, finance, HR, sales operations). The client had many things to explain about marketing, and before we delved into those, we decided to discover what participants already knew. To encourage honest answers, we asked people what they thought others didn’t understand about marketing. The flood gates opened, and we covered the walls with marketing terms our audience thought were confusing.
The client was astonished and humbled. Language they thought was simple and self-evident (content, leads, persona, segments) were like Klingon to their business partners. This game-changing feedback altered our plans for the afternoon, and we spent the time answering audience questions rather than going through prepared content. In dialog, the group invented shared metaphors and clarified misunderstandings on both sides. Although, we didn’t cover as much ground as we had hoped, the collaborative exchange created bonds and a knowledge foundation from which to build.
Once new neural connections are made, messages previously irrelevant can jump into clarity. I noticed this reaction in my clients with the concept of “customer journey.” Many marketers struggled to uncouple the marketing/sales funnel (an internal business process) and the customer journey (the cognitive path to a decision purchase that happens within a customer’s mind). Then a new experience would spark an aha moment, and the person would grasp the essential difference. With new or complicated concepts, listeners may at first take away only an inkling of what is discussed and must return multiple times to build a richer picture.
Related Article: 8 Tips to Build a Winning Customer Experience Strategy
What’s Relevant Constantly Changes
Earning relevance isn’t a one-and-done activity. What is important evolves. Some conditions shift quickly (e.g., emergencies, critical breaks downs, hunger). Other conditions change so slowly that complacent executives can miss them. Almost everything eventually loses eminence (e.g., last week’s TikTok sensation, iconic brands including Blockbuster, Oldsmobile and Palm, skills we no longer use such as reading paper maps and dialing a rotary phone).
Allen Adamson, branding expert, former managing director of Landor Associates, and author of Shift Ahead: How the Best Companies Stay Relevant in a Fast-Changing World, says businesses can avoid losing relevance by being willing to shift when it's advantageous. For example, amid the pandemic a New York culinary retailer, Butterfield Market, earned relevance by connecting their brand of fresh, delectable foods to the new need for social distance by installing the equivalent of fast-food windows.
Earning Relevance Takes Work — and Honesty
Did I really know my clients or was I assuming, guessing or relying on historical knowledge? Talking to people, listening to their worries, their interests and their delights helped me connect, but I wasn’t always comfortable shifting my message to accommodate their needs. Like everyone, I was hindered by the Endowment Effect, a mental bias where we irrationally overvalue things we own, invented or have invested in compared to how others value it. I sometimes found it hard to accept when clients didn’t share my enthusiasm on what I’d spend such a long time working.
But the work of relevancy is worth it. That’s what I discovered. There is an immense spark of satisfaction when minds connect. It is only through relevancy we can produce valuable change.
As former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, “We don’t accomplish anything in this world alone…and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one’s life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something.”
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