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Am I Being Stalked? Marketing & The Frequency Illusion

February 3, 2020
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written by Amber Dawson
Copywriter

What is the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon and how does it influence marketing? Let's take a look at how the Frequency Illusion can help your brand stick in people's minds.

TL;DR

  • The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is also known as the Frequency Illusion.
  • This is when you come across something unusual on multiple occasions within a short space of time.
  • It works well with Confirmation Bias and Social Proof to make something stick in your mind.
  • You can adopt these techniques for your brand to win more customers.

Green eggs and ham (on repeat)

Say that, as a kid, your favourite book was Dr Seuss’ ‘Green Eggs And Ham’. You’re sorting through some books at your parents’ house and stumble across it. “God,” you think, “I haven’t thought about this in ages!” You’d forgotten its existence completely.

The next day in the office, you overhear someone talking about how much their kid loves Dr Seuss. “Freaky,” you think, “what are the chances in two days?”

As you walk home, you see a bus shelter for a new Netflix series for, you guessed it, Dr Seuss. Now you’re starting to think the universe is having you on. All these years of not a dicky-bird and then it’s everywhere you go!

Has Dr Seuss started stalking you or is this just coincidence?

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon 

“The seemingly sudden awareness of encountering a word, phrase, fact, or thing that one has only recently learned of.”

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon

Thankfully, when this happens, you’re not alone. Whilst not everyone is seeing Dr Seuss’ characters, they do experience a similar phenomenon. This is common when, for example, you’re researching new cars and suddenly the one you thought was slightly unusual is everywhere you drive. Or, you stumble across a novel fact and hear it repeated in multiple conversations.

Whatever it is that’s giving you the heebie-jeebies, its formal title is the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. Whilst that might sound like it’s named after a fancy philosopher, it was the name of a German extremist group in the 70’s – completely unrelated. The name stuck because someone explained this unsettling feeling online with the example of hearing the name “Baader-Meinhof” twice in 24 hours. They too thought “what are the chances?!”

More commonly, this phenomenon is known as the Frequency Illusion. This makes a little more sense, as it focuses on the feeling that something is occurring more often than usual. We can clear that up straight away: it’s not, you’re now just paying attention.

With the sheer volume of information that gets flung at our brains every day, we have to filter. If we didn’t limit what we did and did not process, we’d be overwhelmed. And really, we don’t need to take in everything that’s around us. It’s important that we prioritise the oncoming bus more than the advert on the side of it. It’s not much use knowing when the next Tom Hanks film is out if we’d have to get movie tickets for beyond the grave.

What I mean to say is, Dr Seuss has always been hiding in the shadows – you just filtered him out as irrelevant… until now.

Confirmation bias

Survivorship bias is a form of confirmation bias (via xkcd)

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it.”

Francis Bacon

Once we’ve noticed something through the Frequency Illusion, we think it’s important regardless of whether it is or not.

Confirmation bias is our human nature to interpret things in a way which confirms our earlier beliefs. For instance, if you have strong political views, you will naturally seek out information that supports them, and interpret news stories in a way that gives your opinion more weight. Similarly, you are naturally inclined to recall details which back up your viewpoint rather than those that do not.

You can utilise this idea in your marketing strategy. After all, the aim is to get your brand message into your audience’s heads in a positive light. Once the idea of your brand is in their minds, you can use your advertising to reaffirm their beliefs about you. It helps if your USP is memorable, even if it’s something that everyone else is doing – if you’re the first to be explicit about it, then people will associate it with your brand.

For instance, Claude Hopkins (advertising extraordinaire) turned Schlitz Brewing Company into America’s number one beer brand through nothing more than pointing out the facts. On a tour of the brewery, he saw the process in which the beer was made. He focused Schlitz’s advertising campaign around the many stages the beer went through to highlight its purity.

Whilst this, in fact, was something all breweries do, Schlitz was the first company to say it. This meant that the public now associated their beer with being the purest. This is what you want people to get stuck in their brains. After all, if you’re focusing on brand exposure, you want people to remember you for the right reasons.

Confirmation bias is different to retargeting with ads. Audience retargeting is based on what you know they have seen before; you know they are aware of your product and so are more likely to buy. However, they do work similar in a psychological sense, in that they force you to consciously register what you’re seeing through recognition.

