Those dumb, lazy members just don’t understand!

Why are some marketing campaigns so damn successful, while others, no matter the budget behind them, fail miserably? Is it because those dumb, lazy members just won’t budge from their bank? Or, could it be that those of us in the credit union world suffer from the Curse of Knowledge?

It may sound like a silly, made-up phrase, but “The Curse of Knowledge” is quite real. Almost three decades ago, Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford University graduate student, illustrated the Curse of Knowledge with a simple game. In this game, she assigned volunteers to one of two roles: “tapper” or “listener.” Tappers were asked to pick a popular song like “Happy Birthday,” and tap the rhythm to that song on a table. All the listeners had to do was guess the song. Sounds simple enough, right?

Of the 120 songs tapped out during Newton’s experiment, only three of them were identified correctly. For math nerds, that’s a mere success ratio of 2.5%. Before their tapping, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that the listeners would guess the song correctly. They predicted the success ratio would be 50%. While they thought they would get their message across in one out of every two attempts, the tappers only managed to tap out a recognizable rhythm once in every 40 songs! Why was the success ratio so much less than predicted? 

When the tappers were tapping out their song, it was virtually impossible for them not to hear the tune in their head. Meanwhile, all the listener heard was something that sounded like a misguided version of Morse code. Despite their best efforts, the tappers were constantly baffled by how difficult it was for the listeners to guess the songs, even for something as simple as Happy Birthday. The Curse of Knowledge distorted their expectations.

Many times, we credit union experts tend to operate under the very same curse. Whether it’s the melody of a song or the value proposition of our credit union, once we know something, we tend to assume everyone else knows the same thing. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. We have difficulty sharing it with others because we can’t sidestep our own preconceived ideas.

Last month, based on the recommendation of Jennifer Pham, our Lead Graphic Designer, our YMC Book Club read Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. The book introduced and explained the Curse of Knowledge and offered helpful ideas on how to break its negative effect on communication. As we read, we discovered that the concepts discussed in the book had clear applications for credit union marketing.

When we start tossing around industry jargon in our marketing, we forget that we’re talking like well-informed experts. It can feel unnatural to talk about basic ideas and concepts that we’ve known for years. However, if we’re going to attract new members, we need to remember that the things that are familiar to us may be incredibly foreign to them. 

It takes intentional effort to counteract the Curse of Knowledge. We need to learn how to communicate in a way that connects with our members and potential members. Sure, it can be challenging. But this is one area where our work determines our reward. When we craft our message well, our members and frontline staff will not only understand what we’re saying, they’ll understand why it’s important.

Rethinking your marketing message doesn’t mean dumbing things down. It means finding that universal language everyone can understand—and using it. At YMC, we run our ideas and messaging through some of our younger staff (you know, those 20- and 30-somethings many of us call our ideal member). If they stare at us blankly and have no clue what we’re trying to say, we know we’re suffering from The Curse of Knowledge. At that point, we share more about the product, the problem it can solve, and why it’s important. Then we ask them to help us reshape the messaging in a way that makes sense to them.

In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath illustrate this point with an example of how John F. Kennedy’s speech might have gone if he were a modern-day CEO sharing his vision:

“Had John F. Kennedy been a CEO, he would have said, ‘Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives.’ Fortunately, JFK was more intuitive than a modern-day CEO; he knew that opaque, abstract missions don’t captivate and inspire people. The moon mission was a classic case of a communicator’s dodging the Curse of Knowledge. It was a brilliant and beautiful idea — a single idea that motivated the actions of millions of people for a decade.”

To break the Curse of Knowledge, it can be helpful to pretend we know less than we do—at least for a little bit. Adopt a beginner’s mind and re-create your members’ mind.

Bo McDonald

Bo McDonald

Bo McDonald is president of Your Marketing Co. A marketing firm that started serving credit unions nearly a decade ago, offering a wide range of services including web design, branding, ... Web: Details