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Learned Helplessness in Marketing

  |  February 14, 2011   |  Comments

You must truly understand the characteristics of the media you're using to communicate with consumers.

In 1967, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman conducted an experiment with a number of unlucky dogs. One group was placed in harnesses and later released without anything happening to them. Another group was put in harnesses and then given electric shocks which they could turn off by pressing a lever with their paw. A third group was also shocked but not given the opportunity to turn off the shocks.

The third group of dogs ended up feeling helpless and exhibited symptoms similar to clinical depression. In fact, when a second experiment was conducted where all the dogs could escape a shock by jumping over a low barrier, the third group didn't even try: they just laid down, took the shocks, and whined until the experiment was over.

But that's not the end of the story. Approximately one-third of the dogs in the study did not give up because they figured out how to help themselves even if they had prior unpleasant experiences. The scientists figured out that the difference between the dogs that gave up and the dogs that didn't was a kind of optimism that came from realizing that they could do something about their situations.

This experiment was one of the most important ever done in demonstrating what psychologists call "learned helplessness" – giving up because you realize that your actions can't effect what's happening to you. When faced with a hopeless situation enough times, many people just metaphorically throw up their hands and stop responding. Other folks figure out how to get away from the situation and change things to their benefit.

What do shocked dogs have to do with marketing? A lot, especially when considering how people respond to the messages we put out. Understanding the phenomenon of "learned helplessness" is a way to get some insight into how consumers behave when faced with a seemingly un-ending stream of messages coming at them via e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter.

A new ExactTarget-CoTweet study sheds a lot of light on the issue. They looked at not only how many people unsubscribed, un-liked, or stopped following companies through e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter, but also why they stopped. The results are pretty illuminating.

While e-mail marketing's been around for a long time, apparently e-mail marketers still don't get it when it comes to fine-tuning message frequency and content. The study found:

  • More than half (54 percent) of consumers unsubscribe because e-mails come too frequently.
  • Nearly half (49 percent) said that they unsubscribed because content becomes repetitive or boring.
  • Almost the same amount (47 percent) reported that they unsubscribed because they're overwhelmed by the e-mail they receive.
  • A quarter admitted that they thought the content they got was irrelevant from the beginning.

But "unsubscribing" doesn't tell the whole story. While the majority (67 percent) reported that they would unsubscribe when they didn't want to receive e-mails anymore, the rest stayed subscribed but dealt with e-mails by:

  • Deleting them when they arrived (17 percent).
  • Labeling them spam or junk (8 percent).
  • Ignoring them (6 percent).
  • Or actually taking the time to set up filters (2 percent) so they didn't have to see the e-mails!

While the study didn't delve any farther (and please note that people could answer with more than one method), it seems like there's a group of consumers who have learned to be "helpless" in the face of e-mail after unsuccessful unsubscribe attempts. You might still be sending them e-mail, but they ain't reading it.

Facebook users had similar responses. While 64 percent of consumers on Facebook have said that they have "liked" a company, 55 percent of them go on to "un-like" a company later on. Fifty-one percent admit to "rarely" or "never" visiting a page after "liking" it. It's pretty clear that just because people "like" your brand it doesn't mean they really like you.

Consumers' reasons for "un-liking" a brand were remarkably similar for the reasons given for e-mail.

  • 44 percent bailed because the company they'd liked posted too frequently.
  • 43 percent ditched brands they liked because they were overwhelmed with messages from multiple sources.
  • 38 percent un-liked because the content became repetitive or boring.

Interestingly enough, the study also found that consumers seem to be of two minds when it comes to promotional offers via Facebook. Twenty-six percent un-liked brands because they'd only signed on for a one-time deal. Not surprising. What is surprising, however, is that an equal number (24 percent) left because they didn't get enough deals while others left because they felt that posts were "too promotional!"

Twitter users followed similar patterns. The study found:

  • 56 percent of Twitter users are followers of specific brands.
  • 71 percent of them expect to receive marketing messages from the brands they follow on Twitter.
  • 41 percent of followers, however, reported dropping brands they followed.

As for why people stopped following brands…well, you can probably guess. The main reasons given were "boring and repetitive content" (52 percent), an overcrowded Twitter stream (41 percent), too many posts from the company they were following (39 percent), and the fact that they'd only signed up for a one-time deal (27 percent). Just like Facebook, however, Twitter un-followers were pretty evenly split: 27 percent stopped following because they didn't get enough deals while 21 percent felt that the tweets they received were "too promotional."

If you're like me, you're probably pulling out more than a few hairs over these results because it seems like it's impossible to win. E-mail too much and people bail. Send too few offers and people bail. Send stuff that's too promotional and people bail. What's a marketer to do?

The best answer I've found seems to have come directly from one of the consumers contacted during the survey. Amanda, a 31-year-old woman from Louisville, KY said it beautifully: "I think each channel should be customized for that group of people, so that each group feels important. That way, a consumer can follow on Twitter, Facebook, and by email and not be overloaded by the same information."

Brilliant…and often overlooked. Just as consumers differ in terms of demographic characteristics, they also differ in what media they use and how they use it. What works on e-mail isn't necessarily going to work on Facebook or Twitter because people use these communications methods for different things. While e-mail users may sign up as a way to receive special offers and deals, people's expectations of e-mail are different than their expectations of communications via Facebook. E-mail is (or has become) a more "impersonal" channel, one that's open to just about everyone for communications, often about business. Facebook, on the other hand, is about building relationships via two-way communications. Twitter shares similarities with both e-mail and Facebook, but it's mainly used for quick "hits" of information.

Our challenge as marketers is to work to truly understand the characteristics of the media we're using to communicate with consumers. Just because something works in e-mail doesn't mean it can be simply repurposed as a Facebook campaign or edited down as a tweet.

We also need to pay close attention to what we're putting out there in terms of content. If we look at the two top reasons consumers disconnect it's because we're sending them too much stuff…and it's too boring. We also need to recognize that we're not the only brand in the lives of our customers…people disconnect because they get overwhelmed by too many brands sending too much stuff without enough relevance.

The key to using these channels successfully can be found in the quote from Amanda above. Content must be interesting, it must be customized for the channel, and it must make the consumer feel important. While e-mail may have started the trend, it's social media that's created the expectation that a communication should be a connection, not a one-way broadcast. If we're going to talk "relationship" and "engagement," we need to be ready to actually work those relationships, open them up to two-way communication, and truly engage our customers.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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