Have you ever felt like customers were ignoring your brand's message? It can be a frustrating feeling to have, especially when you know that your business is truly offering something that can alleviate some huge customer headaches.

You're not looking to spam people or shout your message from the rooftops ... you just want those who can benefit from your product to take notice! Is that so much to ask?

If this sounds like you, then pay attention: You could be making an extremely common mistake that is causing your message to self-destruct.

Below, you'll get to review the research behind why customers may be prone to blocking out your message ... even if it's something that they'll benefit from!

I Won't Do What You Tell Me

Pardon the Rage Against the Machine nod, but there's actually a point to be made here...

Many marketing campaigns seem to be entirely designed around moving products. What if instead they were designed around moving people?

A study by the CEB (published on the Harvard Business Review) that included 7,000 consumers across the United States, U.K. and Australia showed that loyalty to brands is almost impossible without a certain key element:

Of those consumers who said that they had a strong brand relationship, 64% cited shared values as the primary reason.

It was by far the largest driver.

So what messages do consumers really pay attention to?

According to the CEB, who researched this exact question for more than a year, the simple answer is "not companies, but beliefs."

Think about that for a minute. Most customers aren't particularly loyal to any one business, but rather what the business stands for.

“We saw that emotional attachments to brands certainly do exist, but that connection typically starts with a “shared value” that consumers believe they hold in common with the brand.” Aaron Lotton

Connecting with your customers on a personal level is crucial for establishing a small business that will retain their loyalty.

Here at Help Scout, we infuse this idea into every single piece of content that we create. On our blog, instead of pushing our product at every turn, you'll see posts like:

The message we are broadcasting: For small businesses, "wowing" customers with outstanding (and personalized) service is the key to creating customer loyalty.

If you're a small business owner who believes in putting customers first, we're already on the same team.

That's a wildly different message from solely focusing on our product's features. We all know that features and product quality are of paramount importance, but talking about nothing else is a surefire way to get ignored by customers who won't be able to connect with you on a more personal level.

While all of this makes good sense, it almost seems too obvious, doesn't it? There's got to be more to this story.

As it turns out, there is, and this is where things get a little weird...

Follow The Leader

The Petrified Forest National Park offers up one of the greatest examples of a message backfiring on the sender in a truly awful way, and has a LOT to teach us about what types of messaging customers are willing to listen to.

The park, which is located in Arizona, was suffering from debilitating losses of its petrified wood due to vandalism and theft.

In response, park management put up a sign that stated the following:

“Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.”

At first glance, this seems like it would be an effective sign: The depictions of the negative behavior and its impact are not only a powerful rallying cry, but 100 percent true. Who wouldn't listen to this?

As it turns out, most people. Not only was the sign unable to reduce petrified wood theft and vandalism—it actually lead to an increase in both!

Intrigued by this occurrence, psychologists Noah Goldstein and Steve Martin (authors of Yes!) decided to conduct a test to see if they could come up with a more effective message, and, if everything went as planned, to pick apart why the original message performed so poorly.

They split their test into three sign variations, with each sign displaying different types of social proof as an attempt to communicate to those reading it.

The sign variations were as follows:

Sign #1 — Social proof: "Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, destroying the natural state of the Petrified Forest." (This was accompanied by a picture of park visitors taking pieces of wood.)

Sign #2 — No social proof: "Please don't remove the petrified wood from the park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest." (This sign showed a lone visitor stealing a piece of wood with the universal No symbol)

Sign #3 — No sign at all: This test didn't include a sign of any type, serving as the control test for the study.

As a final tactic, the experimenters deliberately placed fake pieces of petrified wood alongside the paths where these signs were located.

What were the results?

In a finding that should petrify the national park's management team, compared with the "no sign" control test (in which 3 percent of the planted wood pieces were taken), the social proof message resulted in more theft (7.9 percent).

The sign with the social proof almost tripled the amount of theft!

How could this possibly happen?

According to the researchers, it is because social proof works both ways when communicating a message; in this instance, the negative social proof was actually encouraging people to steal more wood because it highlighted how many people were stealing it already.

A plethora of research confirms this finding by displaying how positive social proof often overrides even the most enticing incentives.

Check out this environmental study published in the Washington Post that examined the effectiveness of signs (yet again!) on persuading customers to use less energy in the summer by turning on fans instead of air conditioning. The signs the researchers used were as follows:

Sign #1: Informed the customer that they could be saving $54/month on their utility bill.

Sign #2: Told customers that they could prevent the release of 262 pounds of greenhouse gasses every month.

Sign #3: Encouraged customers that saving energy was a socially responsible thing to do.

Sign #4: Let customers know that 77 percent of their neighbors were already actively using fans to save energy.

Which one do you think was the most effective?

You guessed it: Sign #4.

It seems almost absurd, doesn't it? The "everybody's doing it" message was more persuasive than the call for saving money, reducing pollution AND being socially responsible.

Regular Help Scout readers may not be surprised by these findings, since we've repeatedly discussed (via multiple studies) how important the social aspect is for persuading prospective customers.

The question that remains: How can your small business use these findings to craft a message that customers will actually listen to?

In answering this question, we’ll be putting our money where our mouth is.

A Candid Example

We've unveiled two universal truths that determine how effective a message to customers will be:

  1. Truth #1: Most customers aren't really loyal to particular brands; they are loyal to what those brands stand for.
  2. Truth #2: Customers are more easily persuaded by a message when it's apparent that others also approve of it. (Read more on this concept of social proof.)

In showcasing how this research can be implemented, it is always best to lead by example.

We’ve already discussed how Help Scout is more interested in spreading a message of loving customers over brazen self-promotion. But we're also taking multiple steps to address the big mistake many companies make in their messages to customers, which is not utilizing social proof correctly.

Our answer to this problem comes in the form of our Business Case for Loving Customers guide, a (free) manifesto on why taking care of your customers is more than just the right thing to do—it's simply good business.

The guide focuses heavily on positive social proof by featuring in-depth case studies with companies who have proven that customer care was paramount in growing their business.

Our first case study is with KISSmetrics, and you can read it right here.

You'll notice that all of the content abides by the lessons we learned in the research above...

  • The content speaks to what we stand for (customer care) rather than shameless self-promotion.
  • The aim of the guide is to qualify people who are on the same page as us (those small businesses who value great service). We could care less about those businesses who don't love their customers.
  • There is no use of negative social-proof (including fear-mongering or "what if" scenarios) in this guide.
  • The entirety of our usage of social proof revolves around positive case studies of brands who have used close attention to customer care as the foundation for their growth.

Bottom line: To go beyond the common mindless effort of brand promotion and craft a persuasive message that customers will want to hear, you MUST speak to their views/beliefs/ideals and you MUST include positive social proof from sources that they care about.

Gregory Ciotti

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is on the marketing team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software. Learn how Help Scout takes the headache out of email support.