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The 'Charm of 3' Approach to Marketing

Marketers want to know the best way to construct messaging that leaves a positive impression and persuades consumers without overloading prospects or triggering skepticism.

With the multitude of new messaging channels like email, banner ads, landing pages and others, marketers are left with few (if any) useful best practices when choosing the right number of positive claims in advertisements and other brand messaging.

So how many positive claims are necessary to turn a prospect into a client? Is there a point where too many positive claims can actually provoke skepticism among prospects? A new study from Georgetown University attempts to answer these questions and present an empirically discovered 'tipping point' for when positive claims about a product can actually turn persuasion into skepticism.

Positive Claims in Persuasive (Advertising) Settings

The Georgetown experiment, led by professor Kurt Carlson, focused solely on branded messages that consumers know are persuasive in nature. These messages could include product packaging, advertisements, website content or other branded messaging channels where the consumer is aware that they are trying to be persuaded.

In these settings, the experiment found that every claim after three positive claims triggered skepticism among the consumers.

Carlson explains, "In practical terms, this means that three positive claims will produce the most positive impression, and four positive claims will produce an impression that is less positive than the impression created by a three claim message."

The study underwent further experimentation and measured independent variables such as attitude, impression and skepticism to understand what types of human perceptions changed with each additional positive brand claim. As expected, the level of skepticism is what rose significantly after three claims.

It is very interesting to observe that skepticism didn't show any meaningful rise during the first three claims. Only upon presenting a fourth claim did skepticism rise abruptly, and continued to rise with each additional claim. Carlson postulates that this is the point where most humans believe they have enough information to draw an inference, adding that "...once enough information is seen to draw an inference, additional claims will cause consumers who are aware the message source has a persuasion motive to become skeptical of the entire message."

Positive Claims in Neutral Settings

The Georgetown experiment is relevant to advertisements and other persuasive settings, but what about brand messaging that is not perceived as persuasive in nature such as content marketing or earned media?

The study found that the "Charm of Three" effect did not hold consistent when consumers were presented with non-persuasive messages. In fact, the study found that each additional positive claim increased impression and did not trigger skepticism in non-persuasive messaging.

The study cited that consumer experience with the product, or even presenting negative claims about the product to appear more neutral, could dampen the effect of increasing skepticism after three positive claims. Earned media and content marketing typically take an educational approach and therefore are likely to be perceived as neutral. In these cases, more positive claims add to the overall positive brand perception.

Marketing Takeaways

First, divide your marketing channels into two main buckets. The first bucket is for advertisements and other brand messaging channels that are perceived as persuasive in nature. The second bucket is for channels that are neutral or not perceived as persuasive in nature.

For brand messaging channels that are clearly persuasive, it is best to stick with the three highest-impact product claims. If you absolutely must make further claims, Carlson suggests making these claims in areas that aren't shared with the primary claims. "In cases where there are more than three positive claims that could be made, remaining claims should be placed elsewhere on the package (e.g., the back or side panels) to reduce the chance they are seen as part of the same persuasive attempt."

Brand messaging channels that are perceived as neutral can, and should, contain more than three positive claims. This includes content marketing efforts, earned media campaigns, customer emails and other messaging channel that are either perceived as neutral or are made to an audience with prior product experience. Brands can also add in negative claims, such as high price combined with high value, to appear more neutral and afford more positive claims.

When used in the appropriate setting, the "Charm of Three" can be an effective rule of thumb for brand messaging on any marketing channel.

 

Aaron Aders, Inc. December 20, 2013

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