Exposure is the biggest factor in both retargeting and the confirmation bias: it’s all about the number of occasions where you think to yourself “I’ve seen that before!”. A study found that a retargeted ad is 10 times more likely to be clicked. Whilst these statistics often come with little reasoning as to why it’s the case, familiarity is usually the number one reason.

Once you’ve opened the door to a thought, it’s much easier to open it again and again. If the hinge was stiff to begin with, every time you open the door, it gets smoother. The hardest thing for marketers is getting the door open in the first place. They’ll take victory from getting a foot in the door – anything that makes the person behind more receptive to what they’ve got to say.

Confirmation bias works well with the Frequency Illusion because it reinforces the suspicions that are already in your mind. The door has been opened and this bias is the doorstop that keeps it open.

Brand awareness

Whilst it might feel like you’re being stalked by Dr Seuss, when it comes to brand recognition, the Frequency Illusion is a marketer’s dream. You want people to feel like your brand keeps popping up everywhere they go. The likelihood is they’ll start to believe you’re the right company for them.

It’s said that you need to encounter a brand 3 times to take note of it. It’s all about getting the right balance between memorable and annoying. The Frequency Illusion implies that more often is better: when it comes to marketing though, you obviously don’t want to appear spammy. The best way to strike a chord with your audience is to have a consistent brand message.

What you stand for should come through in every aspect of your business; whether that’s your big campaigns or daily social media posts. It’s important you keep the same personality each time you interact with your audience. Changing your brand’s tone of voice or design causes people to distrust you. Consistency isn’t overrated, and the strongest brands stick to their guns. The same can be said for standing up for something: you don’t gain anything from sitting on the fence.

Social proof

When people are uncertain about what to do, they often look to those around them for guidance. At a basic level, this is the reason why laughter tracks are included on comedy shows.

In the world of marketing, testimonials hold a lot of sway for the same reason. If you have no understanding of what you should be looking for in a company, reading reviews which boast of its benefits can be enough social proof to persuade you.

The Frequency Illusion can overlap with social proof because if you hear people discussing something on multiple occasions, seemingly out of the blue, you attribute this ‘sudden’ focus to being down to the importance of that particular thing.

You can see this in action when advertising campaigns adopt ‘testimonials’ as slogans. Often these are things such as ‘the best pizza in New York’. Whether it’s true or not, a lot of the time it doesn’t matter. Enough people will be gullible enough to believe it and go there, and if the crowd becomes sizable enough, social proof kicks in.

Mob mentality is also at play here. Also known as herd/pack/gang mentality, it describes how people can be influenced by their peers on an emotional level, rather than rational. In crowds, people can find themselves ‘going along’ with things that, as an individual, they wouldn’t have done. Mob mentality typically has negative connotations, but you can see it in action in marketing trends, which are far more harmless.

A current example is perhaps the rise in popularity of the video-sharing social network Tik Tok. A lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon and trying to tie it into their social strategies. Whether this actually has any merits in business is yet to be seen, but at the moment it seems like a bit too much of a stretch to utilise it for digital marketing tips. But, whether you see any ROI or not probably won’t matter: a lot of people will see it being done and adopt it for themselves.

The point still stands though that we can easily get swept up by marketing trends. The biases we’ve talked about are all at play to some extent: the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon kicks things off, with confirmation bias and social proof backing things up.

Marketing and psychology as one

At its core, marketing is just psychological manipulation. Understanding the theories which form the foundations of our profession is a must. Awareness of the Frequency Illusion can not only be good for reassurance that Dr Seuss isn’t stalking you but to emphasise the importance of strong advertising foundations: a clear brand message, clear benefits and clear brand personality.

Clarity is key. Only then can your campaign take off with the assistance of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

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Author
Amber Dawson

I’m the Creative Content Strategist at Adzooma and spend my time coming up with ideas and writing about Digital Marketing. My work features on the likes of Marketing Donut and PPC Protect. I studied English at Exeter University and have a Creative Advertising Masters from Falmouth. In my spare time, I like to read, draw and get taken for walks by my German Shepherd.
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