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The Hawthorne Effect: The Key to B2B Content Marketing Success

The Hawthorne Effect* is a psychological phenomenon that produces changes to behaviour and belief as a result of increased attention from superiors, experts or researchers. And as 3M has demonstrated, the Hawthorne Effect can unlock B2B content marketing success.  Here’s how…

To cut right to the chase, what 3M found is that the secret to B2B content marketing is to involve your top clients and prospects as special advisors and contributors in the publication of a management or industry report.

Specifically, what 3M did was invite secretaries of CEOs across corporate America to contribute to a report on the potential uses of the little yellow stickies that had hitherto been a commercial flop.  Not used to being listened to, and flattered by the attention, these ‘special advisors’ not only offered useful advice for the report, but also become Post-it Note champions. Enamoured with a company that was actually listening to them and treating them as partners rather than targets, secretaries started actively advocating Post-it Notes to their colleagues with a vengeance. Before long they were spreading through the offices of corporate America like a virulent virus.

So the simple secret to B2B content marketing could be as simple as involving your top clients and prospects as special advisors and contributors in the publication of a management or industry report.

Of course, the Hawthorne Effect can work for B2C content marketing too – for example asking consumers to vote on which fashion model to use in an ad, or on the packagingif you can do it at scale. The principle is the same, in Hawthorne Effect powered content marketing you are selling attention and status, not a product or service.

So rather than create content for customers, give influencers an easy hand in creating content for senior management, industry leaders teams or even regulators.  This is the same influencer marketing logic behind beta-testing and seeding trials; engage influencers as special advisors and get them to trial a new product and offer feedback for inclusion in a special report.  This flatters egos and creates a sense of privilege, power and prestige that translates into loyalty and advocacy.  British Telecom does this effectively through its influencer advisory board of company CEOs who have their views regularly summarised into senior management reports for BT.

The secret to content marketing in B2B is listening, not talking.

* The Hawthorne Effect is a psychological phenomenon that produces changes to behaviour and belief as a result of increased attention from superiors, experts or researchers. It takes its name from one of the most influential experiments in industrial history at at Western Electric’s factory at the Chicago suburb of Hawthorne back in the 1920s. Researchers from Harvard and MIT, led by Elton Mayo, were looking to publish a report on working conditions and productivity. But rather than merely observe workers, they asked workers to participate and contribute to the report by giving views on experimental changes to working conditions. What the researchers found is that engaging people as participants, advisors or contributors to a report delivers attention and status that creates loyalty and advocacy.  Using the Hawthorne Effect in content marketing means selling attention and status, not products and services.


Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.