Why Does Relevance Matter?

Do we even really hear what others are saying? Here are some lessons learned about relevance after years in marketing.

After a long career in marketing, I am still astonished at how many times you can communicate something to otherwise intelligent and aware people and not have it sink in. When I was advising marketing leaders at IDC’s CMO Advisory practice, I sometimes had almost identical conversations with high-level executives within months. I had notes on earlier conversations and yet people would swear that this was the first time they’d heard the topic. 

What was going on?

Getting Past the Mental Gatekeeper

The reality of communication — with customers, workmates, friends or family — is that most of what we see and hear doesn’t register. It’s background noise. Attention is a scarce resource. To avoid becoming overwhelmed or sidetracked, we must wisely choose how to spend that asset. Dr. Judy Willis, neurologist, and former educator, says that our brains have a useful editor, the reticular activating system (RAS), which is the brain’s first filter for incoming sensory information (sights, sounds, etc.), and it determines what comes in and what stays out.

Our mental gatekeeper limits precious attention to what is relevant. Relevancy means closely connecting to what’s important. What’s important tends to be potential threats (e.g., pain, loss, distressful consequences), the anticipation of pleasure (e.g., food, rewards, people we care about, relief from suffering), and novel things that pique our curiosity.

Related Article: The Single Most Effective Marketing Tactic — That Modern Marketers Ignore

Relevance Requires a Personal Connection

The stronger the connection and the more important the association, the more relevant people find messages. The clients who returned for repeat discussions with me clearly found the topic important, and we shared a social connection from previous interactions. Yet what I said to them wasn’t relevant enough to stick. As an analyst, it’s possible I was sometimes too enthusiastic about my own ideas and therefore neglected my client’s mental environment. The relevance of my research increased when I invested effort to connect to their world.

Relevance, like beauty, is in the brain of the beholder. More specifically, I found that relevance requires connecting to someone’s previously acquired knowledge. Otherwise, people flounder, trying to find a mental receptacle to plug in what they just heard. If they can’t locate that connection quickly, the mental gatekeeper will let the message slip away.

Do Your Marketing Business Partners Understand You?

I once conducted a workshop for a client who was trying to increase collaboration with their marketing business partners (e.g., IT, finance, HR, sales operations). The client had many things to explain about marketing, and before we delved into those, we decided to discover what participants already knew. To encourage honest answers, we asked people what they thought others didn’t understand about marketing. The flood gates opened, and we covered the walls with marketing terms our audience thought were confusing.

The client was astonished and humbled. Language they thought was simple and self-evident (content, leads, persona, segments) were like Klingon to their business partners. This game-changing feedback altered our plans for the afternoon, and we spent the time answering audience questions rather than going through prepared content. In dialog, the group invented shared metaphors and clarified misunderstandings on both sides. Although, we didn’t cover as much ground as we had hoped, the collaborative exchange created bonds and a knowledge foundation from which to build.

Once new neural connections are made, messages previously irrelevant can jump into clarity. I noticed this reaction in my clients with the concept of “customer journey.” Many marketers struggled to uncouple the marketing/sales funnel (an internal business process) and the customer journey (the cognitive path to a decision purchase that happens within a customer’s mind). Then a new experience would spark an aha moment, and the person would grasp the essential difference. With new or complicated concepts, listeners may at first take away only an inkling of what is discussed and must return multiple times to build a richer picture.

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