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The Psychology of Content Marketing: The Dunning–Kruger effect

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in psychology that explains the success of content marketing.

But with a twist.

The Dunning–Kruger effect is the illusion of competence that comes from ignorance.  We see something and we say to ourselves – ‘I could do that – how hard can it be?’ – without fully understanding the skill and experience required for mastery.  The Dunning–Kruger effect can be a good thing because it gives us a false sense of confidence to try something new for the first time. Without the naive optimism of the Dunning–Kruger effect, we’d probably give up on a lot of things without even trying.

So how can the Dunning–Kruger effect explain the success of content marketing?

The Dunning–Kruger effect explains the success of content marketing among us as marketers, not among our audiences.

As marketers, we look at the entertainment and education industries, from publishing houses to Hollywood, and say ‘We could do that – how hard can it be?’.

Except of course, we can’t.  The Dunning-Kruger effect means we’re not only not right, we’re not even wrong.

If the publishing industry in its current state of crisis can’t make publishing pay, how come we marketers think we can? The answer is the Dunning–Kruger effect – the cognitive bias of overrating ourselves and our capabilities based on the blind bliss of ignorance.

Becoming a successful publisher or producer of education or entertainment content requires the decades of expertise and experience upon which the education and entertainment industries are built.  As marketers, we can’t just wing it.  If we try, we will crash and burn.  Which is what content marketing is doing.

In 2015, smart brands will get wise to the Dunning–Kruger effect, and get back to doing what they do best, delivering value through advertised products and services – not moonlighting as wannabe publishers, comedians, and movie makers.


Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
Join the discussion

  • Hi,

    Interesting theory! But somehow, I disagree with the context in which it has been presented here. The publishing industry is dying because of the independent content production industry–a growing group of individuals who take it on themselves to deliver interesting news, videos, and podcasts free of cost.

    i don’t see why marketers cannot be a part of this. True, it might be difficult to establish content as the mainstream product, but it can go a long way to build traffic.

  • This paper has presented the Dunning-Kruger effect as an important element that serve as a drive or motivation for human to develop themselves, and it mixed between curiosity and the state of static status that prevent people from developing themselves, because they think they are good enough in the subject matter. This fake sense of competence is the major barrier before human, that makes them think they are brilliant enough and need no more development. Let’s remember the experiment done by Dunning and Kruger, the sample of their study compound of 65 participants all of them think they are skilled in grammar and they expect high marks if they are being tested in grammar. Their marks have revealed their exact level, which under 20, while they expect 100 full marks. The effect must be used by the individuals to assess their awareness and level of their skills to make self-development. This what I have understood from Dunning-Kruger effect, which cannot be used as a motivation, as it works like a self-assessment tool.

  • The effectiveness of marketing is determined by a deep understanding of the customer base. Young people will prefer online sales with payment by card in an online store!

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.