Behavioral science

[Interview] Ronald Voorn: ‘Inbound marketing is a bane to branding.’

Consumer Behavior

Ronald VoornRonald Voorn is a consumer behavior scientist who founded Science for Business, a Dutch network of scientists that consult businesses on marketing, marketing communications and sales. Voorn teaches at the University of Twente as well as the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences and is currently working on a PhD dissertation pertaining to the way that human values impact the interaction that people have with brands.  Voorn started his career in different Dutch marketing consultancy agencies in the eighties and worked in the decade that followed for Heineken where he would make it to director of global marketing after which he served as managing director in several countries. We interviewed Voorn about real and pseudo marketing science and how Science for Business aims to make marketing more evidence-based.

JD: What brought on the idea to found Science for Business in 2014?
RV: I noticed an important disconnect. On the one hand you had a great amount of research driven academic insights becoming available on how the human mind works and what that means for marketers who want to run successful campaigns. On the other hand I saw very little of these insights being put into practice. I wanted to help close that gap, bringing theory closer to practice.

JD: How does Science for Business help accomplish this?
RV: Our value proposition is a simple one. Companies that reach out to us are matched with scientists who are experts in the specific challenges at hand. These scientists then offer their insights for a consultancy fee. Science for Business acts as a hub for these consultancy services.

JD: How successful has Science for Business been till now in finding its market?
RV: I look back at the past four years very satisfied with what we have accomplished. Large companies are increasingly finding their way to working with us. Delta Lloyd and KPN are two examples.

JD: Let’s try to make this more specific. Can you give me an example of the kind of scientific insights that you help companies apply?
RV: We advise companies for example on how they can produce effective marketing or marketing communications — this is only possible on the basis of a proper analysis of the behavioral eco-system that influences consumer behavior in a specific product category. For this we will for instance use the latest knowledge and insights from ‘the theory of planned behavior’, the ‘Fogg behavioral model’, dual process theories, system one and two thinking, implicit motivations but also ‘human brand theory’. The latter theory, which we have also researched extensively ourselves, shows that people’s perceptions of warmth and competence from brands explain up to 70 % of their behavior towards those brands. Knowing this makes it possible for brands to optimize every single touch point they have with their prospects and clients, from the call center agent to the operator of the chat box. B2B marketers will often ignore the warmth, the emotional aspect of communication in other words. They depart from a rational buyer but could become much more effective when they take warmth into account as well.

JD: You have been very critical of certain concepts that are very popular nowadays, such as influencer marketing (post in Dutch). Why does influencer marketing still persist today after its supposed viral effects were debunked in such convincing manner by Duncan Watts?
RV: That’s a good question. Different factors have combined to get us where we are today. A lot of so-called marketing know-how originates from the United States where great commercial interests are at stake. People’s careers depend on it. Companies such as the Content Marketing Institute want to make money so we have this deluge of TED speeches, books and articles pushing an approach which is not the least grounded in science.

We have this deluge of books pushing an approach which is not the least grounded in science. Click To Tweet

JD:   You are skeptical about content marketing doctrine?
RV:   I am indeed very skeptical about the usefulness of any inbound only strategy. The power of brands is a very important factor in convincing people to buy a product or service. Solely relying on blog posts or other types of inbound ‘content’ will not do the job as it only works for the limited number of products or services that people will actively search for.

JD: We need to revert back to outbound strategies?
RV:  Content marketing is useful in establishing a rapport with people who are actively researching products and services and are therefore high involved. So it is not without merit. But it stops there. An exclusive inbound approach simply does not allow you to reach your maximum potential when you are building a brand because it ignores the fact that most products and services are low involvement. If you want to influence those kinds of buying processes you need insights from for example ‘mere exposure effect’ theory. People will most of the time not fall in love with brands because they accidentally bump into them while they are researching solutions. People take to brands most often because they are… exposed to them and often. Content marketing, which has been invented by people whose income depends on producing content, will tell you that you should never ever invest in push marketing, which is a pity because it goes against all scientific knowledge that exists. So don’t throw away your blogs and other ‘content assets’, but do realize that they are only one part of the story. The ‘spreading activation theory of memory’ plugs seamlessly into ‘mere exposure effect’ theory. Brands are built in our minds because paths are built in the mind between associations. I mention ‘Porsche’ and your mind will activate a chain of associations. But a blog post alone will not maintain these paths for you; it also takes repetition by forced exposure to do so. It takes in other words push communication. Millions of people all over the world are dreaming of buying a Porsche the day they have the money to do so. They do not have that aspiration because they have researched different sports car online. The theories that I mention here have been backed up by research time and again. They are solid because they predict certain results.     

Brands are built in our minds because paths are built in the mind between associations. Click To Tweet

JD: The lack of scientific grounding for much of the marketing and especially marketing communications practice is disquieting. What needs to change in the way that marketing is taught at universities?
RV: We need to have students put away the textbook and conduct research themselves. Luckily I see a lot of universities (e.g the University of Amsterdam, the Vrije Universiteit, Erasmus University, University of Groningen) doing excellent work already in instilling a scientific mindset in their students. In the Netherlands the University of Twente is exemplary of how it advocates a data driven approach to marketing. Students conduct research from day one. Building evidence-based buyer personas for a company is one assignment that first year marketing communication students get each year.  In Belgium, the University of Leuven impresses with its own research filled curriculum. The London Business School is world class. Same for the Melbourne Business School. Things are moving in the right direction, slowly but steadily.

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