5 min read

Balance Familiarity and Surprise in Content Marketing

Balance Familiarity and Surprise in Content Marketing

One of the most intriguing sessions at Content Marketing World was given by Derek Thompson, a writer for The Atlantic and author of Hit Makers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction. In his talk, "The Secrets of Hit Making," Thompson explored the concept of familiarity and its role in creating successful content.

Thompson introduced the audience to the MAYA principle, a concept developed by famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy. MAYA stands for "Most Advanced Yet Acceptable." It describes the delicate balance between human curiosity for new things and the fear of anything too unfamiliar. Loewy believed that the key to success was to infuse experiences with just the right amount of familiarity to make them accessible and appealing.

Want to learn how to strike the perfect balance between the familiar and the surprising? Keep reading to discover a framework to help you create content that resonates with your audience and builds lasting trust.

The MAYA Principle: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable

To illustrate Loewy's point, Thompson shared an example from Spotify. When the music streaming platform fixed a bug that allowed familiar songs to appear in the automated "Discover Weekly" playlist, designed to help listeners discover new music, they noticed a decline in listens. It turned out that having one or two familiar songs in the playlist enhanced the value of the discovery experience for users.

Loewy's quote, "To sell something familiar, make it surprising. To sell something surprising, make it familiar," perfectly encapsulates the essence of the MAYA principle and its application to content marketing.

Navigating Controversial Content: Finding the Right Balance

While the MAYA principle provides a framework for balancing familiarity and surprise, it also raises questions about how brands should approach controversial content. In today's climate, many brands struggle with taking controversial positions in their content, as the more heated the topic, the more people the content may attract – but only up to a certain point.

As controversy increases, so does the number of people who react negatively. There is a broad spectrum of controversial topics, ranging from the profoundly severe (e.g., political issues, civil rights, healthcare) to the unmistakably silly (e.g., the hotdog as a sandwich debate). Some brands adopt provocative points of view to inspire conversation, increase reach, and cut through the noise of crowded media. They see it as a form of steganography – a way to embed brand, product, or sales messaging within the body of content around a controversy.

However, problems arise when the team behind the content fails to assess whether the rest of the business and the target audience will support the chosen point of view. As a general rule, if content teams have to ask how they will defend a particular position, they should reconsider moving forward, as it likely means they haven't built company-wide support for that perspective.

Controversy vs. Consensus: Finding the Sweet Spot

As Loewy suggested, in balancing surprise with familiarity, content and marketing teams should strive to balance controversy and consensus when approaching content topics. The core idea behind MAYA is that human curiosity sets people up to respond positively to new things unless they are too unfamiliar or too far outside their comfort zone, in which case they react negatively.

Research has shown that the level of conversation generated by a controversy depends on two opposing trends. A low level of controversy makes topics more likely to be discussed. Still, as controversy increases beyond a moderate level, the likelihood of discussion decreases because people become uncomfortable talking about the topic.

Therefore, if the goal is to reach more people, generate awareness, or pierce the noisy marketplace of ideas by taking a position on a topic, it makes sense to imbue the point of view with enough consensus to make people feel comfortable discussing or sharing it. The aim should be to take an authentic position that inspires most target audience to come along for the ride.

Group Polarization: The Challenge of Communicating as a Brand

While striking the right balance between controversy and consensus may seem straightforward in one-on-one communication, it becomes more challenging when communicating as a brand. Social psychology describes a phenomenon called "group polarization," where groups of people with moderate points of view tend to develop heightened or more extreme positions in a group setting.

This is particularly true for groups trying to differentiate themselves or express a clear point of view, which is the essence of marketing. As a result, teams are more likely to soften their position or go hard with it. To overcome this challenge, teams must move beyond their opinions and develop a perspective representing the business as a whole.

A Framework for Balancing Familiarity, Surprise, Controversy, and Consensus

A two-by-two matrix can be used as a framework to help content marketers navigate the complexities of balancing familiarity, surprise, controversy, and consensus. The Y-axis runs from familiar to surprise, with topics at one extreme being so familiar that they are either redundant or old news and topics at the other extreme being so new that consumers are unlikely to react positively due to a lack of familiarity.

The X-axis runs from consensus to controversial, with topics at one extreme where there is no widespread or conventional disagreement (e.g., the Earth is flat) and issues at the other where there is complete polarization. While there may be curiosity about the topic, few people are willing to talk about it.

This matrix creates four point-of-view archetypes:

1. Who Cares/Old News: 

Topics in this category are familiar to audiences and have a broad consensus. Taking a position on such issues is unlikely to differentiate a brand or generate significant sharing because it won't be seen as innovative.

2. Unearned Bandwagon: 

This category includes topics that may be too new for many to hold informed opinions on, yet a broad consensus still exists. At the end of this category, it's difficult to differentiate because everyone is saying the same thing, and audiences may not react well because the brand hasn't yet earned authority from this point of view.

3. Unexpected Extreme: 

This category encompasses topics where there is absolute disagreement, and the brand may be taking a surprising point of view. If a brand hasn't consistently communicated support for a particular position to its audiences, the audience may feel surprised and react negatively.

4. Popularized Polarization: 

This category includes familiar but controversial topics. Brands that venture into this category are usually well-known for their particular viewpoint, so the content doesn't merit sharing or confer additional trust.

The sweet spot for any brand is to avoid the extreme corners of each quadrant. Every brand will have different tolerances for how close to the center or where they may want to fall across either axis. Specific audiences may find some topics more surprising or less familiar than others.

The Role of Earned Trust in Controversial Content

At the center of the matrix lies earned trust, determining whether the right audience will participate when brands create content on controversial topics. If an audience trusts a brand, they are more likely to engage in a conversation on a controversial topic. However, if trust hasn't been established, the audience may question why the brand is discussing that topic in the first place.

Brands that resonate with many must be willing to be wrong for a few. A distinct point of view will build trust and affinity with the desired audience, but overestimating that trust and surprising the audience too much can lead to the wrong conversation with the wrong audience.

While brands may believe it's important to say something, the audience ultimately determines whether they want to engage in that conversation. As content marketers navigate the complex landscape of balancing familiarity, surprise, controversy, and consensus, they must always keep the audience's trust at the forefront.

Develop Authentic Points of View

The MAYA principle provides a valuable framework for content marketers seeking to create engaging and successful content. By balancing familiarity and surprise and carefully navigating the spectrum of controversy and consensus, brands can develop authentic points of view that resonate with their target audience.

However, this process is not without its challenges. Group polarization can lead teams to take extreme positions, and the level of earned trust a brand has with its audience will ultimately determine the success of controversial content.

Using the two-by-two matrix as a guide and always keeping the audience's trust in mind, content marketers can craft compelling stories that strike the right balance between the familiar and the surprising, the controversial and the consensual. In doing so, they can build lasting relationships with their audience and establish their brand as a trusted voice in an increasingly noisy marketplace of ideas.

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